Why the Model Minority Stereotype is So Harmful to Asian Americans

asian family enjoying a meal together

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Key Takeaways

  • The model minority myth or stereotype is harmful to Asian Americans, as it sets expectations for them to act a certain way, which can prevent them from seeking support.
  • Stereotypes stem from such historical context as telling Japanese Americans to assimilate into white society in the 1940s after they were released from internment camps.
  • The challenges faced by Asian Americans warrant outreach to ensure that appropriate mental health services are available.

COVID-19 was particularly challenging for Asian Americans who navigated negative job developments and hate crimes. This is likely connected to the model minority stereotype, which places unrealistic expectations on Asian Americans.

Unfortunately, the model minority myth can make it difficult for Asian Americans to seek help when needed, due to external pressures from work, family, and society, as well as their own internalized racism.

Given the negative impact that the model minority myth continues to have on Asian American individuals, it is crucial to unpack this stereotype.

What Does the Research Say?

A 2015 article reviews how "the model minority myth dates back to the nineteenth century, when the first wave of Chinese immigrants came to America to work on the Central Pacific Railroad," and were often praised for their superior work ethic, compared to Black individuals.

After the U.S. involvement in World War II and the internment of about 120,000 Japanese Americans in the 1940s, Asian Americans faced immense pressure to be model citizens in order to better assimilate into the whiteness of American society.

A 2016 study illuminates how the discussion of the model minority myth in higher education often neglects to account for its original purpose, to maintain anti-Black racism and white supremacy.

In fact, a 2017 article states that Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group, and there is an urgent need to thoroughly detail how the model minority myth shapes their experiences.

Such research highlights how the model minority stereotype continues to negatively impact Asian Americans’ mental health.

Reckoning with Your Oppressor's Construction

Gloria Wong-Padoongpatt, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology and director of the gambling, addictions, and the marginalized experience lab at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says, "The model minority stereotype is of Asian culture, particularly East Asian culture, which, of course, does not include all Asian communities."

Wong-Padoongpatt explains, "Brown Asians are left out of the narrative. This stereotype was constructed by oppressors, so obviously the impact is dynamic. That is, this stereotype—in my observation—affects how mental health care systems approach Asian communities, which is that these communities are mentally strong and do not need our services."

In this way, Wong-Padoongpatt notes that Asian Americans may not seek services due to such factors as the stigma of mental illness, and cultural values that may be aligned with collectivism and loss of face.

Gloria Wong-Padoongpatt, PhD

[T]his stereotype—in my observation—affects how mental health care systems approach Asian communities, which is that these communities are mentally strong and do not need our services.

— Gloria Wong-Padoongpatt, PhD

There are barriers to quality care and culturally competent services for people of color, particularly Asian Americans, and Wong-Padoongpatt acknowledges the impact of the model minority stereotype.

She explains that there was a movement to understand the experiences of people of color, but since psychology tends to be focused on the individual, there was a “client as the problem” approach.

Unfortunately, this does not account for systemic barriers, according to Wong-Padoongpatt.

"I believe there are a lot of barriers to care for Asian Americans, particularly Asian immigrants, such as language barriers, mistrust of practitioners, lack of culturally competent care, etc," she says. 

Only One of Many Barriers

Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, says, “The model minority myth prevents Asian Americans from seeking mental health support, as it makes them believe they need to be strong and a model minority in this country, without support from others."

Additionally, in Asian culture, admitting to mental health issues may be seen as a weakness, according to Lagoy.

"It is generally something looked down upon by one’s family," he says.

"The public needs to understand that it is hard to be an immigrant in this country and to assimilate into a different culture. We need to have more of an understanding for immigrants' experiences, and Asian Americans need to be more open to getting mental health support."

In this way, Lagoy encourages, "We can combat these pressures by understanding the history of this myth, and by encouraging friends and family to get mental health support when it is needed."

Julian Lagoy, MD

We need to have more of an understanding for immigrants' experiences, and Asian Americans need to be more open to getting mental health support.

— Julian Lagoy, MD

Asian Americans may be less likely than other groups to seek help with their mental health, as Lagoy notes they still have certain beliefs about mental illness that may be stigmatized by their families.

"For Asian Americans, family is very important in general," he says.

"To admit to mental illness can be seen as a weakness, and can be seen as hurting the name of one's family. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is a great support, which helps encourage Asian Americans to get necessary mental health care."

Asian American clients of Lagoy's have committed to educating themselves, as knowing the history of this myth has encouraged some to get necessary care.

"I believe the times are changing," he says.

Many Asian American families are becoming more open to getting mental health care, according to Lagoy.

"I have also noticed that Asian American families of patients have been more supportive and less judgmental in recent times than in the past," he says.

A Grossly General Blanket Term

Licensed psychologist and founder of Atlas PsychologyAmy Nasamran, PhD, says, "The model minority myth can be dangerous for a lot of reasons.

"It's a grossly general blanket term that groups an entire, diverse group of people under one umbrella that defines how we're 'supposed' to be, think, and act. The term 'model minority' sets Asian Americans up to think that they have to be perfect across all areas of life."

Nasamran further explains, "We're expected to go through life following society's rules and standards, work hard, get good grades, attend prestigious colleges, and find lucrative jobs, all with ease. Seeking mental health support at any point, even when it might be needed, is then seen as a sign of weakness, as if you're not working hard enough or 'doing it right.'"

Although she grew up hearing the term "model minority" as an Asian American, Nasamran notes that she just learned about the history of this term.

"I was surprised to hear that it originated as a way to commend Asian Americans for 'successfully' integrating into white society."

Nasamran highlights, "We know that there can be striking psychological impacts on immigrants during the assimilation process. Studies have shown that assimilation—while adaptive in some ways—can also lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges."

Assimilation is not just about fitting in with a new culture, according to Nasamran.

"Learning a new language, navigating new cultural expectations, working and finding a job or housing in a new world away from close friends and family, all of that can be so stressful—coupled with the loss of some parts of your original cultural identity," she says.

Amy Nasamran, PhD

Studies have shown that assimilation—while adaptive in some ways—can also lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges.

— Amy Nasamran, PhD

It can be a very difficult process, and even if it looks like someone is "successfully" assimilating from the outside, Nasamran notes that it can really take a toll mentally and emotionally.

"Historically, our older generations of Asians have been more likely to attribute symptoms to physical causes, or our parents and elders may be more likely to suggest traditional medicine routes to address symptoms that are actually mental health related," she says.

Unfortunately, when taught to manage stress and cope through support only from one's family, Nasamran notes that it may be hard to seek mental health support, especially if their challenges are dismissed.

Nasamran highlights, "Sometimes the messages we hear are that having difficult emotions like anxiety or sadness makes us weak and that we can overcome it by just toughening up or working harder. So when toughening up and working harder doesn't work, it can bring on more feelings of shame and lead people to think that something is wrong with them."

Despite working with some of the most intelligent, hard-working clients who are accomplished, successful, and in many ways, fit the "model minority" stereotype, Nasamran notes they are reclaiming their narratives by understanding that they do not have to be perfect.

She explains how clients are learning that mental and emotional health can be handled differently than how they were taught growing up.

"They're learning to understand their unique strengths and recognizing where they need support, and they're willing to be learners," she says.

Many of her clients are undoing the messages they have been taught about being perfect and crafting their own definition and meaning to live by.

"They came to therapy wanting to be even better versions of themselves—not seeking mental health services because of a 'weakness'—but they are understanding that they don't need to go about life's challenges on their own and that there can be another way," she says.

Resources to Support Asian Americans

Given that Asian Americans may be less likely to seek help, here are some resources that may prove beneficial to navigate mental health struggles:

What This Means For You

If you are new to thinking critically about the model minority myth, you may have a great deal to unpack, but that is possible and encouraged. All individuals deserve equitable access to mental health and well-being, including the diverse and culturally rich population of Asian Americans.

3 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. Yi V, Museus SD. Model minority myth. In: Smith AD, Hou X, Stone J, Dennis R, Rizova P, eds. The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd; 2015:1-2. doi:10.1002/9781118663202.wberen528

  2. Poon O, Squire D, Kodama C, et al. A critical review of the model minority myth in selected literature on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in higher educationRev Educ Res. 2016;86(2):469-502. doi:10.3102/0034654315612205

  3. Kiang L, Huynh VW, Cheah CSL, et al. Moving beyond the model minorityAsian Am J Psychol. 2017;8(1):1-6. doi:10.1037/aap0000070

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.