The ‘model minority’ myth: Its impact on well-being and mental health

The “model minority” myth implies that certain ethnic minorities are better than others: better at adjusting to a different culture, more hardworking, more academically gifted. But this false narrative can segregate communities and cause a lot of harm to mental health and other aspects of well-being.

Recently, public discussions and debates around the many and varied manifestations of racism and discrimination have brought back into focus the impact of a decades-old narrative haunting the United States: the model minority myth.

It suggests that some ethnic minorities are exemplars by others. A model of conduct, socio-cultural integration, and academic proficiency, among others.

On the surface, the model minority set-up may sound positive. However, it has historically led to ethnic segregation, and promotes stereotypes that impact well-being and aspects of mental health. It can also prevent individuals from seeking and receiving any formal support they may need.

Traditionally, this narrative has targeted primarily Asian-American groups, pitting them against other ethnic minorities, and instilling a mindset of self-stigmatization.

To better understand the impact of this myth on well-being and healthcare, Medical News Today reached out to Hee-Young*, an Asian-American who has been working hard to unpick the effects of the model minority myth on her own life and to Prof. Gordon Nagayama Hall, from the University of Oregon.

Prof. Hall specializes in culture and mental health, cultural adaptations of psychotherapy, and Asian-American psychology.

Political origins of a harmful narrative

The model minority myth is not a new phenomenon. It has its roots in political narratives promoted in the U.S. during the Cold War.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which eased previous restrictions on immigration from Asian countries. It came in symbolic opposition to prior acts of violence against people of Japanese and Chinese ancestry.

The concept of model minority first appeared in a 1966 article from The New York Times, entitled “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” which alluded to the discrimination and violence suffered by Japanese people at the hands of U.S. authorities before and during World War II. It then proceeded to commend these individuals for having successfully integrated into North American society.

Similar articles followed this, all focused on the successful integration of Asian groups in the U.S. One example is “Success Story of One Minority Group in the U.S.,” which appeared in U.S. News and World Report, and seemed to praise the progress of Chinese-Americans.

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