When Asian Americans are described, we often hear words such as “so smart” or “so successful.” Indeed, Asian Americans are often referred to as the “model minority.”
The reality is that, as a group, broadly defined, Asian Americans largely have been successful. For example, while less than 30% of the general population has a bachelor’s degree, approximately 50% of Asian Americans do.
But calling a group the “model minority” hurts members of the group and can result in discrimination against individuals outside the group. Here’s why:
1. If you are a model minority, and “so smart,” you are not likely to get the help that you very well may need. When we assume individuals are “the model,” they are less likely to get equitable mentoring, support, etc.
2. If you are a model minority, then there is an implication that you may be stronger than others. This can result in bias against individuals who are white or members of other minority groups who in fact are stronger when it comes to a particular job opportunity.
3. With the model minority myth may come higher expectations. Being good is not good enough. We expect more: why isn’t this person as successful “as they should be?” This may result in bias against Asian Americans because of the inflated expectations.
4. Make no mistake about it: there still is material bias against Asian Americans. In some cases, it is unconscious. In other cases, it is blatantly overt. If a group is “so successful,” then why do we need to spend time addressing the real bias that keeps individuals within that group from being successful or even more successful?
5. When individuals talk about Asians as the model minority, there can be a tendency to focus on math and science. This may hurt Asian Americans when they apply for jobs that require strong interpersonal skills. One Asian American shared with me an experience of applying for an HR position and being given an application for an engineering position.
6. The model minority myth also ignores the reality that Asian Americans are a diverse group. This diversity within the Asian American community is often ignored.
7. Finally, the model minority myth may result in isolation. Asian Americans are not part of the white power structure but their concerns sometimes are only modestly addressed in efforts to increase diversity and inclusion. Indeed, at times, Asian Americans may experience outright hostility because of their collective success.
Asian Americans are a critical part of the fabric of our workplaces. If we want them to be “so successful,” then we need to stop saying that they are and deal with the bias that sometimes exists, even within the diversity space.