The Damaging Effects Of The ‘Model Minority’ Myth


More immigrants came to the United States from China than from Mexico in 2013, contributing to an upward trend in a decade where the number of immigrants from Asia increased while Mexico’s numbers dropped, a recent Census Bureau study found. About 147,000 Chinese immigrants arrived in 2013, while 125,000 Mexican immigrants arrived in the same year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Estimates Program.

Latinos still make up the largest racial or ethnic minority group in the United States, but at least two-thirds of them are now born in the United States. Chinese immigrants, meanwhile, make up 65.4 percent of the foreign-born population. Many of them enter the U.S. as graduate students and wealthy investors, which helps some Chinese immigrants rapidly achieve the so-called “American Dream,” sometimes even exceeding economic parity with the native-born population.

But with this success also comes a false narrative that this population doesn’t face discrimination. In reality, the so-called “model minority” stereotype, rooted in the belief that Asians have some ability to achieve a higher-than-average degree of socioeconomic success because they all go to Ivy League schools, can have serious drawbacks on individuals who may lack the tools to fully integrate into society.

Plus, the recent political narrative on immigration — which overwhelmingly paints immigrants as Latino and criminal — fails to capture the full breadth of modern immigration, as well as the issues that are specific to Chinese immigrants and the Asian population.

They don’t feel a lot of belonging.

“Among Latinos, there might be more of a narrative around their racial position in the U.S.,” Dr. Janelle Wong, the director of the Asian American Studies Program and Resource Center at the University of Maryland, told ThinkProgress. “For Chinese immigrants, that narrative is still developing. There’s a lot of variation in the community and so I see quite a bit of complicated thinking about where Chinese immigrants fit into the larger racial landscape… They don’t feel a lot of belonging.”


Asian immigrants are often grappling with being perceived as outsiders, as well as with having some privileges that other immigrants may not have.

Chinese students tell Wong that their teachers assume that they’re “very capable, that they’re going to do well and so they feel the privilege of a positive stereotype about their academic ability. That’s going on simultaneously with the idea that they’re foreign and maybe don’t feel total acceptance either with American society.”

Issues facing the Asian community take an emotional toll, especially on second-generation immigrants. Asian American women have the second highest suicide rate in the country, according to a National Center for Health Statistics study, but few empirical studies on suicide have been conducted on the population. The Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project reports that anywhere between 41 and 61 percent of Asian women will experience physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner during her lifetime, but that barriers like immigration status, language issues, and lack of culturally competent services could prevent them from seeking help.

The research needs to catch up with the population.

The kind of care that the Chinese community receives could be based on an outdated assumption that immigrants don’t use mental health services because they come from an Eastern culture that doesn’t publicly confront their emotional turmoil, Wong suggested.


“We do see that they don’t access mental health services at the same rate as other groups,” Wong acknowledged, a fact backed up by the American Psychiatric Association, which found that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are the least likely to seek help for mental disorders. “At the same time, I think we’re seeing that by the second or third generation, we’re seeing more evidence that that stigma around mental health issues … changes so rapidly that I think the research needs to catch up with the population. We need to rethink that assumption. […] Research has shown that it’s not necessarily shame, but like economic access, like accessibility in various communities.”

Undocumented Asian immigrants in particular feel like outsiders in their own community. More than half of the two million Chinese immigrants in the United States are naturalized citizens. About ten percent, or 210,000 individuals, are unauthorized Chinese immigrants.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates that while 12,000 Chinese youths were eligible for President Obama’s executive action on deportation relief known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, very few applied in the first two years of the program.

It’s been a very challenging battle.

Xing Liu, the community engagement manager at the legal services organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said that information sessions that they held promoting the president’s deferred action program weren’t well-attended by Chinese immigrants. But it wasn’t because people weren’t interested. Some don’t apply because of the stigma attached to falling out of the “model minority” stereotype and being afraid of what people in their community would think about them.

“[Immigrants] didn’t want to be in a group of other people who are undocumented,” Liu told ThinkProgress. “Something that doesn’t work in the Asian community — but works really well in the Latino community — are info sessions where we speak to a big group of people. [Chinese immigrants] prefer one-on-one consultations. And it’s been a very challenging battle, for the most part, we had to get volunteer attorneys, hold an event and hope that people show up. People end up walking in. They’re very afraid. They don’t want to register for an event.”


“What we’ve had successes with is when we have local Chinese American officials come out to support it,” Liu added. “We did collaborations with Rep. Judy Chu [D-CA], and Assemblyman [Ed] Chau, who were willing to put their stamp on it and say that this was an event for undocumented immigrants.”

Dr. Tom Wong, an assistant political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, acknowledged that stigma could play a role in the low rates of DACA enrollment. He also pointed out that the benefits of DACA differ across different undocumented groups. “For example AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] undocumented immigrants may not fear deportation as acutely as Hispanic/Latino undocumented immigrants given the demographics of immigration enforcement,” Wong told ThinkProgress. “AAPI undocumented immigrants who are already working may see less value in obtaining work authorization.”

Amy Lin
Amy Lin

Amy Lin is a 23-year-old undocumented immigrant who fled to the United States more than a decade ago with her mother from Taiwan. She said she feels an “invisible segregation” because of her lack of legal status.

Her undocumented status didn’t affect her until she tried to get her driver’s license and realized that she didn’t have a Social Security number. “That’s when it really hit me: when I knew that what I don’t have could determine my future and whether I could get into college,” Lin told ThinkProgress. She has since enrolled in DACA, but she still feels that there is an “invisible segregation between the people who have DACA and those who don’t.”

“More often, I feel agitated that the majority of our community is trying to fit themselves into the ‘model minority’ myth, even though we know it’s a myth,” Lin said. “Being undocumented, you get to see people like my mom working as a domestic worker. You see people working in conditions where they’re not getting enough pay for their work or seeing six people living into one studio-sized apartment. You know things like that, and yet there are the so-called ‘model minorities,’ and you just wonder whether there’s a better way to adjust the myth, instead of being just angry.”