We need to drop the model minority myth and respectability politics

To equate being Asian with academics, hard work, and civility harms both Asian immigrants and other minority groups. We need to shed these ideas to become better allies.

Lately, the dinner table has become a political arena. 

As we watch the news, we argue, discuss, and explain new developments in George Floyd’s killers’ trials, or the latest police shootings of Indigenous people in Canada.

Arguments spiral into anything from systemic racism in health care to affirmative action at universities, before we all get tired and decide to watch HGTV. In broken spurts of Cantonese and English, we unpack these topics and seek to understand generational and cultural differences in opinion.

For me, these discussions around the recent Black Lives Matter movement and condemnation of police brutality have not only shed light on how Asian Americans and Canadians perceive anti-Black racism, but also the value systems and identities that explain some of these racist perceptions.

As we persist in the ongoing pursuit for racial justice, it is important to understand and dismantle internalized racism in our own communities. To become better allies for the Black community, we need to reflect on the worldviews we have grown up with, and how they have influenced our unconscious biases. 

Two dangerous concepts that Asian immigrants often subscribe to are the model minority myth and respectability politics. Here’s why we shouldn’t align with them.

Model minority myth

The model minority myth is a concept that designates a minority group as being particularly successful, usually in academic and economic domains, compared to other minorities.

Young business woman in white dress sitting at table in cafe and writing in notebook
Photo Credit: Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels

White people labelled Asian immigrants as the model minority to minimize the role systemic racism plays in the experiences of other marginalized groups by making us an example.

It cites characteristics like our strong family bonds and focus on education as factors of success. Many Asian immigrants buy into this concept, and understandably so. It acknowledges the diligence, resourcefulness, and selflessness that so many immigrant parents pride themselves with.

But ultimately, the model minority is a myth. The Asian diaspora isn’t monolithic, and believing that all Asians are thriving hurts us all.

Coming to the U.S as a Vietnamese refugee versus an educated Chinese professional lead to vastly different lives. The model minority myth completely excludes historically poor and less privileged Asian groups. Asians Americans have both the highest average income, as well as the largest income between different Asian American communities.

Being the model minority means acceptance from a white-ruled society. But as our communities have witnessed, that acceptance is conditional.

With so many incidents of anti-Asian racism happening in light of COVID-19, it is clear that being a model minority is no defense against the dangerous foreignness that many white people still view us with. One day, we are hard working Canadians; the next day, we are the foreigners who brought the virus here.

Believing in or taking pride in the model minority title is even more dangerous for other marginalized groups.

It is a stereotype that white people branded Asian immigrants with in order to downplay the role racism plays in the struggles of other racial minority groups. The idea is that despite facing discrimination and barriers, we have succeeded — so why can’t other minorities do the same?

The model minority myth elevates Asians as hardworking and competent, while denouncing other minorities as lazy and incapable. Consequently, we internalize these illusive compliments, and so anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism runs deep in our communities.

As long as people continue to believe in the model minority myth, the actions of other racial groups—Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and more—will be vilified by both ourselves and the white population. It positions us as the “good ones” and against the rest of the “bad ones.”

We need to stop internalizing these kinds of ideas and drop the model minority myth. To be better allies with the Black community, we need to recognize that our struggles are connected, even though the systemic and social discrimination we face are entirely different. No one group is immune from oppression, even if we are the “models.”

Respectability politics

Respectability politics is the notion that minority groups — for example, young black boys — who present and behave closer to the white, middle-class social standard won’t face discrimination and will succeed in life.

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham coined the term in 1993. It describes how Black women in the early 19th century promoted values like politeness, cleanliness, religiosity and sexual purity to counter racist perceptions and show white people they could be respectable.

Today, it permeates all areas of our personal and professional lives. The Root’s Jenée Desmond-Harris writes that respectability politics “leaves room for white male success to come in the form of scruffy facial hair and jeans or shorts … at a start-up company’s headquarters, but includes a narrow mandate for their African-American counterparts.”

It’s like a form of lifestyle tone-policing, one that is deeply problematic and dangerous. It shifts blame from the oppressor the oppressed. It tells the oppressed that they have to police themselves in order to deserve a minimal level of respect.

Respectability politics come into play when people dig up criminal records of Black victims of police shootings as justification. Or in the difference in response to police shootings of a Black trans sex worker versus an educated Black man. Or when the media and police state that a Black kid wearing a hoodie looks “dangerous.”

Minority groups like Black or Indigenous youth don’t have the same social leeway as privileged groups, including some Asian communities. For them, tone and attire are policed and scrutinized, whether at a job interview or walking down the street.

Asian immigrants, and mostly upwardly mobile East Asians, have thrived off respectability politics. Since birth, our parents have emphasized the importance of respecting authority, being polite and succeeding in school and work.

Our education and occupations are indicators of respect and prestige; social currency to be exchanged over family group chats and dim sum. These aspects have reaffirmed our model minority status, but have also narrowed our view of who or what is “respectable.”

Respectability politics is a value system and behavioural framework which many privileged Asian Americans and Canadians align with. It affects the way we perceive the ongoing protests around the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and more Black victims of police brutality.

Black Lives Matter protest with a protestor holding a sign saying "Asians in solidarity with black lives"
Photo Credit: Korantin Gall from Unsplash

When showing civility and sticking the status quo are so fundamental to the way we interact with the world, it’s easy to hold biases against things that are loud, heated and chaotic. Amidst all of today’s injustices, it is important, now more than ever, to re-evaluate how we perceive protesting and organizing.

Aligning with the model minority myth and respectability politics puts us in a hierarchy where it’s easy for us to dismiss the struggles of the Black community. Going forward, it’s important to question our own biases and predispositions. Being an ally is a lifelong process of reflection and learning— we can start here.

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