By Nicholas D. Hartlep, PhD

Do you believe that Asians/Asian Americans are largely successful? Do you assume they all win spelling bees, attend Harvard, and become brilliant scientists? Then you, like many other North Americans, subscribe to the “model minority” stereotype—the faulty belief that, by and large, Asians/Asian Americans are occupationally, financially, and academically successful.

The stereotype is prevalent in higher education, embodied in slogans that describe Asians/Asian Americans as taking over prestigious universities. Some have dubbed the University of British Columbia the “University of a Billion Chinese,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology as “Made in Taiwan,” University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as “University of Caucasians Lost among Asians.” These acronymic puns reveal a pervasive misperception. Despite widely held claims that Asians are overtaking topflight 4-year colleges, the truth is most attend 2-year colleges.

Killing Them Silently: The Model Minority on Campus

This supposed “positive” stereotype is in fact “negative.” Studies actually indicate that the model minority stereotype correlates with increased numbers of suicides among Asian students who do not achieve the academic success expected of them.

The model minority stereotype is killing Asian/Asian American students silently. On April 10, 2000, Elizabeth Shin, a Korean student at MIT, committed suicide by self-immolation; in May 2007, Mengyao “May” Zhou, a Stanford University graduate student, committed suicide by taking more than six times the safe dosage of Unisom; and on April 21, 2012, Wendy H. Chang, a senior at Harvard, was found dead in her dorm room, having apparently hanged herself.

While the loss of life is clearly the most extreme damage done by a general acceptance of the model minority stereotype, there are many other serious implications. For example, despite data that indicate otherwise, there remains a widespread belief that Asians/Asian Americans in North America are all financially prosperous and occupationally successful.

The Model Minority Stereotype at Work

According to 2012 API Representation on Fortune 500 Boards, a report published by Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP), 129 Asians and Pacific Islanders (APIs) held 144 board seats at 114 Fortune 500 companies—in 2010, there were 96 API directors and 115 board seats at 98 companies. Asian Americans continue to be woefully underrepresented in leadership roles despite the group’s incredible growth rate. Why are Asians/Asian Americans underrepresented in leadership positions within Fortune 500 boards and companies? Could it be that the model minority suggests that they are more technologically and scientifically savvy, and that they lack the interpersonal skills necessary to lead?

This reminds me of something a colleague once told me: People don’t see and interpret the world as it truly is; rather, they see and interpret it as they are. The media reinforces our tendency to think of Asians/Asian Americans as a model minority, by often portraying them as scientists, mathematicians, or medical doctors. Because we are inundated with these stereotypes, we can’t rely on our perceptions, but instead, must apply critical analysis.

Our unthinking acceptance of stereotypes causes us to lump individuals we identify as belonging to a particular group together as if no meaningful differences exist between them. If it is wrong to stereotype African Americans as athletes or drug dealers (which, of course, it is), isn’t it just as wrong to stereotype Asians/Asian Americans as overachievers who do exceptionally well in college and the workforce?

Origins of the Model Minority Stereotype in the United States

The stereotype of the North American Asian/Asian American model minority arose during the 1960s when an academic by the name of William Petersen authored a story published by the New York Times Magazine, titled “Success Story: Japanese American Style.” The piece highlighted and overemphasized Japanese success, comparing it to the lack of success African Americans were having in the United States. The timing of Petersen’s publication is notable, coming months after the release of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous The Negro Family: The Case For National Action. The “Moynihan Report,” as it is now come to be known, accused African Americans of having a culture that caused the undesirable outcomes they were having. Together, the takeaway message of Moynihan’s demonization of blacks and Petersen’s praise of the Japanese in America produced the modern-day model minority stereotype.

The Asian Model Minority Stereotype at Work

All stereotypes are harmful to employers precisely because they constrict employees’ sense of individuality and stifle creativity. Interestingly, the more people believe in stereotypes, the more accurate the stereotypes seem to be. Human nature causes us to remember situations that confirm a stereotype, and forget the many times the stereotype was disconfirmed.

Research conducted by Harvard University’s Project Implicit illustrates how stereotypes are linked to our implicit biases. Implicit biases are prejudices and ways of thinking that are subconsciously present. Implicit biases have occupational implications for Asians/Asian Americans. If, because of implicit bias, an employer assumes that Asians/Asian Americans lack qualities needed to succeed as leaders, they will track Asian/Asian American employees into technical positions instead. In the business world this is referred to as the “bamboo ceiling”—in the medical profession, the “sticky floor.”

Five Steps Employers Can Take

Stereotypes are always more hurtful than helpful. University administrators and professors, as well as those in the corporate world, are best served when they understand that the Asian/Asian American model minority stereotype is limiting and inaccurate. I would like to end this article by offering five suggestions that support diversity and equity initiatives:

  1. Hire more employees of Asian descent. Asians/Asian Americans are underrepresented in many employment fields and sectors of the United States workforce. Hiring more Asians/Asian Americans will benefit employers, because Asians/Asian Americans constitute a large and diverse constituency that boasts large purchasing power. They also are an important voting bloc for politicians, which relates to the next point below.
  2. Support immigration reform and citizen rights for undocumented Asians. Of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., 1.3 million are from Asia, according to the Department of Homeland Security. These undocumented individuals are not a drag on the economy; rather, they help strengthen it. Pragmatically, it makes political sense to support immigration reform for undocumented Asians. For instance, in the 2012 election, Asian Americans turned out in large numbers for President Barack Obama, providing 1.5 million votes for his re-election. Supporting citizen rights for undocumented Asians will build increasing partisan political support. Financial support can be offered to groups such as Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education (ASPIRE), a group fighting to help educate Asian Americans, the fastest growing immigrant population in the United States today, about their rights and opportunities as undocumented people.
  3. Support Asian/Asian American leadership development opportunities. Universities are offering programs, such as Stanford Graduate Business School’s Advanced Leadership Program (ALP) for Asian American Executives. The first program of its kind, ALP addresses the apparent gap in effective executive training for high-achieving Asian executives. Groups like LEAP are also involved, offering its Leadership Development Program (LDP), which supports leadership development for Asians/Asian Americans by helping participants bridge the gap between Asian and American business cultures while retaining their Asian values.
  4. Don’t rush to judgment when Asians/Asian Americans are in the mainstream news media. The media’s treatment of the Eldo Kim story is a recent example of how the news media can portray Asians/Asian Americans who are under intense cultural pressure to do well at Ivy League universities. Don’t automatically buy into the narrative that Kim faked a bomb threat to avoid taking a final exam because he was afraid of not getting an A. Wait until the whole story comes out.
  5. Boycott and protest stereotypical media. Do not support Hollywood films or television programming that cast Asians/Asian Americans in stereotypical roles. Asian/Asian American actors can consciously refuse roles that diminish their reality and livelihoods. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) can support this protest and boycott as well. According to SAG casting data, only 3.8% of all television and theatrical roles were portrayed by Asian Pacific Islander actors in 2008, compared to 6.4% portrayed by Latino actors, 13.3% portrayed by African Americans and 72.5% portrayed by white actors. Therefore, the absence of Asian/Asian American actors is equally concerning as their presence in stereotypical roles.

Nicholas D. Hartlep, PhD

Dr. Nicholas Hartlep is Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations at Illinois State University. He has been researching the Model Minority Myth for 6 years for articles and books including The Model Minority Stereotype: Demystifying Asian American Success(Information Age Publishing, 2013), The Model Minority Stereotype Reader: Critical and Challenging Readings For the 21st Century (Cognella Publishing, 2014), Killing the Model Minority Stereotype: Asian American Counter-Stories and Complicity(Information Age Publishing, In-Press), and Modern Societal Impacts of the Model Minority Stereotype (IGI Publishing, In-Press).