As I and many other scholars have written, Asian Americans are frequently portrayed as the “model minority” — a group of Americans who have worked to overcome difficulties in our way in order to achieve socioeconomic success, who have quietly persevered to get ahead in American society rather than resorting to political confrontation, and therefore, stand as examples for other racial minority groups to follow and emulate. As I’ve also summarized in my linked article above, there are numerous problems with this characterization, such as the blanket assumption that all Asian Americans are successful and no longer experience any form of racial discrimination.
But what about the assertion within this model minority image that Asian Americans have worked extremely hard to achieve success? Isn’t that true?
The short answer is, of course. Throughout this site and blog, I’ve described the various ways in which Asian Americans (individually and collectively) have indeed used hard work, patience, and determination to overcome various barriers in our way in order to achieve our goals in various pursuits of life and professional fields, such as political power, education and academics, professional sports, high-tech entrepreneurship, the entertainment industry, and corporate leadership, to name just a few examples. With this in mind, Asian Americans should absolutely be recognized and congratulated for our hard work.
In fact, a recent op-ed column in the New York Times from Nicholas Kristoff highlights this idea of Asian American success based on hard work and determination, rather than inherent cultural traits such as intelligence:
One large study followed a group of Chinese-Americans who initially did slightly worse on the verbal portion of I.Q. tests than other Americans and the same on math portions. But beginning in grade school, the Chinese outperformed their peers, apparently because they worked harder. The Chinese-Americans were only half as likely as other children to repeat a grade in school, and by high school they were doing much better than European-Americans with the same I.Q. . . .
A common thread among these three groups may be an emphasis on diligence or education, perhaps linked in part to an immigrant drive. Jews and Chinese have a particularly strong tradition of respect for scholarship . . . the larger lesson is a very empowering one: success depends less on intellectual endowment than on perseverance and drive.
Having said that, we also need to recognize that the dynamics of political, economic, and cultural success are more complicated than just hard work. First, Asian Americans benefit in many ways from our“honorary White” status. This refers to how Asian Americans are situated below Whites in the U.S.’s racial hierarchy and that based on our levels of socioeconomic success — and to put it bluntly, our relatively light-colored skin — are slightly more socially accepted from the White majority than other (darker skinned) racial minorities such as Blacks and many Latinos. This idea is similar to the “middleman minority” theory that Asian Americans serve as a buffer zone that insulates the White majority from Blacks and Latinos.
Second, the drive to work hard ultimately has its limits. Along with the stories with happy endings that I mentioned earlier, the drive for success unfortunately can become obsessive, counterproductive, and even tragic. Some examples of the pressures of working hard gone wrong include high rates of mental illness, cheating scandals, eating disorders, intentionally breaking up families, domestic violence and even murder, and suicides.
The take-home message is that, by all means we should celebrate and encourage the hard work within the Asian American community that has resulted in many forms of success and accomplishment. We as Asian Americans should rightfully feel proud and inspired by all the historical and contemporary examples in which we’ve used our individual and collective resources and determination to overcome the barriers in our way on the road to achieving our goals.
At the same time, we also need to understand that not all racial/ethnic groups have the same circumstances and that these historical and contemporary characteristics lead to different challenges that each group faces. Secondly, the push for hard work can and has gone too far at times and when it does, can lead to disastrous consequences.
In the end, I hope that just as many of our cultural traditions teach us, Asian Americans should strive to achieve balance with these different elements of determination and reflexivity in our lives.