How the Model Minority Myth Numbs Us from Trauma

When the Atlanta shootings happened last week, a few of my non-Asian friends reached out to me and expressed that they were grieving with me. My first thought was, “Oh, should I be grieving about this?”

Even writing that out, it sounds horrible. I’m a bit ashamed even admitting it. And to clarify, I was certainly saddened by what happened. But when I first heard the news, the truth is that I didn’t spend much time processing it. I just quickly read up on it and moved on to something else.

In fact, that’s what I often did this past year when I heard about various crimes committed against Asian Americans. When an 84-year-old Thai man was killed in San Francisco, when an 83-year-old Korean woman in New York was spat at and punched at, and when a 75-year-old Chinese man in Oakland was robbed and killed, I confess that I didn’t process them much at all. I just acknowledged that they happened, and I moved on.

There’s probably a variety of different reasons for my indifference. I don’t intend to explain everything in this article, and I understand that every individual will see things differently. But as I’ve been processing things this week, I’m starting to put to words why my response to anti-Asian racism has been so reserved, especially compared to my usually passionate reactions to events related to the Black Lives Matter cause.

Perhaps it’s my fatalistic acceptance of discrimination against Asians. I’ve gone through enough experiences and heard enough stories that I’m not too phased anymore. Discrimination against Asians is just normal for me. We are perpetual foreigners with funny names and funny foods, and I’ve come to accept that we will never be truly American, and that our mere existence risks harm. And furthermore, when I compare the current status of Asian Americans to that of my parents and grandparents living through the Cultural Revolution in China, I feel like I can’t complain. I have it easy in comparison.

Perhaps it’s my preference for surface-level harmony. Our Asian culture has taught us to refuse to complain, to quietly persevere in the middle of suffering, and to not draw attention to ourselves. And that’s often my default position. I try not to ruffle any feathers. I don’t want to come across as making a big deal out of something that isn’t a big deal.

And perhaps—and it took me a while to even realize this—I have subconsciously bought into the model minority myth. 

The model minority myth depicts Asian Americans as the “model minority.” We are polite, law-abiding, and hard-working. We have high income levels, high education levels, and low crime levels. We have been able to work our way into the highest fields of influence in society (with the possible exceptions of athletics and entertainment). And we are the proof that any ethnic minority group can achieve the American dream if they just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

In the model minority framework, we should not spend too much thinking about racial discrimination or systemic barriers. When difficulties arise, and they seem to be out of our control, we should not try to make a big deal out of them. We just need to put our head down and work. And eventually that hard work will pay off.

Because of the model minority myth, many Asians say (or at least think), “Other minority groups complain too much. Other minority groups are just too lazy. Racial discrimination is not a big deal anymore. We are minorities too, and we do just fine.” 

There are many things wrong with the model minority myth. But perhaps its most glaring error is that it assumes that all ethnic minorities have the same starting line. If two different individuals were born in the same circumstances and had the same sorts of upbringings, and if one person ended up more successful than the other, then we can make the case that that person worked harder. But if we have two different individuals with different childhood environments and influences, then we can no longer make that case.

The fact of the matter is that while Asian Americans have experienced some discrimination, it is not comparable to hundreds of years of American slavery. The United States intentionally separated Black families and barred Black children from learning how to read for hundreds of years. Add to that Jim Crow laws, the terrorism of the KKK, redlining, the war on drugs, etc., and you can see why there would be enormous consequences for the descendants of those families.

Moreover, the educational and socioeconomic diversity within the Asian American demographic also disproves the model minority myth. 28% of Vietnamese Americans, 30% of Laotian Americans, 30% of Hmong Americans, and 34% of Cambodian Americans do not have high school degrees. For comparison, only 11% of whites and 16% of African Americans do not have high school degrees.

Why is that? Simply put, they have not had the same starting line. Some Asian groups in recent history have immigrated to the U.S. on student visas or work visas. In other words, in order to immigrate to the U.S. from China, for example, people had to be the cream of the crop. As a result, those people (and their relatives) often outperform other Americans academically and socioeconomically. On the other hand, the Asians that have come to the U.S. as refugees, for example, tend to underperform other Americans academically and socioeconomically.

Those who come to America on student visas or work visas tend to become software engineers and doctors. Those who come to America as refugees work at nail salons, deli shops, and massage parlors.

Now here’s why this matters. Those who adhere to the model minority myth are much more prone to dismiss systemic racism. Racial discrimination, they believe, is no longer a major barrier in our society, so regardless of what ethnicity somebody has, as long as that person works hard, they can become successful (that’s also why they tend to oppose affirmative action). Or perhaps, model minority myth adherents may believe that certain ethnic groups that are struggling may need help, but certainly not Asians. We can take care of ourselves, because we are the model minority.

When the shootings in Atlanta happened, there was a part of me that didn’t want to see it as a race issue. I wanted to see it as a misogyny issue, or a church purity culture issue, or a gun violence issue (and all of which, by the way, are very relevant), but I didn’t want to see it as a race issue. I didn’t want to use the race card, so to speak. Because if I did, then I would have to admit that there is a systemic pattern of discrimination against Asian Americans, and I would put myself in a position of asking for help, and this would run against the model minority myth.

I’m speaking in broad strokes, but many Asian Americans don’t like asking for help. They don’t want pity. They don’t want to be recognized when they’re not doing well. They prefer to quietly suffer, and then when they come out the other side with glory and honor, then they invite attention.

But as a result, what we have is a whole culture that doesn’t know how to lament, that doesn’t know how to grieve, that doesn’t know how to process trauma.

Every potentially traumatic event, whether it is at a personal level or a national level, is brushed under the rug of individual hard work.

It was only in early adulthood when I first learned about the Chinese massacre of 1871, in which a mob of 500 people stormed the Los Angeles Chinatown in 1871 and lynched 15 people and killed several others. It was also around then that I first learned about the Hells Canyon Massacre of 1887, in which men ambushed and murdered 34 Chinese miners in Oregon, and the Rock Spring Massacre of 1885, in which 28 Chinese miners were killed and 78 Chinese homes burned to the ground in Wyoming. I learned about the Page Act of 1875, which barred all Chinese women from immigrating to the U.S., the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred all Chinese people from immigrating to the U.S. for 61 years, and the Supreme Court case Ozawa v. United States of 1922, which ruled that people who were not white nor of African descent could not become naturalized citizens.

I remember being shocked that our country had such a long history of Asian American discrimination, yet I had no idea. And it seemed that many people around me also didn’t know either. It was as if we had brushed all of our trauma under the rug. After all, we don’t want to draw attention to our sufferings. We don’t want to complain. We don’t want to ask for help. Because we are the model minorities.

To clarify, I do believe that there is a lot of value in this Asian tendency to quietly suffer and persevere. After all, that’s what Jesus did when he died on the cross. As it says in Isaiah 53:7, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” Therefore, I don’t want to dismiss this virtue of quiet endurance that has allowed Asians throughout history to survive things like war, famine, and immigration.

But there’s a fine line between perseverance and numbness. On the one hand, there’s godly perseverance, that enables us to have joy in the midst of trials, and on the other hand, there’s cold numbness, that refuses to acknowledge pain, suffering, and trauma.

I realize now, that for me personally, by brushing the current anti-Asian violence under the rug for the sake of protecting the model minority myth, I was perpetuating a culture of numbness to trauma.

We don’t need to be the model minority anymore. That image was always a public façade in the first place, one we erected as a survival mechanism to cover up our pain. We can just be regular human beings—prone to be frail, prone to be weak, and prone to be hurting, just like everybody else. We can process our trauma. We can grieve. We can lament. We can ask for help.

Larry Lin

Larry was born and raised in San Jose, CA and now lives in Baltimore, MD. He has a BS from Cornell University and a MDiv from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Larry is the husband to Van-Kim and the father of one daughter and one son, and he enjoys songwriting, basketball, Wikipedia, graphs, and conversations about politics and culture. Larry previously served for 8 years as a vocational pastor at Village Church Hampden in Baltimore, where he continues to serve as a lay elder.

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