Asian Americans and the Model Minority Myth

tags: Chinese Americans, yellow peril, Asian Americans, model minority



Ellen D. Wu, a history professor at Indiana University, is the author of The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority.

Previews of Amy Chua's forthcoming book, "The Triple Package" (co-written with husband Jed Rubenfeld), detonated a social media uproar among Asian Americans. Many were infuriated by the New York Post's report that Chua, the self-styled Tiger Mom, was identifying eight superior "cultural" groups in the United States: Jewish, Indian, Chinese, Iranian, Lebanese, Nigerian, Cuban and Mormon. For Asian Americans, the problem is about another Chua production that seems to perpetuate the "model minority" myth and, in particular, the notion that Asians are culturally — even genetically — endowed with the characteristics that enable them to succeed in American society.

Before the mid-20th century, the Tiger Mom did not exist in the national imagination. Instead, Americans believed that Chinese culture was disgusting and vile, viewing U.S. Chinatowns as depraved colonies of prostitutes, gamblers and opium addicts bereft of decency. Lawmakers and citizens deployed these arguments to justify and maintain the segregation, marginalization and exclusion of Chinese from mainline society between the 1870s and World War II. Those efforts were more than effective: to have a "Chinaman's chance" at that time meant that one had zero prospects.

There is danger in offering culture as a formula for success, because our ideas of culture are hardly fixed. The history of Americans' views about Chinese immigrant behaviors shows that "culture" often serves as a blank screen onto which individuals project various political agendas, depending on the exigencies of the moment.

During World War II, white liberals agonized that racism was damaging the United States' ability to fight a war for democracy against the Axis powers. Many felt that the Chinese exclusion laws, which had barred migrants from China from entering the country or becoming naturalized citizens since the 1870s, risked America's trans-Pacific alliance with China against Japan. A coast-to-coast campaign emerged to overturn the laws. The Citizens Committee to Repeal Chinese Exclusion recognized that it would have to neutralize deep-seated fear of "yellow peril" coolie hordes. So it strategically recast Chinese in its promotional materials as "law-abiding, peace-loving, courteous people living quietly among us." Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943....



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