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One more reason for Asian Americans to drop the “model minority” myth: Learning and thinking differences


May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Here, Understood’s Andrew Lee reflects on the “model minority” myth and how it harms Asian Americans who learn and think differently.

Years ago, when I was first thinking about working in the field of education, a good friend said to me: “You should do it! Schools and families will love you because you’re Asian, and you know, everyone thinks all Asian people are super smart.”

She didn’t mean any harm. And to tell the truth, I was both surprised and flattered. My friend was a respected educator and she said I was smart! With time, however, I started to realize how well-intentioned statements like this have harmed the Asian American community.

The “model minority” myth is the idealization of Asian Americans as hardworking and successful people who don’t complain. The term was first used in the 1960s. Often, American society contrasted Asian Americans with other minority communities in ways that suggested other people of color were lazy, unintelligent, and even violent.

Asian Americans may have benefited because some section of American society thought more highly of us. But at the same time, the model minority myth created stereotypes of Asian Americans as emotionless robots who excel at school, especially math. It labeled us as bad at sports, one-dimensional in personality, not very creative, and not needing any mental health support. Society sees us as foreign and inhuman. 

Many think that these views have fed into the current wave of hate and violence against Asian Americans. The model minority myth is not just false, it’s dangerous.

I’ve seen the harm of this myth in my work at Understood. We work to shape the world for difference, so that people can embrace their learning and thinking differences. 

But for Asian Americans, there is stigma and shame around being different or not fulfilling expectations. The model minority myth plays a big role here. Many parents and caregivers feel uncomfortable and ashamed to talk about kids who may not be doing well in school. 

Young people feel the intense pressure, too. We’re supposed to be the model minority — smart, great at school, and never complaining or needing help. Think how hard it is for a young Asian American to say, yes, I have ADHD or I have dyslexia, and I struggle in school.

The numbers confirm this. Recent statistics from the federal government show that only 7 percent of Asian American students receive special education, compared to 13 percent of students overall. There may be multiple reasons for this gap, but one is certainly the stigma of having a disability or a learning and thinking difference.

So for this Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, it’s time to drop the model minority myth. Stop the stereotypes that are harming Asian Americans. Acknowledge that we are not a warped, faceless ideal. We are individuals. Some of us are good at math, others excel at art or sports. Some of us struggle in school. Some of us need mental health support. We have the right to complain of injustice. And many of us learn and think differently.

Andrew M.I. Lee, JD, is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.

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