As we wind down Asian Heritage Month (AAPI History Month in the USA), I am republishing a short thread on the model minority myth that I recently posted on Twitter. I have written on this subject before, noting the “terms and conditions” Asian folks need to adhere to. I also expand on the ‘terms’ in my book, When We Belong.

My recent reflections stem from a a study I participated in discussing the impact of racism in public discourse. One question brought up the model minority phenomenon

Model minorities usually refers to Asian folks and is a measure based on the proximity to whiteness.

The term emanates, unsurprisingly, out of white supremacy. Law enforcement initially coined the phrase after race riots in the 1960s, using it as a means to differentiate Asians from Black bodies. It describes Asian proximity to whiteness vis-a-vis anti-Blackness. Which is to say “model minorities” uphold part of a “bargain” to maintain power dynamics associated with white power. The exchange is a slice of cultural power. Not too much that Asians could live unimpeded by white supremacy, but enough that there’s a “benefit” in comparison to Black and Indigenous folks.

Like most racialized terms, you FEEL the impact before making sense of it. Since model minority is not a term most Asians use, you have to run face first into anti-Asian racism before you “see” racialized division.

Model minority is something I would generally use in the pejorative. A descriptor for Asians who perpetuate aspects of anti-Blackness. The term is of course unhelpful and incomplete because it builds a monolith of ‘Asian’ understood through the roots of white supremacy. Yet it does describe the “in-between” space Asians hold, & the dance we play in the spectrum of white superiority vs anti-Blackness.

Post-pandemic, anti-Asian rhetoric resurfaces to the forefront (it never went away), any body that looks remotely Chinese (and white people generally can’t tell the difference) are attacked. It’s a reminder that we must adhere to the Terms and Conditions of whiteness too. It’s important to acknowledge this space. We participate in a racialized caste system (and other systems too). By upholding the model minority myth, we in fact make things WORSE off not only for other racialized minorities, but for ourselves as well.

Model minorities maintain white superiority that ultimately harms themselves.

But here’s the conundrum. For many, especially new immigrants, sometimes you do what you gotta do just to survive. I mea I get that. It’s something I’ve lived. But now I know that the pursuit for a better life shouldn’t come at the expense of blacker and browner bodies.