Dismantling the "Model Minority" Trope

Trends / Realness
Edwin Tan
Gabrielle Pedro Fredrick
May 9, 2022
Crazy Rich Asians? More like Moderately Middle Income Asians. Well, at least I am, anyway. Asian Americans are an incredibly diverse group of people made up of at least 20 different ethnicities, according to the latest US Census, yet when we look at popular visuals, we tend to appear as generalized set that discounts the cultural distinctions of these different groups. There are over 22 million Asian Americans living in the US, and yet our various ethnicities are all underrepresented in popular visuals. Even more so, 75% of popular imagery featuring Asian Americans shows them alongside people of other races as another face of color in a rainbow of inauthentic representation and tokenism. In a step towards correcting this, on this Asian American History Month, we partnered with Admerasia to create the Asian American Imagery Toolkit and curated boards1 to help our customers locate more nuanced, authentic visual stories about Asian Americans.

There’s an added level of societal pressure when you’re Asian American, outside of assumptions that people make about you simply based on your race. I think 2004’s Mean Girls’ cafeteria mapsums it up pretty well: you’re either an Asian nerd or a cool Asian, falling into one of two common tropes we find ourselves in, both inside and outside of media.

Unfortunately, the “Asian nerd,” or “Model Minority” stereotype, as it's more widely known, still dominates top visuals. And why wouldn’t it? We’re a fantastic marketing demographic. On average, we’re the most educated3 and the wealthiest4 ethnic group in the country, and have a spending power of $1.3 trillion.
That’s all well and good, but that’s only a small piece of a very diverse, nuanced puzzle. 35% of Asians graduated high school but did not complete college. Over 1 in 3 Asians live in poverty. And yet, Asians are ten times more likely to be seen in a white collar or professional work environment than in service or blue‑collar roles. Almost half of images featuring Asians has them at work. We’re more likely to be seen with technology, being at work, or studying than we are to be outside or engaging in creative hobbies. In fact, less than 2% of visuals featuring Asians has them engaging in outdoor activities.

The more these images perpetuating a harmful stereotype penetrate our visuals, the more harm it does—both to the perception of Asian Americans and amid Asian Americans ourselves. Some of us feel a pressure to live up to the model minority, and it can wreak havoc on our mental health, causing detriment to our personal and professional lives—and this is speaking from personal experience. The American Psychological Association estimates that at least 12% of Asian Americans have mental health problems, estimated because due to different cultural stigmas that cause many of us not to come forward or seek aid for them.
“For some, the pressure of being part of a “model minority” stood in the way of treatment. They characterize themselves as intelligent, industrious, and fully in charge of their lives. For many, admitting to “weakness” would be letting down the entire community.”
                                                                                       – Geoffrey Liu, MD (McLean Hospital)
18% of the US population has sought help for mental illness in the past year, but less than 9% was attributed to Asian Americans. In fact, they are 3 times less likely to use mental health resources or services than white Americans.

When it comes representing the 1 in 10 Asian Americans with any kind of disability5, they have virtually no representation in popular visuals. Asians in visuals featuring people with disabilities are more likely to be seen as caretakers than as people who have disabilities. Research suggests that Asian Americans with disabilities receive a lower quality of support compared to other ethnic groups and have higher jobless rates.6 18% of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders with disabilities live in poverty7, a higher percentage than those in poverty without a disability.

Authentic representation of Asian Americans is particularly important now, especially thanks to assumptions based on the ongoing COVID‑19 pandemic. Hate crimes overall had decreased 7% in 20208, but after US politicians began using disparaging Asian‑centric language9, hate crimes against Asians and Pacific Islanders rose to almost 150%, with racist events still happening today.10 As the Asian American population in the US continues to grow, it’s important to remember to look beyond what we’re used to seeing and continuing to give voice to varying dynamics of identity beyond one’s race.
[1] Asian American Representation Guidelines + Boards (Getty Images x Admerasia)
[2] Cafeteria Map (Mean Girls)
[3] Bachelor's Degree Attainment in United States (US Census)
[4] Asian American buying power was up 314% before Covid‑19, study finds (CNN Business)
[5] Asian Americans with disabilities are often overlooked. A new youth‑led group aims to change that. (NBC News)
[6] The Asian Americans with Disabilities Resource Guide (Asian Americans with Disabilities Initiative)
[7] Income and Poverty in the United States 2020 (US Census)
[8] Anti‑Asian Prejudice March 2020 (Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism)
[9] Asian Americans Feel The Bite Of Prejudice During The COVID‑19 Pandemic (NPR)
[10] 68‑Year‑Old Woman Chased Down NYC Street, Punched to Ground by Stranger: Cops (NBC New York)
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