Model Minority refers to a minority group (based on race, ethnicity, or religion) perceived as having a higher socioeconomic status than other minorities.
This higher status is believed to come from the group’s cultural values, work ethic, and educational attainment. The term “model minority” was originally used to refer to Asian Americans, who were often termed more “successful” than other minority groups.
Although model minority comes with some positive connotations, it is quite harmful. Like all stereotypes, it generalizes a complex real-world issue and neglects diversity. It is also detrimental to other minority groups.
We will discuss why the idea of a model minority is harmful later. First, let us learn about the concept in more detail and look at some examples.
Definition of Model Minority Stereotype
Wu and Li define the concept in the following way:
“The model minority myth refers to the idea that certain minority groups, particularly Asian Americans, are naturally high-achieving, academically successful, and economically prosperous due to cultural values such as hard work, self-reliance, and strong family structure.”(Wu & Li, 2005)
They add that this stereotype ignores the sociopolitical and historical factors that contribute to disparities between different minority groups, thereby perpetuating racial hierarchies and prejudices.
The term “model minority” was coined by the sociologist William Petersen in his article for The New York Times Magazine. Petersen used it to discuss how Japanese families had strong work ethics and family values. (1966)
Because of these, Petersen wrote, they had achieved great success in America, unlike other “problem minorities”. So, right from the beginning, the concept was rooted in an implicit disparagement of other minority groups.
Some scholars have argued that the concept of model minority arose as a response to the civil rights movement (Li, 2008). “Look at the hardworking Asians”, white Americans could say, telling African Americans to be like the model instead of being politically active.
The concept of model minority originally came from the United States, but as a phenomenon, it exists everywhere, as we will see in our examples.
Model Minority Stereotype Examples
- Asian Americans in the US: The term “model minority” was first developed for Japanese Americans, but it eventually became associated with Asian Americans in general. Asian Americans have the highest levels of educational attainment and median household income in comparison to other minority groups. They also have the lowest total arrest rate, despite having a younger average age.
- African Immigrants in various countries: African immigrants are known as the invisible model minority in the US. They have a high degree of success in the country, but their achievements are not acknowledged because of misconceptions, hence the term “invisible” (Page, 2007). They play a key role in the country’s domestic labor, enhancing its global economic and technological competitiveness.
- Christian Arabs in Israel: Christian Arabs constitute the model minority in Israel. Based on the data from the Central Bureau of Statistics, Omri Maniv calls them the most successful group in the education system (2011). Christian Arabs have a greater number of high school diploma holders than the Jewish sector; they have thrice as many students in medical schools; and their percentage of women in education is also greater.
- German & Lebanese Citizens in Mexico: German Mexicans and Lebanese Mexicans are considered model minorities in the country. German immigration was even encouraged in the 19th and 20th centuries due to the perceived hardworking nature of Germans. Lebanese citizens, although constituting less than 5% of the immigrant population, constituted half of the immigrant economic activity in the 1930s (Ita, 2009).
- Copts in Egypt: Copts are the model minorities in Egypt. They have relatively higher educational attainment and wealth index. They also have a greater representation in white-collar jobs. Historically, many Copts were accountants, and they continue to own the majority of banks in Egypt. According to Botticini, the group’s emphasis on literacy has played a key role in its success (Catlos, 2014).
- Parsis in India: The Parsis in India are known for their tremendous contribution to businesses. They are a minority group that descended from the Zoroastrian refugees fleeing Israel in the 7th and 8th centuries. They have played a huge role in shaping the industries of India. The Tata Group, one of the biggest conglomerates in India, was founded by a Parsi man, Jamsetji Tata, and it also does significant philanthropic work.
- Laotians in France: The Laotians in France are the most well-established overseas Laotian populace. Unlike the Laotians in North America and Australia, those in France have a high rate of educational success. They are also well-represented in academic and professional spaces. Laotians mostly came to France during the Laotian Civil War, and their cultural knowledge of the host country helped them get assimilated.
- The Igbo Community in Nigeria: The Igbo community in Nigeria is known for its entrepreneurial spirit. They have a long history of trade & commerce, having successful businesses in a variety of industries. The Igbo people have a literacy rate of 96.6%, one of the highest in the country, and they also have a large number of people in higher education.
- Gurkhas in Burma: Gurkhas of Nepali descent are seen as the model minority in Burma. Among those having advanced degrees (medical, engineering, etc.), the Gurkhas comprise a significantly greater percentage. The group’s emphasis on education is seen as a major contributor to its success.
- Vietnamese & Koreans in Germany: The Vietnamese have been so successful in Germany that their academic achievements have been called “The Vietnamese Miracle”. Despite growing up in poorer areas like East Germany, Vietnamese Germans outperform their peers by a significant margin. Koreans are also seen as a model, with over 70% of second-generation Koreans having higher educational qualifications.
Why Model Minority is Harmful
While the model minority may seem to have positive connotations, it is harmful to both the “model” and others.
- False Generalization: Like all stereotypes, a model minority generalizes a complex, real-world situation. In doing so, it neglects the differences that exist within the particular model group. For example, while East Asians and South Asians are quite well off in the US, there are other Asian subgroups (Laotians, Vietnamese, etc.) that are much less successful. In comparison with other racial/ethnic groups, Asian Americans have the greatest income inequality gap.
- Lack of Assistance: The concept of the model minority is often used to justify the exclusion of the model minority group from public & private assistance programs. For example, the Asian American Pacific Islander-serving institutions did not receive federal recognition until 2007. Similarly, universities often do not give the benefit of affirmative action policies to Asian American students.
- Detrimental to Other Communities: Besides being harmful to the “model”, the concept is also detrimental to other communities. It pits different minority groups against each other and establishes a racial hierarchy. By implication, it blames non-model groups for their “failure” and tells them to be more like the model. In doing so, it completely ignores the history of different racial/ethnic communities.
- Attempts to Depoliticize: Model minority tries to depoliticize society. The concept came up during the civil rights movement in the US. Many scholars point out that Asian Americans became the ideal because they were less politically active and hence less of a “threat” to the white establishment. Therefore, by labeling them the “model”, white America could discourage political activism.
- Perpetuates Racism: The concept of model minority encourages “geeky” stereotypes, constantly reminds them of their “foreignness”, and promotes racism. It homogenizes the experiences of Asian Americans, overstating or spurning their achievements. The “ideal” image produces psychological distress for members of the minority group, who are always measured against that image.
Model Minority refers to a particular social group that is seen as more “successful” than other minorities, often in terms of household income or education level.
The concept was originally developed in the United States during the 1960s to refer to Japanese Americans and soon it became associated with Asian Americans in general. As a phenomenon, it exists all over the world.
While the concept may have some “positive” connotations, it is ultimately harmful to both model and non-model groups. It homogenizes the experiences of the former, promotes racist stereotypes, and denies them the benefits of affirmative action.
At the same time, it pits different minority groups against each other, blaming non-model groups and ignoring the histories of different communities.
Catlos, Brian A. (2014). “Accursed, Superior Men: Ethno-Religious Minorities and Politics in the Medieval Mediterranean”. Comparative Studies in Society and History. Cambridge University Press.
Ita, G., & Rosa, E. (2005). Los árabes de México: Asimilación y herencia cultural. CONfines de relaciones internacionales y ciencia política, 1(2), 107-109.
Li, Guofang; Wang, Lihshing (2008), Model Minority Myth Revisited. Information Age Publishing.
Maniv, Omri. (2011) “The Arab Christian sector is the most successful in the education system”. https://www.makorrishon.co.il/nrg/online/1/ART2/319/566.html
Petersen, William (9 January 1966). “Success Story, Japanese-American Style”. The New York Times.
Page, Clarence. “Black Immigrants, An Invisible ‘Model Minority’”. https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2007/03/black_immigrants_an_invisible.html
Wu, E. H., & Li, C. (2005). “Racism and model minority myth: Implications for addressing Asian American health disparities”. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 16(4 Suppl A). Johns Hopkins University Press.