The Origins of the Asian American Model Minority Myth

color of success

Historian Ellen Wu’s The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority just might be the best examination of the roots of the model minority stereotype in print.

More than just a connect-the-dots documentation of the rise of the model minority myth, The Color of Success succeeds at putting the myth in a much broader social and political context, positioning the model minority as a critical, even necessary, lever of white supremacy, resting upon and taking drawing its power from the fulcrum of anti-black racism. What’s more, it succeeds at making this history feel personal and present in contemporary social relations. For me, a person who lived through or in the immediate aftermath of the events documented in the book, The Color of Success felt like a piece of personal history.

During the 1960s, the formative years of my youth, model minority myth making was so ubiquitous that nearly everyone around me, and most especially Asian Americans, just accepted it as the truth. No doubt the enthusiasm among many Asian Americans to accept model minority stereotyping was a reflection of the fact that the menu of choices where stereotypes were concerned appeared to be restricted to either “model minority” or “yellow peril.” And the stakes were high. The “yellow peril” stereotype had been used to justify wars in Korea and Vietnam, the mass internment of Japanese Americans during WWII,  anti-communist persecution of Chinese Americans under the McCarran Act, and no small amount of racial exclusion and terrorism.

Growing up in Hawai’i only made matters worse. I didn’t just see the telecasts from Vietnam on TV, I lived in the staging site for that war, surrounded on all sides by military bases full of soldiers who looked at us like we were every bit as much the enemy as the Viet Cong. Moreover, winning statehood for Hawai’i’ in 1959, just a few years before I was born, required no small amount of myth making concerning Hawai’i’s “Asiatic majority,” not to mention the intentional marginalization of Native Hawaiians for whom statehood was yet another demoralizing chapter in a centuries long history of illegal and near genocidal colonial domination.

In order to assuage racist fears of a yellow peril takeover of (white) American culture and politics, statehood advocates presented Asian Hawai’i residents as bi-cultural brokers between east and west who were, nonetheless, as American as pizza and chop suey, and ironically equipped by our indelibly foreign cultures to be ideal Americans. The contradictions, though obvious, were mostly ignored, not just by white Americans but by many Asians.

The Color of Success provides a detailed account of where all of that confusing, contradictory, and ultimately dehumanizing myth making came from. It presents a critical swath of Asian American history, from WWII through the 1970s, during which some Japanese and Chinese American leaders tried to secure citizenship for members of their communities by engaging in P.R. campaigns and sponsoring  research designed to convince the public that they, and by extension Asians in general, were less prone to delinquency and promiscuity, and more committed to family, education, and country than others by dint of culture. Japanese Americans in particular were so successful in this effort that by the 1980s, during the U.S.-Japan auto wars, the notion that Japanese culture made adherents better, more industrious workers, especially on mass production lines, inspired a craze for all things Japanese, from ancient samurai codes to flower arranging.

But the model minority stereotype had a downside. The myth of the model minority painted Asians as decidedly not black in the American mind, inadvertently promoting the idea that blacks were Asian Americans’ opposites; a “problem minority,” spoiling the American dream by refusing to simply ignore racism and quietly pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Today, the myth is more popular than ever, and as important to the reproduction of racial injustice in the 21st century as the 19th century “rags to riches” novels of Horatio Alger were to the suppression of dissent against extreme gilded age class exploitation and 1% excesses in the beginning of the 20th century.

This book is a must-read for all who are interested in Asian American history, critical race theory, and the roots of color blind racism in the U.S.

Avatar photo

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

13 replies on “The Origins of the Asian American Model Minority Myth”

As long as U.S immigration policy has a preference for the highly educated, the U.S. will continue to bring in ‘model minorities’.

The term ‘model minority’ is based on a bias for educated people.

Latinos are also ‘model minorities’ in that they are compliant workers who harvest the crops and work in the slaughter houses, but they are not ‘sold’ by the media in those terms because on average they are not the highly educated workforce.

You need to be more specific. The way you are using the terms “U.S.”, “immigration policy”, and “media” does not get to the source of the matter and hinders non-white people from gaining a more complete understanding and accurately identifying the problem — too ambiguous. I think you are intentionally creating a distraction, drawing attention to and blaming something more abstract (“policy”) instead of putting the blame on the people most responsible (white people). I find that to be typical of white people in discussing these issues with non-white people.

Who is “the U.S.”? Whose “bias” and “preference” are you talking about? Who determines U.S. immigration policy? What people make the final decision? I doubt you are talking about Asian or Latino Americans. Is not that policy the practices being carried out by certain people according to their preferences?

Replace the terms “U.S. immigration policy” and “the U.S.” in the first paragraph and “the media” in the third paragraph of your comment with the term, “white people”. Is that not more accurate? I think it is significant that you chose to use the term “sold” to describe the treatment of these non-white people.

I think you are deliberately promoting confusion. I think you can discuss the model minority myth more accurately. Maybe someone else can see something different (I hope not in your defense). I found those comments to be a little confusing.

Well, who is “white people” then? Are Jews white? Italians? Irish? Whiteness itself is abstract, constructed, and historically contingent. It’s not a very useful category of analysis.

Are you a white person? You tell me. White people are the ones who do the classifying. You are asking the wrong person. I would say any person who identifies as white, is accepted as white, and functions as a white person. But I am not white so I do not make the final decision. Evidently white people think it is a useful category because the world is dominated by it. Don’t tell me it is not a useful category of analysis, tell white people.

You don’t have any other input besides asking confusing questions to non-white people? Apparently you have no intention of adding clarity or anything constructive. What about the model minority myth? Typical white response. You must be a white person, here practicing racism.

Sigh. No, I am not a white person. I am, however, a person who is concerned with social justice and a more equitable society. I think we should try and balance emic as well as etic (i.e. first and second order) categories when we think through these problems; that would be the constructive starting point.

You are not a white person, Meisner? Do you have a white parent? Could you pass for and be accepted as white? I don’t think you have any confusion about who is white and who is not white, yet you are trying to make me more confused about it. You are only adding to my suspicion.

What you are saying is not adding up. First, you try to cause more confusion about who is white then you turn around and say you are concerned with social justice and an “equitable society” — more typical white patterns in discussions on racism. Seems like you are deliberately being dishonest.

As for your Jew, Italian, Irish question earlier, I think it is obvious how they function and see themselves in relation to non-white people. To use a recent example, the way the Italians in Italy are treating Cecile Kyenge (Congolese woman, first “black” national official) make it clear they know who is white, who is not white and how they are supposed to function as white people.

Are you a white person too, Luther? Troll? Your comment is also typical of white deception in discussions on racism — trying to team up and play victim when you are obviously not.

Why didn’t you address me directly or address something in my comment instead of just trying to distract and cover up deception? You went straight for Maurice because he seems like an easier target for you. Is that correct? Are you upset at the resistance? You don’t like all those things to be pointed out, do you? I bet you don’t. How about you honestly answer those questions above? I’m just trying to get some clarity.

Comments are closed.