The model minority myth is part of the white supremacy hierarchy in terms of where Asian Americans can fit in. It was initially attributed to Japanese Americans after World War II, who were seen as more resourceful and self-sufficient, so they didn’t need as much public benefits or assistance compared to other groups. One of the groups that they were pitted against was Black Americans. It creates this dynamic of animosity in which one group may feel the other has more privilege or opportunity — meanwhile, that group is told that opportunity is only granted when they behave and stay within a lane. What is the cost when we don’t work in solidarity to address that? It harms all of us.
The model minority also casts Asian Americans as a monolith. Dr. Sue calls this the ascription of intelligence, where you assign a certain set of competencies based on race that are clearly not correct. As a group, AAPIs have the greatest income gap. Within New York City, a quarter of Asian Americans are living at the level of poverty and are actually less likely to receive benefits or public assistance because of language, culture, immigration, and many of the other barriers that have not been addressed.
Still, it’s a challenge for some AAPI people to understand the double-edged sword of the model minority. People believe it helps you get your foot in the door more easily — but yet it doesn’t necessarily allow access to all the different levels of that organization, especially at the top, for what has been called “bamboo ceilings.”
The model minority myth says that you stay in your place, you do a good job, you work hard, you don’t challenge authority, and you don’t create problems. It’s a trap. It’s that gilded cage.
When people do speak up about microaggressions and their concerns are dismissed, that also creates a harmful cycle. Can you explain gaslighting and the long-term consequences of people self-doubting the legitimacy of their feelings?
Gaslighting is a term that really connotes psychological abuse, where a person or a group is made to question their sanity. It encourages them not to trust themselves, and in many ways, it’s causing them to be disconnected from their own experience — what they feel, what they know to be true, what they value. It definitely leads to a sense of depersonalization for themselves and also a sense of depression, anxiety, and trauma.
When I think about my work as a mental health provider, what we’re really trying to do is to help people integrate their experiences, their thoughts, their behaviors. By gaslighting — trying to tell someone that what they’re experiencing is not real or valued — you’re telling them to ignore a part of themselves and their experiences.
They continue to feel the pain without ever acknowledging that there’s a problem as well as trying to find a solution. It really affects not only mental health, but also self-esteem. It also makes it difficult for that person to seek help for it. All of those things really create a sense of helplessness for that person and dehumanization.
These things are very damaging when it’s repeatedly communicated to someone. It’s so interesting because in the past year—particularly with all of the racial discord and all the anti-Black racism — I’ve heard many AAPIs say that they feel they don’t have a right to feel mistreated because their Black and brown brothers and sisters were being treated so much worse. They almost felt there wasn’t a role or a space to talk about what they were experiencing, even with all the hate rhetoric and the verbal and physical abuse that they were experiencing.
It’s that perspective of “You might have a complaint or an experience but it’s not as bad as someone else’s. Just be grateful.” That really reinforces not only that sense that you don’t matter, but that you’re not important enough and you’re invisible. That’s often a part of the AAPI experience as well, not drawing attention to yourself.