Asian Americans and the Model Minority Dilemma
Asian Americans and the Model Minority Dilemma
In light of recent attacks, a BU Asian health expert on the group’s experiences of racism, alienation, and anxiety
Many Asian Americans live their daily lives with a baseline unease that most white Americans rarely experience. They feel stereotyped as a model minority—smart in math and science, but poor in sports, and rarely in need of mental health resources.
That unease, says Hyeouk Chris Hahm, a School of Social Work professor and chair of social research, ratcheted up last year after then-President Trump branded COVID-19 “the China virus,” a repeated reference that has been blamed for a 150 percent increase in crimes against Asian Americans in 16 American cities in 2020. “We all felt it,” says Hahm, who is Korean-American. “I live in Newton, which is a nice community, but even in Newton, there were incidents. My Asian friends were yelled at: “Go back to your country!”
The March 16 shooting deaths of eight people in Atlanta, six of them Asian women, has left the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities not only grieving and fearful—but also organizing to raise awareness around the bias they live with daily, and to show unity.
Hahm’s own anxiety escalated last spring when she read that an Asian American woman had a chemical thrown at her and an Asian American girl was beaten by a group of boys in Brooklyn. It escalated further when Hahm’s son found the body of a dead animal in the family’s front yard. “I had seen on the internet something that happened to another Chinese couple,” she says. “Somebody had killed a cat and thrown the body in their yard. Immediately, I thought that’s what just happened to us. We called the police, and they came right away and called animal control. Ultimately, the conclusion was that a coyote had killed the animal, but until they came to that conclusion, my body was shaking. I’d never experienced such terror before.”
Hahm’s personal observations are reinforced by academic research. In collaboration with Cindy H. Liu, a Harvard Medical School assistant professor in psychiatry and director of the Developmental Risk and Cultural Disparities program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Hahm launched a study of young adults’ well-being and resilience last year. Out of 1,300 participants, she analyzed the responses of 212 Asian American young adults to find the impact of COVID-related anti-Asian discrimination on their mental health.
“We found that among almost 70 percent of these young people, either they or their family members were exposed to some violence or microaggression,” she says. “That included people making comments about ‘the Wuhan virus,’ or people refusing to go to Chinese restaurants or Asian restaurants because of the coronavirus.” Additionally, she says, 15 percent reported that they were exposed to verbal or physical assaults, and that was at the beginning of the pandemic. “We asked respondents to write anything they want to talk about, and many people said they had PTSD-like symptoms. They said they were in fear, and some said they had been staying in their house for weeks. Now a year into the pandemic, even more Asian Americans have experienced discrimination, physical violence, and murder.”
Hahm is a founder of the SSW Asian Women’s Action for Resilience and Empowerment (AWARE) lab. Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, AWARE provides what Hahm describes as “culturally grounded and trauma-informed psychotherapy intervention” for Asian American women. A frequent problem, she says, is persuading Asian Americans to take advantage of resources, such as AWARE and others.
“Many Asian Americans, even though they were born in the United States, feel that there is a stigma attached to seeking help,” Hahm says. “And when they actually try to seek mental health treatment, they often find that the existing psychotherapy does not necessarily help them. That’s because it doesn’t address the ‘dual-culture’ experience of being raised in the United States, but also being influenced by Asian family and community attitudes towards mental health.”
Hahm is now developing AWARE online training courses, supported by Digital Learning & Innovation at BU, in order to teach clinicians to help Asian American women who deal with a unique set of mental health concerns, many stemming from the stereotype of Asian Americans as a model minority.
“A lot of Asian Americans worry that they would not meet the high standards as ‘model minority,’” she says. “The common stereotype that says Asian students are great in math and science and bad in sports hurts a lot of young people. Asian students feel that they are not automatically smart; they have to work extremely hard to reach it. That creates unreasonable expectations and can cause a lot of stress.”
Hahm also sees institutional alienation of Asian Americans in the amount of research focused on their health. For the past 26 years, she says, the NIH has invested only 0.17 percent of funding altogether for clinical research for Asians, Hawaiians, and Alaskans. “That says to us that we are not worthy of attention,” she says. “We are not worthy of health improvement because we are invisible. And that goes back to the model minority issue, the belief that we don’t have problems, so why should we do research on Asian Americans or look for treatments for you?”
Hahm is convinced that the model minority stereotype can create a harmful dynamic in the broader context of other ethnic groups. It doesn’t just set Asian Americans apart from other groups, she says, it also can place them at odds with other groups.
“When the Black Lives Matter movement happened,” she says, “a lot of Asians showed their support for this movement. At the same time, Asians felt that they were not included in racial discourse conversation. Right now, for example, many people are angry about a recent surge of discrimination. They worry about the shootings of Asian women in Atlanta, which is potentially a hate crime, but there is a feeling that Asian Americans are left alone to deal with these problems.”
Hahm believes that the anxiety that many Asian Americans feel could be mitigated if Asian Americans shared a stronger group identity and felt a greater sense of solidarity and unity. “We don’t really have that,” she says. “Black people identify strongly as Black, but Asians tend not to have strong identity. A lot of Asians are not that sure where we belong. We don’t have a strong group voice.
“The bottom line,” says Hahm, “is that we are an integral part of this society. People forget that Asian Americans can be your neighbor. They are your wives, they are your husbands, or they are your best friends. We need to amplify our voices and have political visibility. We have lots of work to do.”
Thank you for this thoughtful article! I just want to share some of my experience related to being Asian and mental health.
I am a Chinese student who immigrated to the US in middle school. At that time, I lived in a rural area where I was the only Chinese, and one of very few Asian students in school. I was called racial slurs and asked if I have eaten dogs. It might seem innocent or just a curious comment to some, but to a child who have been raised with love and understanding in her homeland, I felt shocked, degraded, but couldn’t say anything at that time due to language barrier. I loved my motherland and enjoyed my time there, but those heartless comments made me feel very insecure toward myself and my cultural identify.
I have struggled with my identify since then. Even after many years now, I feel traumatized and would easily tear up thinking back about those memories. When I had a psychotic episode years ago, I hallucinated thinking I was watched by the US government, thought of as a Chinese spy, and would be killed because of so. It sounds funny, but I believe it is partly induced by US politics and media’s aversion to China or other countries US deems as its rivals.
I am sure many other Asian people share similar experiences and there are many factors that contribute to our anxiety. I think it is especially important to understand the role of politics that play in one country’s media outlets and not to trust everything from mainstream media as the only true story. Secondly, it is important to train or teach empathy to adults and (especially) children. It is powerful to imagine standing in another person’s shoes and think about how the words we are going to say or have said could make another person feel.
I moved to the US because I wanted to experience and appreciate diverse cultures. Although there are many hardships, I am glad that I have learned new perspectives and met friends that I would not have otherwise done.
Hope you have a lovely day and hope the world will become more peaceful <3
I am genuinely sorry you went through such traumas. As a white student growing up in the 1970s and 1980s I watched students of Asian origin like yourself go through the type of racist comments and attitudes you describe. I felt badly at the time and even worse when I got older: For I knew you were being treated unjustly and while I spoke up in defence of people like you at times, I should have done so much more so. Having lived my adult life in overseas in Asian nations, I am now on the “other side”, experiencing some of the racism you went through. One of the saddest things about humans is that where ever you go, the lower 30% of society “just doesn’t get it” when it comes to racism. Please know that there are many of us –from all colors– who understand what you went through and are supportive.
Thank you Eric for your supportive voice. HC Hahm
Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I was so moved by your comment. HC Hahm
Thanks for sharing your story.
I had the privilege of taking a course from Doctor Hahm, and related closely to one of her studies around Asian American women and the intersecting worlds we struggle with, and how this can relate to mental health barriers for second/third generation women. It helped me see myself clearer and tell my story. Thank you for all you do.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience, that’s not easy to do. I’m so sorry for all of that, and I’m grateful you’ve fought through the hardships and continued to fight to engage with a culture that doesn’t always love you well. I’m glad you’re here.
As someone born in East Asia, on an originally Chinese territory, and with a family history in East Asia, I have a problem with the introduction to this article, which characterizes Asian-Americans as “a model minority—smart in math and science, but poor in sports, and rarely in need of mental health resources.” Surely, it is not that they are “poor in sports” that makes Asian-Americans a “model minority.” It is their academic strength and hard work that makes them a model, so what’s the point of putting them down by stressing a presumed weakness? This weakness is only presumed, because Asian-Americans cannot be in fact considered as “poor in sports”: think of China’s regular performance in the Olympics and the athletics of martial arts. Given the long tradition of these demanding forms of sport, native to East Asia, Asian-Americans may be less interested in the American sports, but interpreting this lack of interest as lack of ability serves only to create and perpetuate a belittling stereotype which adds to the psychological burden of dealing with the stereotype of a “model minority” which needs no consideration afforded to other minorities.
““A model minority—smart in math and science, but poor in sports, and rarely in need of mental health resources.”” In my experience, these stereotypes are held mainly by people who form assumptions based on what they see in front of them or on TV programmes, which often maintain these stereotype of different groups. “The nerdy but runty Asian kid with glasses” is a common stereotype depicted in all forms of media.
Also, in my experience, when someone has formed an opinion about you based on a behaviour that THEY have seen, regardless of how infrequently you actually act that way when you’re not with them, that’s what they’ll tell people about you and you’re kind of stuck with it in their perception.
The private citizens who hold onto these assumptions & images don’t often do their research to find out the truth. I doubt they would know that China is a powerhouse in many sports, such as diving, table tennis, badminton & weightlifting, or that South Korea dominates in archery, because they aren’t really interested in watching these sports or, the Olympics, unless it’s a sport where the US dominates.
Of course many people aren’t like this and they’re curious enough to research other countries, cultures, etc. but that also leads to another rabbit hole of stereotyping – making assumptions about those countries & cultures based on animal welfare, human rights, environmental health, etc. – instead of talking to someone from that country who will hopefully give an honest insight about their culture and the customs they practice.
Powerful article highlighting the importance for more funding of research on Asian-American health. Dr.Hahm highlighted her lab’s effort all while presenting a perspective on the situation that is very honest and humane.
Thank you so much for bringing more attention to these issues in this article. Dr. Hahm perfectly sums up a lot of the pressures and experiences I’ve had since I moved to the US. Before I was aware of important terms such as the “model minority myth” and when I had a weaker understanding of how the AAPI community was treated, I mostly dismissed my own racial and discriminatory experiences as ‘not that bad’. Most times, I didn’t even know these experiences were racially motivated. For instance, I’ve had so many random encounters where strangers would come up to me and say things such as “ni hao” or express other racial assumptions. Only after talking through these microaggression experiences with other people have finally understood how important it is to not dismiss my experiences. Why is it that random strangers are even allowed to do this? How come I still don’t know the best way to respond in instances like this?
Since the Atlanta shootings, I found myself more on edge and more cautious while walking out on the streets. Yesterday, I felt jumpier and more stressed as I went on a run, stopping maybe four times on the street to make sure that I was safe. Even before this tragedy, I was inclined to stay in more because of all the social media news on how AAPI, especially the elderly, were being attacked. It was clear that these vicious physical and verbal attacks against individuals mostly stemmed from prejudice and warped mindsets against China (ex. use of certain terms such as “Wuhan virus” by the previous administration). These violent acts need to stop now and there needs to be an increase in accountability for these perpetrators. It is not enough that social media posts are the ones looking for and identifying these individuals. We need more than empty promises in speeches given by individuals in power. As Dr. Hahm emphasizes, we are not invisible despite the barriers placed against us. We are integral members of society and now is the time to fight for our place and rights and fight against racial rhetorics.
I am also very appreciative of everyone’s responses here in the comment section. Thank you all for sharing your experiences and/or showing your support for this important conversation for the AAPI community.
Thank you so much for sharing this story, it’s so important to highlight the struggles that Asians and Asian Americans are facing particularly during this time. I’ve particularly felt anxious during this time and am extremely grateful that people like Dr. Hahm are investing their time and effort to expose the model minority stereotype and uplift the community. It’s extremely important for us as Asian Americans to be able to seek mental health support and receive culturally specific treatment.
A very important article that everyone should take time to read. It is time for the AAPI community to stop being ignored, and for resources to be allocated to decrease health disparities within the community.
Thank you so much for shedding light on these important issues regarding violence, stereotyping, and lack of awareness in regards to Asian-American discrimination and alienation in American society. It is incredibly frustrating that as a society, we appropriate Asian culture, including yoga, food, matcha, etc yet are unable to defend and protect Asian/Asian American lives and well-being. It is incredibly frustrating that the awful recent acts of violence against Asians/Asian Americans, including the shooting in Atlanta, is what has woken up America to the hardships and struggles of Asians/Asian Americans. On a more optimistic side, however, people are finally awake. They are demonstrating and spreading the word on social media and finally fighting for the lives of those they had once neglected. I hope this continues and action, not just words ensues.
Thank you Dr. Hahm for sharing. It is so important for us all to hear.
The racist attacks and murders of the six Asian women in Atlanta were horrifying. Unbelievably heartbreaking. My heart hurts for these women and their families: Xiaojie Tan; Daoyou Feng; Soon C. Park; Hyun J. Grant; Suncha Kim; and Yong A. Yue. Their murders are the result of a centuries long history of racism in our country, escalated by recent rise in anti-Asian rhetoric and discrimination.
I have had the privilege of working with Dr. Hahm this spring to work on AWARE 2.0. Especially in my own positionality as a white woman, with all of the privilege that entails, it has been an absolutely important experience for me. I have learned so much through this work- about the model minority myth, the impacts of racism in the context of COVID-19 on Asian American young women’s mental health, the lack of funding for interventions for people of Asian descent, etc.
As a white person, I can say that we white folks have a responsibility to call out and stop anti-Asian racism. The fight for racial justice is one that we white folks need to participate in, and this can happen in any field. For example- in the field of social work, we can ask: how is racism showing up in our field? Underfunding of interventions is one place: more resources from the National Mental Institute of Health need to be devoted to studying interventions like AWARE (invest money!!!). And we need to call out racism when we see it among our colleagues, clients, in our institutions and government.
I am proud to work with you and proud to know you Dr. Hahm, and I am so happy you are at the BUSSW. The program and your students are so much better for it.
What is the ‘dilemma’ here??
A dilemma refers to a tough choice. The title of this article seems to play into the idea that Asians might want to uphold the MM myth, instead of busting it, because of its “positive aspects.” As a Chinese American woman, I’m tired of giving people the chance to continue this harmful myth.
Bias can be found on all sides and can come in many forms, sometimes overt and sometimes subtle – some Asian friends and family have told me I am “too white” and were critical of my choice to marry a white man. They call me “Oreo” as in brown on the outside and white on the inside. Funny? well, I never laugh.
And some white friends and extended family still think of me as “other”, as different from them, not just having different customs but truly different in a deep and fundamental way. I used to get a lot of “you speak such good English” but haven’t heard that in a long time, thankfully.
My mixed-race kids are always asked “where are you from?” (they always answer “Boston” – which I love). I believe that bias is a learned behavior and that makes me optimistic that unbiased behaviors can also be learned. Lots of work to be done, and I am glad these conversations are happening. Peace and love.