Model Minority: Normative Exception and/or Example?

Model Minority: Normative Exception and/or Example?

Karen Sy de Jesus
Copyright: © 2015 |Pages: 32
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-7467-7.ch010
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Since the 1960s, Asian Americans have been hailed as the model minority of American society. Seen as the exceptional group of immigrants and the example of successful assimilation, they are presumed to have achieved the American Dream and to be free from racialization. This chapter disrupts the idealization of the myth by analyzing the ways it contributes to maintaining social injustice. Grounded in Michel Foucault's (1977) notion of the norm, this analysis demonstrates how an affirmative stereotype that reflects exceptionality and exemplariness fosters and reproduces relations of discrimination and alienation. Butler's (2004) work on vulnerability is used to illuminate how this paradoxical effect of the norm takes place through the structuring of relations between Asian Americans and White mainstream Americans, between Asian Americans and other minorities, as well as among Asian Americans. This chapter challenges the reader to re-examine the myth and to explore ways to transform societal relations.
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What could be wrong with being a “model minority”? This notion emerged during the Civil Rights Movement and the racial unrest of the mid-1960s. Journalists and other opinion-makers like sociologist William Petersen (1966) lauded the relative success of Asian Americans in order to shift the focus onto economic mobility instead of political disenfranchisement (Kim, 2004). Almost five decades later, this success was the focus of the Pew Research report The Rise of the Asian Americans (Taylor, 2013), which drew a portrait of Asian Americans as “the highest-income, best-educated, and fastest-growing racial group in the United States” (p. 1). One would assume that Asian Americans, as the model minority, are the textbook example of the ideal immigrants who have achieved the American Dream. This assumption overlooks past U.S. immigration policies and the heterogeneity of this group of Americans. The composition of Asian Americans today has changed dramatically following the immigration policy changes in 1965. This grouping of people is made up of very diverse groups from different parts of Asia. Describing Asian Americans as the model minority masks inequity as well as promotes societal tensions.

To understand why we need to dismantle the model minority myth, we need to look into its rationale. Grounding this inquiry in Foucault’s (1977) notion of the norm will demonstrate how the myth functions to perpetuate the power relations within the racial structure of the American society. Using the norm as a socio-political tool for analysis will demonstrate how an affirmative stereotype that reflects favorable exceptionality and positive exemplariness has fostered and has continued to reproduce relations of discrimination and alienation. This paradoxical effect can be understood when we explore how the norm shapes the relations between individuals or between groups through the differential distribution of vulnerabilities (Butler, 2003). By framing social relations in Butler’s (2004) work on vulnerability, we will discover how the norm structures relations between Asian Americans and White mainstream Americans, between Asian Americans and other minorities, as well as among Asian Americans themselves. Despite its affirmative stance regarding Asian Americans, the model minority myth should be dismantled because it rationalizes and maintains societal injustice even as it rends apart the social fabric of America. The myth masks the exclusion, injustice, and gatekeeping that perpetuate the racial structure. By examining the myth of the model minority, this chapter challenges the reader to re-examine the myth and to explore new ways by which we might re-define ourselves as members of an egalitarian society grounded on justice and equality.

Asian Americans as the Model Minority

As a minority in American society, Asian Americans cannot be comprehended outside the ideological formation of race in America. Founded on the colonization and the slave trade of non-White populations, America has not moved beyond the sensibility of the Anglo-Saxon superiority that has divided the world through imperial expansion (Willinsky, 1998). Stoler (1995) argued that Whiteness as an ideological frame and as the organizing principle continues to determine the hierarchy of privilege in a capitalistic regime of increasing profit and exploitative labor. It dominates the racialization process that sets the condition for racism and the site for race to acquire its meaning (Stanley, 2011).

Racial positions are fluid. They transform into effects through the knowledge produced by social-historical discourses. These discourses produce what we know of each other; they shape and are shaped by our positions in the racial structure. The model minority myth is an example of knowledge produced within the racial discourse of the American society. It has been applied most consistently on Asian Americans. By looking briefly into the history of Asian Americans, we will understand how the ideological functions of the myth enable it to endure by masking exclusion, injustice, and gatekeeping.

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