Model minority myth

Cal in Color

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Growing up, the three-word phrase I heard most often was “for an Asian.” 

When I excelled in STEM classes, that was expected “for an Asian.” When I was told I was pretty, it was often followed with “for an Asian.” When I relearned Chinese after years of studying, it really wasn’t considered an accomplishment “for an Asian.”

As I grew to understand the implications of these words, my resentment for them grew as well. I came to realize that these words were ones used to dismiss my accolades and achievements, regardless of how hard I worked for them; words used as ammunition against me because of the ethnic group I belong to and the corresponding assumptions that are often made about us. 

The label of being the “model minority” — one that I rarely find any Asian American actually taking pride in — is more discriminatory than it is flattering. The label insists that we perform at a higher level than other people of color and that we, as a generalized group, are responsible for proving to the world that the American dream holds true.

Even here at Berkeley, this expectation is something that I feel impacting my daily life, something that still feels ingrained in my brain. 

During our last round of class enrollment, I’d initially planned to sign up for 17 units of classes. Upon discussion with some of my Asian American peers, however, I found that most people enrolled in even more credits than that, causing me to ultimately add yet another class to my already quite heavy course load.

As I struggled juggling school, social life and extracurriculars over the course of the next few weeks, I wondered why I’d put this additional burden on myself. 

What I was doing this for? Who I was doing this for? 

In high school, I took an excessive number of AP classes, got minimal hours of sleep studying and took on more extracurriculars than hours in a day would allow. And, now, as a UC Berkeley freshman, I’ve signed up for so many classes I have to appeal for excess units. 

This is how the burden of being a “model minority” has always affected me. I don’t consider myself to be inherently smart — I have to work incredibly hard to complete my assignments, to understand the concepts. Like many of my Asian American peers have expressed, the stereotype that all Asian students excel in academics, particularly in STEM, has propagated a culture of cutthroat competition that causes unreasonable levels of anxiety and stress. 

Especially at prestigious universities like UC Berkeley, these pressures become even greater. Now, not only does it feel like we must uphold the reputation of our ethnic group, we must help uphold the reputation of our school as well. 

Once, when I voiced these concerns to friends here, I was met with joking derision. They insisted I would never understand how it feels to struggle in school and extracurriculars.

But these assumptions are exactly the wrongs that have resulted from the model minority stereotype. 

Like many other immigrant parents, my parents subsisted off of minimum wage jobs until their careers took off. Like other people of color, I have dealt with many cases of racism and practically endless microaggressions. But the label of being a “model minority” has deemed me to be less deserving of empathy and support. We have not found racial equality here in the U.S. yet, and, especially now, my community deserves to be acknowledged for the obstacles we’ve overcome.

When the conversation in our friend group eventually dwindled to become just me and one friend, I confided in her about the suffocating burden of being a “model minority.” To my surprise, she understood. She said the stereotype has become a weight on her community — the Latinx community — and the Black community as well. 

She told me that many students of color feel unheard because the model minority myth insinuates that non-Asian minorities should be able to overcome racial differences and discrimination just like Asian Americans have, if only they would work harder. In reality, however, it is impossible to make such comparisons between different racial groups, and many Asian Americans experience similar struggles as other underrepresented groups. 

Before this conversation, I hadn’t considered the effects the “model minority” stereotype could have on people of color who aren’t Asian. The words “for an Asian,” had always felt like they were solely directed toward Asian Americans. But I realize now that the label and the comparisons it insinuates also bring down other groups and drive a wedge between us. 

“For an Asian.” These three words continue to bother me today, and I imagine they always will. But I’m finally starting to acknowledge that I have value as an individual, and I should be making decisions that are most beneficial to me. I’m not here to fulfill the expectations of the “model minority,” and I’m not here to be another poster child of the American dream.

I don’t expect my self-doubts to disappear anytime soon, but I hope that, in the near future, those doubts will no longer exist because of my race, because of the unreasonable expectations inflicted by society. I hope my accomplishments will be acknowledged, regardless of whether it’s considered impressive for an Asian.

Manya Zhao writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]