Let it be clear that referring to a racialized group or individual as a “model minority” is not, and will never be, received as a compliment.
The term “model minority” has often been used to refer to a minority group, specifically Asian Americans, perceived as successful, law abiding and non-threatening persons of colour, especially in a manner that contrasts with other minority groups.
Asian Americans were not always referred to as the “model minority”. Rather, the origin story of the model minority narrative originates from a space tactically designed to absolve government and institutions from dealing with the complexities of racism found in their institutions and government.
At the outset of the 20th century, individuals of Asian descent in North America were publicly portrayed as threatening and exotic. But by the 1950s and 1960s, media began to popularize the idea of the “model minority” and brought this concept to national consciousness.
This shift in perspective came at a significantly historical time; Asian Americans were climbing the socioeconomic ladder while at the same time the civil rights movement was gaining traction. As historian Ellen Wu explains in her book, "The Color of Success”, the model minority narrative may have started with Asian Americans, but it was quickly co-opted by white politicians in the United States who saw it as an opportunity to “proclaim [the United States] as a racial democracy and thereby credentialed to assume the leadership of the free world”. Further, concerns about the civil rights movement caused many white Americans to point to and amplify stories of Asian Americans finding success within the system. These success stories were utilized to showcase that racism was not a systemic problem in the United States and that African Americans were squarely to be blamed for their inability to overcome racial barriers. Ultimately, success stories about Asian Americans were turned into propaganda to minimize the role that racism plays in the persistent struggles of other racial minority groups. Images and stories of a hard-working minority group overcoming racial barriers and moving up the socioeconomic ladder became a convenient avenue to create a façade that the United States is a racial democracy and to deny the legitimate demands of other racialized groups, especially African Americans, seeking racial equity and government accountability.
Not only did the model minority narrative harm racialized groups by allowing governments and institutions to avoid any responsibility for addressing racism, it also harmed (and continues to harm) the Asian American and Asian Canadian populations. The persistent model minority narrative has painted all Asians as a monolithic group dismissing the disparities between Asian populations in North America. As a result, this silenced many systemically disadvantaged Asian Americans and Asian Canadians, and has blocked them from accessing services and mobilizing systemic change. The model minority narrative has minimized the concerns of Asian Americans and Asian Canadians about the systemic racism they experience in their daily lives. It has also created unseen societal barriers and unspoken rules of what spaces are appropriate for Asian Americans and Asian Canadians to belong to and participate in. For example, while Asian-Americans have been encouraged to participate in science and engineering roles in society, they have been systemically discouraged to participate in spaces of law and government.
As a high schooler, I did not realize that these unspoken rules existed. I recall one of my high school teachers strongly discouraging me to go to law school after I had confided in him that I am interested in one day becoming a lawyer. His reasoning was that as an immigrant my English was not strong enough to become a lawyer. My English was just fine. His comments had nothing to do with my abilities to speak and write in English, or lack thereof; but rather, it had everything to do with his perception of the roles model minorities belonged in and should traditionally be seeking. I have often found myself slipping back into that discouraging conversation, especially on really tough days during LSAT prep, law school, bar exam prep and articling where I have unproductively doubted my own abilities and thought that I really should have followed my father’s footsteps into dentistry instead.
But then, I am reminded that it is not the role of others to decide my future, and also that I owe it to myself and many minorities who have been preconceived into boxes to keep moving forward and shake off that imposter syndrome.