The “model minority” myth has spread the lie for decades that all Asians in the U.S. are successful. The myth “perpetuates Asian Americans as polite, law- and rule-abiding ethnic groups who naturally achieve success by being hard-working, intelligent, independent and economically gifted people,” said Nadia De Ala, founder of Real You Leadership, a group coaching program for women of color.
The myth was perpetuated by sociologist William Petersen in 1966. He pitted Japanese Americans against Black Americans in an article in The New York Times, stereotyping Japanese Americans as successful, industrious and “exceptionally law-abiding,” while portraying Black Americans as part of a “problem minority” group, pathologically unable to overcome histories of discrimination.
His “success story” narrative largely ignored the deep, ongoing history of systemic exclusion that both Asian Americans and Black Americans have faced in society because of white supremacy.
“The question that was put out there was essentially, ‘If [Japanese Americans] could do it, given the history of anti-Japanese sentiment and oppression and harm in this country, then why couldn’t other people?’” said Joyce Chiao, founder and CEO of InclusionLabs, a company that helps guide dialogue on diversity, equity and inclusion. “In doing so, it simultaneously othered Asian Americans and furthered dehumanized and victim-blamed Black communities during the Civil Rights movement.”
“All of that context then translates to the workplace when we talk about the model minority myth and its impact,” she noted. While it may seem like the myth praises Asians, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for their achievements, it is a trap that has serious, wide-ranging negative consequences for how they are treated in the workplace.
1. In recruitment and retention, the myth obscures the underrepresentation of different Asian communities.
The model minority myth perpetuates the idea that Asians have a proximity to whiteness and are not an underrepresented minority.
This plays out in reports in which Asian workers are lumped into “non-underrepresented” categories alongside their white colleagues. As Buck Gee and Denise Peck, two former Silicon Valley executives, wrote in Harvard Business Review, “Asian Americans are the forgotten minority in the glass ceiling conversation. This was painfully obvious to us while reading the newly released diversity and inclusion report from a large Silicon Valley company: Its 19 pages never specifically address Asian Americans. Asian men are lumped into a ‘non-underrepresented’ category with white men.”
“There is all this strategizing, and emotional labor, and extra mental burden when you are thinking about something, whereas, you know, a white guy just does whatever and is fine.”
– Cynthia Pong, feminist career coach
“That aggregated data is super harmful when you look across the board, whether you’re talking about recruitment, or promotions or compensation. Without really disaggregating the data and seeing who is impacted, you just don’t have an accurate picture of what’s going on for Asian employees at your organization,” Chiao said.
The myth also perpetuates the false view of Asian Americans as a monolith. When companies group all Asians and Pacific Islanders into the same category of their diversity data, it can lead to the erasure of different Asian communities within an organization. This aggregation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in recruitment and hiring data can make it “really hard to see who is represented and who is not,” Chiao said.
2. Because of stereotypes, Asian Americans are promoted less.
Research shows that even when an Asian worker gets their foot in the door at a company, it does not swing wide enough to welcome them into top leadership roles. One 2017 study found that although Asian Americans were well-represented among the nation’s major law firms, they had the “highest attrition rates and the lowest ratio of partners to associates among all groups,” researchers wrote.
A 2016 analysis found that Asian workers make up 5.8% of the federal workforce, but only 3.5% of senior roles. The following year, a review found that Asian Americans were the least likely racial group of all to be promoted into management or executive roles. This was true even in Silicon Valley, despite the fact that Asian Americans are the most likely to be hired into high-tech jobs.
Margaret M. Chin, a sociology professor at Hunter College, interviewed more than 100 Asian American corporate professionals in industries including finance, law, communications and media for her book “Stuck: Why Asian Americans Don’t Reach the Top of the Corporate Ladder.”
In her research, she found that trust was critical for decision-makers atop companies and that Asian Americans were being seen as competent but not trustworthy enough for leadership due to being viewed as “forever foreigners” who did not belong.
“I’ve had countless API women clients tell me they have been told throughout their careers they are ‘too bold’ or ‘too aggressive’ for speaking up and advocating for themselves.”
– Nadia De Ala
“The model minority is a stereotype. It’s one-dimensional,” Chin told HuffPost. “If you’re always being perceived as being competent, and that’s what you’re always striving for, and people believe in that, everyone internalizes this, they may not see the other side of you.”
“That stereotype of an Asian American only being competent, or only being good in STEM skills, or only being able to play in a supportive role, people didn’t recognize [leadership potential],” she said, “or their managers, or their performance reviews, they didn’t see that side.”
3. Asians face stereotypes of being too passive or unlikeable to lead.
The words used to describe employees can determine how they are evaluated in performance reviews, and, consequently, if they get promoted. One 2012 study found that people of East Asian descent were described stereotypically as more competent, less warm and less dominant than their white peers. Research has found that Asians face a double bind at work: If they act more dominant, they will be less liked, but if they do not assert dominance, they will not be seen as leaders.
Gender adds even more complexity to these stereotypes. The model minority myth positions Asian women as intelligent and hard-working, but also passive and deferential. When Asian women exist outside these stereotypes, they can face backlash.
“I’ve had countless API women clients tell me they have been told throughout their careers they are ‘too bold’ or ‘too aggressive’ for speaking up and advocating for themselves,” De Ala told HuffPost. “And when they tone it down and reel it in and want to go after a promotion or leadership role, they are ‘too quiet’ or ‘not assertive enough’ and are suddenly disqualified as non-leadership material.”
It can be exhausting for Asian employees to keep in mind all the ways they need to act to be heard or appreciated by superiors. “‘If I ask this way, is it going to come back at me this way?’ There is all this strategizing, and emotional labor, and extra mental burden when you are thinking about something, whereas, you know, a white guy just does whatever and is fine,” said Cynthia Pong, a feminist career coach.
4. The myth obscures the pay gaps Asian communities face, and this can impact salary negotiations.
The model minority myth perpetuates a belief that all Asians in the U.S. are financially successful, but this ignores wealth and pay gaps ― not to mention disparities between Asian communities. One analysis by the Economic Policy Institute found that pay disparities between Asian American women and white men are not as large as the pay gap between women and white men overall, but it widens significantly when comparing people at higher education levels.
An Asian American woman with a bachelor’s degree makes, on average, 78 cents for every dollar made by a white man with a bachelor’s degree.
“API folks are not a monolith in our lived experiences, our immigration journeys and histories, nor in our resources and access to equity and career opportunities,” De Ala said. “There’s data that some API communities like Taiwanese women and Indian women make $1.21 to the white man’s dollar, and Filipino women like myself making $.83 and Burmese women making $.52 cents.”
Chiao said the myth can also perpetuate an expectation that Asian Americans will work hard regardless of pay, so they may receive lower offers in salary negotiations as a result. “There are lower numbers put forth from the get-go. When we’re negotiating, we’re also negotiating within something that is undercutting what the number could be or should be,” she said.
5. The myth of boot-strapping success can also be internalized by Asians themselves.
The workplace is not a meritocracy, but the model minority myth sends a message that Asian Americans can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and can succeed doing things on their own, Chin said.
“Many Asian Americans have internalized that concept, thinking that they can do everything by themselves. And that’s not true. That isn’t the way things work in the U.S. Lots of people [in other groups] have parents helping them out, connecting them to networks,” she said.
De Ala said she has seen herself, members of her community and Asian clients she coaches internalize the model minority myth “in harmful ways like people-pleasing, not setting healthy boundaries on their workload and work safety, and, unfortunately, not negotiating for the pay and positions they deserve.”
“I’ve seen it come in the form of fear of asking for help when necessary,” she added, “and imposter syndrome, because they feel ‘so lucky’ to have any opportunity given to them in predominantly white male industries and companies.”