Aligned Blog: Exploring the Model Minority Myth

By Chabelis Byamana, Program Specialist, Office of Equity & Inclusion

May is Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Island Heritage (AANHPI) month! This month provides an opportunity to celebrate the contributions of the AANHPI community to society, culture and beyond. While there are many things I hope to do, like engaging with different AANHPI cultures through food, this year I wanted to challenge myself to learn something new and see what I can do to better uplift AANPHI folks. As an Afro-Latina woman, there are many facets of my lived experience that people are unaware of, and I often think that if they took the time to listen and learn, they would take a step forward in their allyship. So, in trying to improve my allyship with the AANHPI community, I decided to learn more about a phrase I’ve heard, but admittedly have failed to take the time to learn more about: the Model Minority Myth.

The Model Minority Myth is built upon stereotypes about the AANHPI community. It characterizes AANPHI folks as successful, excellent in education, hardworking, polite and model citizens. The term was first used by William Petersen, an American sociologist, who used it in an article written for the New York Times titled “Success story: Japanese American style.” You might ask yourself, what could be bad about having “positive” stereotypes associated with your community? What I’ve come to learn is that in perpetuating these stereotypes, the Model Minority Myth ignores the immense diversity in culture, language, experience and more within the AANHPI community. Per the 2020 Census, there were, at the time, 20.6 million people in the United States who identify as AANHPI, and within that there is great diversity in Asian ethnicity, with AANHPI-identifying folks coming from India, Japan, Laos, Samoa, and Pakistan to name a few. The Census even distributed materials in 23 languages from the Asian diaspora to account for this diversity (a full list can be seen here).

The myth also causes us to turn a blind eye to the many disparities that still exist, one of which is the lack of representation of AANHPI folks in leadership positions, including at NIH. Per a paper published in Frontiers about the Asian American leadership gap, AANHPI folks comprise 20% of the NIH workforce but only 6% of senior leadership positions. On first reading these statistics, I was shocked. Upon reflection, I’ve started to realize that some of this shock can be attributed to the Model Minority Myth’s reinforcement of stereotypes I’ve heard much of my life. Clearly, I have some unlearning to do! This CNBC article and video aptly states the danger of this myth: “By positioning Asians as the model minority race, it also assumes that Asians don’t need any help, and don’t require any further examination of how their race is discriminated against…For decades, the model minority myth has kept Asian Americans out of important equity conversations and held members of the community back from equal opportunity in academia, the workforce and necessary government welfare.”

Taking the time to do this initial learning about the Model Minority Myth and some of the disparities that plague the AANHPI community has been tremendously eye-opening, especially given our current climate following the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in anti-Asian hate. I encourage you to learn more about the Model Minority Myth and how it impacts the lives of AANHPI folks, and to take time to listen and learn directly from those who identify as part of the AANHPI community. A recent blog from the Office of Scientific Workforce Diversity, which features a Q&A with Michael F. Chiang, M.D., Director of the National Eye Institute at NIH, is a great place to start.

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Aligned is a blog written by the Center for Cancer Research's Office of Equity and Inclusion discussing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility and highlighting various ways we can all be more involved in creating a more diverse scientific workforce. Learn more about CCR's commitment to inclusion.

Posted on Thu, 05/18/2023