What Is the Model Minority Myth?

sad woman

K-Angle / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Disclaimer

The model minority myth is most often used in reference to Asian Americans, not Pacific Islanders, who have suffered and continue to struggle with negative stereotypes towards their community and the USA's colonization of the Hawaiian islands.

What Is the Model Minority Myth?

The model minority myth stereotypes all Asian Americans as intelligent, hard-working, and diligent and therefore more academically, socially, and economically successful than other minorities. It is a problematic and harmful belief that pits people of color against each other and drives a wedge between marginalized groups.

Despite its positive implications, the model minority myth only serves to perpetuate stereotypes and has a number of troubling consequences, including negatively impacting the mental health of Asian Americans and driving a racial wedge between marginalized populations.

This article will explore the implications of the model minority myth, summarize its history, and discuss its impacts on Asian Americans and other minority groups. Finally, it will recommend ways to avoid the pitfalls of the model minority myth.

History: Where Does the Model Minority Myth Come From?

Asian Americans weren’t always viewed through the lens of the model minority myth, but they have always encountered racism and discrimination in the United States.

In the 1850s when a significant number of Chinese immigrants first started arriving in America to escape economic instability and lack of food and opportunities due to wars, they were exploited for cheap labor and given the most dangerous work while being discriminated against, attacked, and even murdered during the Rock Springs Massacre in Rock Springs, Wyoming where 150 White miners attacked their Chinese coworkers and killed 28, wounded 15, and forced hundreds of others to flee, leaving their homes and possessions behind.

Common stereotypes the Asian American community had—and continue—to endure over the course of American history include:

  • Dirty and "full of filth and disease"
  • Lazy and uneducated
  • Inferior and "marginal members of the human race"
  • Illiterate and undesirable
  • Deviant
  • Exotic, hypersexual, and submissive

Due to White Americans’ racism, stereotypes about, and suspicion of Asian Americans, laws were passed limiting Asian immigration and naturalization.

The Effect of the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor

Racism, hatred, and suspicion of Asian Americans were targeted toward Japanese Americans when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, leading the U.S. government to incarcerate thousands of innocent Japanese Americans. Half of these Japanese Americans were children and forced into internment camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards for up to four years.

The U.S. Eventually Changes Its Attitude Toward the Asian Community

As the U.S. began lifting exclusions on Asian immigration for strategic and political purposes, rampant discrimination and racism against Asian American continued.

Who Coined the Term 'Model Minority?'

In a 1966 New York Times article titled "Success Story, Japanese-American Style," White sociologist William Petersen first used the term “model minority” while praising Japanese Americans for "enduring the most discrimination and worst injustices" and achieving great success in America "by their own almost totally unaided effort." Petersen attributed this success to strong work ethic, family values, and respect for authority and he wrote about the lack of these same traits in African-Americans.

Petersen argued these cultural values prevented Asian Americans from becoming a "problem minority," implying other people of color were problematic. This racist article saturated with damaging stereotypes puts Whites at the top of a hierarchy and people of color beneath them, fighting for closeness to proximity in a system of white supremacy. This article drove a racial wedge between Asian and Black Americans that are in a continued process of healing for both communities to repair to this day.

Implications of the Model Minority Myth

The model minority myth is an example of a positive stereotype, a stereotype that attributes desirable traits to a group. Although it may be a positive stereotype, its impact is harmful towards the mental health of the diverse Asian American community and in relation to other communities of color.

Assuming Asian Americans are smart, successful, law-abiding, and hard-working may seem like a good thing because these are traits many of us would like to have. However, the reality is that this positive stereotype can lead to problems both for Asian Americans, who face unfair expectations because of the model minority myth and for other racial minorities who face unfavorable comparisons to Asian Americans.

What the Model Minority Myth Assumes

Implicit in the model minority myth are two assumptions:

  1. It proposes that Asian Americans are more successful than other minorities: This suggestion elevates Asian Americans in a hierarchical system that puts whiteness at the top while negatively stereotyping other minorities.
  2. It implies that Asian Americans’ success is based on their own efforts: This suggests that if someone works hard enough, anyone can be successful in America, and by extension, it's the individual's fault if they haven't managed to achieve success. This belief does not consider the impact of systemic oppression and inequality and systemic and structural racism.

The Model Minority Myth Ignores Diversity Within the AAPI Community

The assumptions listed above disregard the vast diversity within the Asian American community, a population that traces its roots to over 50 countries, and the unique history of different Asian ethnicities in the United States. The model minority myth also limits Asian Americans to being perpetual foreigners, is harmful to the struggle for racial justice, and minimizes or outright ignores racism against Asian Americans which is especially concerning assumption at a time when there is a surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans.

Impact of the Model Minority Myth

While the idea of the model minority took hold over 50 years ago, it's only recently that the consequences of this stereotype are becoming better understood. Some of the impacts are discussed below.

Encouraging Intergroup Rivalry

From the moment Asian Americans were held up as the model minority, their success was contrasted to that of African Americans.

Studies have shown that even today, the model minority myth is used to negatively compare other racial minorities to Asian Americans. The myth has resulted in increased positive perceptions and expectations of Asian Americans while degrading Black Americans. This is highly problematic and can lead to bias, conflict, suspicion, and harm between the two groups that are pitted against each other by white supremacy.

A Justification for Social Inequality

The model minority myth has also been used to justify social inequality. If, as the myth suggests, Asian Americans were able to succeed with minimal help and without fighting for their civil rights, that means the individual is to blame for not attaining success regardless of their race or ethnicity. This is used as evidence to deny or downplay the impact of racism and discrimination on people of color in the United States and perpetuates anti-Blackness.

The idea that success is achieved through individual effort perpetuates the notion that America is a meritocracy. This has been used as an excuse to ignore the impacts of racism and systemic oppression and deny social services and assistance to racial minorities and marginalized groups of all kinds.

Asian Americans Are, Consequently, Treated as a Monolith

The model minority myth has led to the assumption that Asian Americans are a monolith. In other words, people assume that all Asian are the same. It's believed that all Asians are successful and well-off, a notion that ignores the notable disparities in income, employment rates, and educational attainment among Asian Americans.

For example, while it's been shown that Asian Americans as a whole are more likely to be college-educated than other racial minorities, the data tells a different story if it’s separated by Asian subgroups, revealing that while 70% of Indian Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher, only 26% of Vietnamese Americans, 18% of Hmong and Laotian Americans, and 16% of Cambodian Americans do.

The stereotype and expectation of Asian American success has resulted in increased depression and suicide amongst Asian American youth and failure for Asian American communities in need to receive acknowledgement, support, and resources, including help to counteract institutional racism at school, work, and public services.

Moreover, the idea that Asian Americans are a monolith has led to a lack of research investigating the individual differences within this diverse population. This may contribute to poorer health outcomes for Asian Americans as healthcare professionals overgeneralize, adhere to stereotypes, and maintain unconscious biases about Asian American patients.

Negative Effects on Asian Americans’ Mental Health

The model minority myth can also lead to mental health challenges because it places unrealistic expectations on Asian Americans to live up to the stereotype.

For instance, one study showed that when Asian Americans internalize the model minority myth it can lead to increased depression, anxiety, and suicidality.

Similarly, another study demonstrated that the model minority myth can lead to imposter feelings and psychological distress when Asian Americans struggle with concerns that they can't fulfill the stereotype. These feelings can be further enhanced by interpersonal shame.

High Suicide Rate Among Asian Americans

Suicide was the leading cause of death for Asian American young adults between the ages of 20 and 24, especially Asian American women. In addition, across all racial groups, Asian Americans have the highest suicide rate among women 65 and older. It’s an issue that can at least partially be attributed to the pressures of the model minority myth, in particular, the unbearable stress created by the myth and the tendency to blame oneself when one doesn’t succeed.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Lower Likelihood of Asian Americans to Seek Help

Even though the high expectations created by the model minority myth can lead to mental health issues for Asian Americans, this population is the least likely of all racial groups to seek out mental health services.

Ironically, the model minority myth often plays a role in preventing Asian Americans from getting the help they need. One study found that internalizing the model minority myth predicted less favorable attitudes to help-seeking in Asian American college students. As a result, Asian Americans tend to have more severe symptoms if they finally do go to see a mental health professional.

How You Can Unlearn the Model Minority Myth Stereotype

Although the model minority myth continues to stereotype Asian Americans and harm the fight for racial equality, there are things that can be done to resist and dismantle this stereotype:

  1. Be mindful of what you assume about Asian Americans and notice when stereotypes or assumptions arise about a member or members of this group.
  2. Reflect on the source of your impulse. Question, be curious about, and challenge your assumptions and expectations. It's possible you may have internalized this stereotype and you can be intentional about shifting it. This applies to both non-Asians and Asian Americans who may have internalized this stereotype about themselves as well.
  3. Practice recognizing and releasing stereotypes so that you can get to know the unique qualities, culture, experiences, and needs of the individual.
  4. Take time to learn more about the history of Asian Americans and writing by Asian American writers who share the traumatic impact of racism and the model minority myth through their stories and lived experiences.
  5. Diversify your social media feeds to include Asian American content creators.

A Word From Verywell

While it may be uncomfortable to acknowledge your own internalized stereotypes or racism, it is a courageous and necessary step in unlearning and perpetuating harmful stereotypes about the Asian American community and other communities of color. With discomfort comes growth and understanding.

If you belong to the Asian American community, know you are deserving of advocacy, acknowledgment of your true lived experience, systemic change, and mental health support. If you are having a difficult time dealing with racism or racial trauma, consider seeing support with a mental health professional.

In your search for a therapist, it is important to ensure that they are culturally sensitive to be able to understand, serve, and respond to the unique challenges the Asian American community face. Finding a therapist who has this knowledge and experience can relieve much of the emotional labor that a client would endure having to explain what it's like to live in the United States as an Asian American. May we all continue to learn, unlearn, heal, grow, and thrive, together.

12 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Blakemore E. The Asian American ‘model minority’ myth masks a history of discriminationNational Geographic. 2021.

  2. Pettersen W. Success Story, Japanese-American Style. The New York Times. January 9, 1966.

  3. Kim D. Too Well-Off to Seek Help?: The Model Minority Myth of Asian AmericansAnxiety & Depression Association of America. 2021.

  4. Yoo HC, Burrola KS, Steger MF. A preliminary report on a new measure: Internalization of the Model Minority Myth Measure (IM-4) and its psychological correlates among Asian American college studentsJ Couns Psychol. 2010;57(1):114-127. doi:10.1037/a0017871

  5. Chao MM, Chiu C, Chan W, Mendoza-Denton R, Kwok C. The model minority as a shared reality and its implication for interracial perceptionsAsian Am J Psychol. 2013;4(2):84-92. doi:10.1037/a0028769

  6. Yi SS, Kwon SC, Sacks R, Trinh-Shevrin C. Commentary: Persistence and Health-Related Consequences of the Model Minority Stereotype for Asian AmericansEthn Dis. 2016;26(1):133-138. doi:10.18865/ed.26.1.133

  7. National Center for Education Statistics. Indicator 27 snapshot: attainment of a bachelor’s or higher degree for racial/ethnic subgroups

  8. Ðoàn LN, Takata Y, Sakuma KK, Irvin VL. Trends in Clinical Research Including Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Participants Funded by the US National Institutes of Health, 1992 to 2018JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(7). doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.7432

  9. Atkin AL, Yoo HC, Jager J, Yeh CJ. Internalization of the model minority myth, school racial composition, and psychological distress among Asian American adolescentsAsian Am J Psychol. 2018;9(2):108-116. doi:10.1037/aap0000096

  10. Wei M, Liu S, Ko SY, Wang C, Du Y. Impostor Feelings and Psychological Distress Among Asian Americans: Interpersonal Shame and Self-CompassionCouns Psychol. 2020;48(3):432-458. doi:10.1177/0011000019891992

  11. Shih KY, Chang T, Chen S. Impacts of the Model Minority Myth on Asian American Individuals and Families: Social Justice and Critical Race Feminist PerspectivesJ Fam Theory Rev. 2019;11(3):412-428. doi:10.1111/jftr.12342

  12. Kim PY, Lee D. Internalized model minority myth, Asian values, and help-seeking attitudes among Asian American studentsCultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. 2014;20(1):98-106. doi:10.1037/a0033351

By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.