Model Minority Myth

I didn’t know that this title for Asian Americans even existed until my oldest daughter gave me a book two Christmas’s ago titled, The Making of Asian America, A History, by Erika Lee. That’s where I read the phrase “model minority” for the first time. I remember, I paused for a moment, held the book open in my lap and allowed memories of my life to surface . “But what importance does a /tle even have when I lived most of my life unaware that it existed?” That was my question during that pause. I couldn’t help but notice, that in that moment, a shift happened to my internal narrative and certain things in my life started to make more sense. The model minority myth is rooted in stereotypes that all Asians are passionate about academics (particularly in math and science), have strong family structures and a reverence for doing things by the book. This narrative tells us that if we adhere to these expectations we will be accepted as part of the in-group, as equals with all the other Americans.

Both of my parents are from the Philippines, met and married in Belgium, immigrated to and started their family here in the states. I was born in America which gave me my American citizen status. Regardless, I was constantly asked where I was from (I’m sure it was because of my coloring). I would answer “America”. “No, I mean, where were you born?” I would then respond “Washington, DC.” Still more questions… “Like, where are you FROM, from…you know, your family.” I would say, “Ohhhhhhh! My parents are from the Philippines!” Upon their discovering I really wasn’t “from” America, they would offer information about a military base in the Philippines, or that they knew someone who went on a missions trip to the Philippines. I would nod at them and smile while responding with “that’s nice” but to myself think “okay, what do you want me to do with that information? I have no family in the military or who have reported they were visited by missionaries from America.”

Over time these interactions made it clear to me that I would never be seen as an American , but as someone who came from somewhere else. Fast forward to the moment I came across the concept “model minority,” I understood why my parents wanted me to only speak English to them, and not our family’s native language, Tagalog, It explained why there was this fixation on name brand things that signaled living in America. All this and more was done so that we wouldn’t be picked on, or singled out. Despite our efforts in assimilating into the culture, it didn’t take us to the logical end of being viewed as American citizen. Instead, we were seen as a specific kind of minority; a well-behaved, cooperative one (a kind for others to model), but still viewed as minorities who came from somewhere else. 

By Mary Waugh

Mary is a yoga instructor at The Bella Prāṇa Wellness Collective in Tampa Florida.