To a number of critics, Crazy Rich Asians has set the tone for what Asian representation in Hollywood should look like. Although it is a significant step up from lack of depiction, Crazy Rich Asian paints a truly larger than life example that does not fully capture the situation for all Asian Americans today. The movie’s focus on East Asian family dynamics leaves little room for the accurate portrayals of South East Asians. There is no perspective that highlights the experiences of real families in Singapore who live with significantly lowering wages and increasingly high living costs. What Crazy Rich Asian implicitly depicts is what the minority myth looks like in the flesh. While what is depicted on screen is a lavish and intricate portrait of power dynamics in the context of wealth, it also shies away from mentioning how the “gap between the richest and poorest Asians is the largest of any U.S. ethnic group.”(Hall) The public conversation surrounding the Asian American minority myth restricts people from concentrating on the pressing issues that smaller, underrepresented Asian Pacific American communities face, and thus leads to a lack of action taken to combat their struggles.
The ‘model minority myth’ itself pertains to the intentional fabrication of how society views Asian Pacific American—also referred to as APA—demographic. Commonly referenced from the model minority myth are misinterpretations of data that ostentatiously show Asian Pacific Americans as high achieving minorities. Yet, enable to more accurately understand the negative attributes of the model minority myth, it is necessary to explore how the term gained popular attention and its grim historical implications. The ‘model minority’ term was first mentioned in a New York Times magazine in the year 1966. (Wu) The term was created by University of California Berkeley professor, William Petersen. In his article, he tries to explain the process in which general ethnic minorities in conjunction with poor living conditions and low income lead to “slum life.” (Petersen) He describes how certain minorities have slowly constructed a trend of “self-defeating apathy” as a result of their traumatic history of oppression. Petersen explicitly cites the “cumulative degradation” of African American intellect through the establishment of inferior schools and connotes this to the difficult to reverse self-internalization of inferiority. Yet rather than criticizing the poorly regulated educational system providing inadequate funding for programs, Petersen turns to critique the nature of the victims. He makes a move to contrast other ethnic minorities to that of Japanese Americans. He highlights the notions of the ‘Japanese American-style’ and frames it in a manner that emphasizes their hard-working, determined, successful nature despite the injustices they have faced. Towards the end of his piece, Petersen makes it clear that Japanese Americans were exceptional because of how they overcame their traumatic internment through strong values and good work ethic, “By any criterion of good citizenship that we choose, the Japanese Americans are better than any group in society.” (Petersen) What is inherently flawed in Petersen’s statement is how he intentionally overlooks the troubles and creates a blanket statement to embody the ideal minority group.
The sentiment behind bolstering the broad Asian American perception was prevalent in widely reputable news sources during the 1950s. The model minority myth made it possible for news and media to ignore the individual struggles the APA communities faced, such as lack of access to education, poverty, mental illness, and substance abuse. (Wu) LA Times cited how “the New York Times Magazine emphasized that Chinese youths displayed "unquestioned obedience" toward their elders, while Look magazine celebrated their "high moral sense.”’(Wu) In 1966, US World News Report published an article imbued with the stereotypical ideals of Chinese Americans in generalizing the entire demographic as a “racial minority pulling self from hardship and discrimination to become a model of self-respect and achievement in today’s America.” (US World News) A reason why the model minority myth is so widely adopted stems from the large scope of people who view these news sources as factual. Large media companies such as the US World News, LA Times, and the New York Times, who also perpetuated the minority myth, were commonly known to be dependable and fact-based sources of information.(World Atlas) Because of the large scale scope and influence news sources had on society, it can be said that the portrayal of the ‘model minority’ became accepted by the general population. However, it is because of the historical impact of this myth that society’s view of an entire diverse demographic is severely flawed.
What stemmed from this issue was the gradual extension of the model minority myth pertaining to Chinese and Japanese Americans—the two largest Asian ethnic groups—to the broader umbrella category of ‘Asian Americans,’ a contributing factor to the problem of society misunderstanding the adversities the APA community faces. The aspect of minority myth that groups individual Asian ethnic groups into one erases public awareness of smaller underrepresented Asian ethnic groups and promotes generalization. The 2018 US Census defines “Asian American” as being a part of one or more of the following ethnic groups; Chinese, Asian Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Pakistani, Cambodian, Thai, Hmong, Laotian, Taiwanese, Bangladeshi, Burmese, Nepalese, Indonesian, and Sri Lankan, and “Pacific American” as Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Guamanian/Chamorro, and Tongon. Yet, what the model minority caused was the distinctive blurring of these individual ethnic groups. Broad generalizations of these diverse ethnic cultures and subjecting them to unfair and unrealistic expectations in characterizing them as an innately studious and intelligent group, which not only contrasts APA with other minorities but also solidifies additional pressures on individuals. The current understanding of the APA community needs to be more widely understood is similar to the ‘salad bowl.’ The salad bowl implies that though the components of the salad are integrated together, each individual component retains its individual properties. Likewise, APA ethnic groups should be viewed in ways that preserve their own culture within American society. The general public idealization of APA communities today is more akin to the melting pot, where all the cultures and identities blend together into a single idealized homogeneous population.
The Asian minority myth, in conjunction with umbrella categorizing, only paints the bigger picture and fails to detail the individual struggles underrepresented ethnic communities face. Culture, language, religion, and socioeconomic status across Asian ethnic backgrounds are not equally represented, thus, leads to the failure of addressing their different issues. The model minority myth falsely conveys the general Asian American population as being one of the most financially successful groups. This is commonly rationalized by statistics comparing median household income across racial groups—by categorizing Asian Americans as one single group, they have the highest income at $81,331.(Statista) Yet, Southeast Asia Resource Action Center concludes that “11.3% of U.S. families live below the poverty level and within that, 18.2% of Cambodian Americans, 12.2% of Laotian Americans, 27.4% of Hmong Americans, and 13% of Vietnamese Americans live below the poverty level.”(Ramakrishnan)
It is necessary to first disaggregate data on the APA community and remove the existing model minority implications drawn from them. Because of this myth, there becomes a lack of proper acknowledgment and action being taken towards bridging the achievement gap. This misconception and generalization lack of action Because while umbrella statistics show certain aspects of issues, they neglect to bring into conversation the needs independent of marginalized APA groups.
Fixing the way we talk about the struggles of the APA community and the groups within it, recognizing the individual needs of each, is only the start of creating a solution towards addressing larger struggles such as poverty, lack of access to education, and mental illness. The model minority complex is only a single aspect of a much larger racial issue. This problem brings up deeper questions of the existing definition of “Asian” and “Pacific Islander” and how in categorizing under those titles serve to hurt ethnic groups on the border. Deeply ingrained in our system is the idea that the entirety of the Asian Pacific American community is thriving, but it is clear that full story is not known to the general public. More action is required to fix the existing racial systems that explicitly marginalize Asian American groups, but addressing the model minority myth is a step towards doing so.