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So You’re a Model Minority: 5 reasons why being a model minority sucks for you and the world

Updated: Jun 1, 2022

I must admit, I am a recovering model minority. Even when I was doing activist and community work, I was still playing out a version of model minority. But growing up, I thought of myself as a “modern Asian-Canadian kid,” not like the rest of the high achieving Asians. I was better assimilated into Canada, I didn’t have a Tiger Mom (I think), and I didn’t have to take piano or violin lessons. See? I am totally not a model minority.

And that, my friends, is the insidiousness of internalized racism. Not only is the term “modern Asian-Canadian kid” all kinds of racist (what, I thought I was better than the “other” Asians?), but I was also totally happy to lie to myself that I don’t harbour any internalized racism.

Wow…for a model minority, I wasn’t very smart. Or perhaps, I was falling into the exact trap that the model minority myth has set for me. But let’s back up for a second, and talk about…

What in the world is the model minority myth (MMM)?

It’s a great question. I’ll try my best to explain it properly. It is actually a stereotype, and a narrative that Asian Canadians are inherently super intelligent and hardworking, and therefore, will become high achievers, and super successful.

And success is typically characterized by the following: Report cards? Straight A’s. Career? STEM fields (science, technology, engineer, and math). Life trajectory? Get married, have kids, and buy a house. Then work 40 years while feeling dead inside, and retire and pretend you will magically become happy.

The general trend here is to be law-abiding citizens, assimilated into Canadian society. So success is viewed in a very, very confined way. And if you can do it, there's the implicit promise that you'll be accepted (white people will like you!) and you'll achieve some kind of material success. But what if you want to live your life in a different way? Well, tough luck. Cause any other way will be viewed as failure. And you don’t want to be a failure. So it expects you to live that boring model minority life, with the debilitating internalized racism, and never going after what you truly want for yourself.

This may turn out really shitty for you, for a few reasons…

1. It’s Hella Racist

The whole point of the MMM is to create a minority identity that would be docile and complicit to the whims of white supremacy. And how does it do that...

2. It Shames You

Yup, you got it! So if Asians are inherently supposed to be overachievers…and you’re not an overachiever…then you’re failing your Asian identity, right? At least that’s the logic behind MMM. And being that “failed Asian” is seriously no fun. I’m sure some of you felt this in different moments of your life…the feeling of shame. Like you could have and should have achieved more. You should have bought a house by now. You should have been married and had children by now. And all the “shoulding” yourself often leads to feelings of shame.

It’s really dehumanizing, because your entire worth and identity as a person is to achieve. And this achievement is not in your own terms, but defined by someone else, and something else (white supremacy, and the super boring norms of society).

And when you feel shame…

3. It Silences You

Cause who wants to admit that they are a “failed Asian?” You’ve probably already experienced your parents comparing you to your cousins, your neighbours’ children, your friends, etc. All your life, you’ve been told that life is a big competition. So you got to keep achieving, to keep competing. So when you’re feeling like you are failing, the last thing you want to do is to admit this to anyone. You want to keep this shame to yourself.

And let me remind you, you’re not actually failing in your life. You’re just failing to assimilate in the ways that white supremacy wants you to assimilate.

But this is where things get even harder. Cause when you’re silenced…

4. It Isolates You

Like I said, you don’t want to tell anyone about your shame. Your whole life, it was a huge competition. Who has better grades. Who’s better in sports. Who’s in a better university program (college is not an option). Who has a better job. A better career. A bigger house. Makes more money.

It’s really hard to be content, when your worth as a person is based on the comparisons with the people around you. And it is so very isolating.

The isolation is the exact gameplan of white supremacy. Because…

5. It creates a division between you and your community, and from other racialized communities.

Our communities are strong when people feel connected. But it is hard to build relationships in our communities when we’re shamed, silenced, and isolated. And that is the goal of white supremacy and MMM. Along with structural racism and oppression, it also chips away at our individual mental health. Connecting with others require a level of vulnerability. But who wants to be vulnerable, when we’re experiencing intense shame about ourselves? MMM undermines the health and strength of our communities, by driving a wedge between us. A wedge between you and your friends. You and your family. You and all the wonderful people out there that you want to get to know.

And on top of that, MMM is used to hide structural racism against other racialized communities. Because if the Asians can “succeed,” then why can’t other groups (black and Indigenous)? But of course, we know that structural racism is a huge reason why. But MMM would like to sell Asians the lie that we are better than everyone else. Even if it comes at our own expense.

MMM is a goddamn trap. This creates a divide between racialized communities. And if we play into the hype of being a model minority (it really isn’t what it’s cracked up to be), it will continue to come at the expense of our own mental health, our community’s health, and the health of other racialized communities.

So yes….

I hope I did a good job explaining the model minority myth. And seriously, I got skin in the game, cause I lived it, and I understand how harmful it is. I’m also toying with the idea of writing a bonus blog about the model minority activist. I’ll have to think about that one a bit more.

As always, thanks for tuning in. If you found this helpful, get my free Asian Survival Guide.

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Harry Au

Therapy for Asians

MSW, RSW | he/him

I help Asians go from feeling trapped to becoming self-liberated.

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