The Model Minority Myth: Harmful for Society, Harmful for the Workplace
July 16, 2020
This article is part of a larger series that focuses on diversity and equity in marketing through the amplification of Black and racially diverse authors. As a company, we are committed to identifying actions we can take in the fight against racism and injustice, and elevating BBIPOC voices is paramount to inspiring change. Follow along and read other posts in this series here.
Early on in my career in email marketing, a new director joined my team. On our welcome lunch with him, he made time to chat with every one of his new reports to get to know them. When it came to me, however, all he wanted to talk about was his frequent trips to Thailand. I made it clear that I had never been to Thailand, nor was I Thai, so I had no context for anything he was saying and was honestly puzzled as to why he kept pressing the topic.
Later on, an Asian colleague (who was also decidedly not Thai) revealed to me that the director did the exact same thing with him. Yet, he went on to speak with our white colleagues about their actual hobbies and interests. It was difficult to avoid concluding that this director simply didn’t see past our race when it came to relating to us, and therefore wouldn’t take the step to get to know us as individuals who could speak on topics outside our ethnicity.
These aren’t unusual or isolated incidents. Asians in America are often stereotyped as homogenous monoliths and perpetual foreigners. It didn’t matter that my colleague and I were both Chinese American; Thai was close enough, right? Aren’t all Asians basically the same anyway? The “American” part clearly didn’t factor in, either. We were all American and therefore already had a shared culture to draw from — one that I’m definitely more familiar with than Thai culture.
These microaggressions are akin to behavior that many Asian Americans face on a regular basis in the workplace. They may seem trivial on the face of things, but are rooted in a long history of anti-Asian racism in America that still has a substantial impact on the lives and livelihoods of Asian Americans today.
In recent months, COVID-19 has shone a new light on the old problem of anti-Asian racism. On top of a massive increase in hate crimes against Asians and Asian-run businesses, as well as the resulting spike in mental health crises, Asian Americans are now experiencing the highest increase in unemployment filings among any ethnic group. It’s a 10,210% year-over-year increase compared with 3,222% for Latino Americans, 2,904% for white Americans, and 1,927% for Black Americans.
Xenophobia and the Model Minority Myth
It’s become exceedingly clear that the coronavirus has unearthed the xenophobia that many had presumed buried beneath the so-called “Model Minority” myth. Coined in 1966, the Model Minority myth “characterizes Asian Americans as a polite, law-abiding group who have achieved a higher level of success than the general population through some combination of innate talent and pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps immigrant striving,” according to Tolerance.org.
Although many Asian Americans have embraced this as a positive stereotype, it actually subverts the progress of racial justice not only for other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities, but also within the Asian American community itself.
The Bamboo Ceiling
The supposedly “good” stereotype of the Model Minority contributes to the harmful phenomenon of the “Bamboo Ceiling.” Coined in 2005 as a variation on the “Glass Ceiling” metaphor that stunts women’s career paths in the workplace, the Bamboo Ceiling is another example of a barrier that prevents Asian Americans specifically from climbing above a certain point on the corporate ladder. This is substantiated by the fact that Asian Americans make up 27% of the corporate workforce, but occupy less than 14% of executive roles and only hold 2.6% of Fortune 500 board seats while making up almost 6% of the U.S. population.
How is this massive underrepresentation at the top levels possible, if we experience “good” stereotypes? The double-edged sword of Asians being perceived as quiet but diligent heads-down workers undercuts many traits that corporate America would deem “leadership material,” such as assertiveness, risk-taking, and confident communication. It also prevents Asians from receiving the support they need if they don’t live up to what’s expected of a Model Minority. This is not only true on an individual basis in school or at work, but also on a macro level where Asian Americans receive proportionately far less funding for social services despite having the largest wealth gap and rates of poverty.
Breaking Down All Racist Stereotypes
On a societal level, the Model Minority myth has also been frequently used to drive a wedge between Asian Americans and Black and brown folks. With the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and so many others throwing #BlackLivesMatter into focus recently, many corporations, marketers, and individuals have been asking how they can communicate their support for the Black community.
One of the first things that we Asian Americans can do is to bust the Model Minority myth and the associated stereotypes of passivity in order to stand up against white supremacy in solidarity with Black and Brown folks.
Asian Americans have historically benefited from Civil Rights progress that has been pushed forward by Black people, and have historically stood by the Black community during the Civil Rights Era. It’s time to rise to the occasion again.
Casual racial microaggressions that Asian Americans often encounter underscore a far more destructive legacy of xenophobia and anti-Asian racism. Although the Model Minority myth has since whitewashed this history of racism, continuing to feed into “positive” Model Minority stereotypes of us does far more harm than good in the long run. Not only does it impede our career paths by supporting the Bamboo Ceiling, it also allows Asian Americans to be used against Black and Brown people as examples of why systemic racism doesn’t exist. But we know it does, especially with COVID-19 reigniting old prejudices against Asians across the globe.
It’s time for us to unite in solidarity with other BIPOC by pushing for anti-racist practices — not only in the workplace, but also for the rest of society. With Asians representing a significantly larger portion of marketing professionals in comparison to other BIPOC, we must use our collective voices to demand anti-racism in the workplace. Here are a couple of resources I would recommend:
- Asians in Tech: It’s Time to Show Up for Black Lives Matter by Ellen K. Pao and Michelle Kim
- Anti-Racism Strategies for Companies by Christine Cha
Alice Li (she/her) is a total geek for email creation, from design to development. She began her career in email marketing immersed in the world of ESP creative agencies since 2007 at Epsilon, Responsys, and Oracle.
From there, she went on to serve as the sole email developer for Shutterstock as well as working as a UI engineer on the UX team towards the end of her tenure there.
In her role as the Principal Email Engineer at Litmus, Alice remains a passionate evangelist for interactive and accessible email. She is honored to have spoken at Email Evolution Conference 2017 and 2019, Litmus Live conferences from 2017-2020, and UNSPAM 2019. She has also received the 2018 EEC Stefan Pollard Award for “Email Marketer of the Year” as well as the 2020 Validity Email Hero Award for “Most Innovative.”
Although based in New York City, Alice was raised on the east side of Detroit, where she was lucky to be educated in social justice by Black women from an early age. As a Chinese American individual with “actual hobbies and interests,” Alice justifies her occasionally regrettable BFA by painting artwork for galleries and publications as well as writing pop culture articles. When not under lockdown, she is also physically incapable of resisting a karaoke lounge, a ping pong table, or a tea parlor. You can follow her at @AliceLiCode.
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Sailthru is part of CM Group, a family of marketing technology brands focused on changing the world of business. Campaign Monitor, CM Commerce, Delivra, Emma, Liveclicker, Sailthru, and Vuture compose CM Group, and each brand is supporting the battle against racism by elevating the voices of Black and indigenous people of color.
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