May is both Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month and Jewish American Heritage Month, among others. The two seemingly different groups not only share a May Heritage Month, they have more in common than meets the eye—unfortunately, including discriminations faced by both groups in America. Many instances of anti-Asian sentiment and antisemitism stem from the incorrect perception of these groups having advantages that they don’t actually have—the “model minority” myth.
“Model minority” is a term used to describe a minority demographic perceived to achieve a higher socioeconomic success than the average population. This success is generally measured in educational attainment, representation in certain professional occupations, household income and other socioeconomic indicators, which are then used as benchmarks for other minority groups and outgroups. These sweeping stereotypes which reduce racial groups into caricatured monoliths generate an image of a “model minority” that is law-abiding, hard-working and assimilated in ways that other groups are not perceived to be.
The rise in anti-Asian sentiment exemplifies the dangers of the model minority myth. Whereby the reputation of the Asian community in the U.S. has grown to be one of success and achievement—their cuisines and cultures enjoyed, their languages taught in schools—Asians categorically remain foreign and “other.” The violence so readily launched against the Asian community despite being lauded as a “model minority” exposes this true falsehood—that no matter the success attained, they will forever be “other.”
Further, the model minority myth completely reduces a diverse population to fit a simplified stereotype. Asian Americans have the widest income gap and some of the highest rates of poverty in the country, struggles made invisible by the model minority myth. By disguising these gaps and needs for support within the Asian community the model minority myth makes invisible the struggles of many.
Incidents of antisemitism have been on a steady increase over the past decade, with most recent surveys indicating that 2019 saw some of the highest rates of violent attacks against Jewish communities and 2020 brought an increase in online harassment. Furthermore, antisemitic incidents in the past two weeks at the time of this blog post have increased 75% compared with the previous two weeks.* Motivation for these incidents is steeped in the model minority myth, with many instigators believing that Jews have disproportionate power over government, media and financial structures. Both sides of the political spectrum are known to engage in antisemitism due to this belief, leaving Jewish communities isolated and with few allies.
Furthermore, Jews—particularly Ashkenazi Jews who make up most of American Jewry—have historically been viewed as “conditionally white”—too white to be people of color but too “other” to benefit from white privilege consistently. This in betweenness is also indicative of the model minority myth at play. It puts Jews on an imaginary pedestal and then proceeds to attack them for being there.
Allyship and Solidarity
Not only does the model minority myth harm the Asian and Jewish communities directly by casting generalizations and disguising the need for social support, it also drives a racial wedge between these and other ethnic groups. The perception of collective Asian and Jewish success has the effect of trivializing the role racism plays in the struggles of other ethnic minority groups, based in the comparison of what is in essence a constructed racial stereotype. The pitting of groups against each other, and isolation of communities through this comparison is also damaging.
The invisible wedge of the model minority myth is why is it all the more important that we stand together and support each other in breaking down stereotypes. Intersectionality and allyship are both central to the success of anti-discrimination work. It is important for us to stand with each other’s communities and with other minority communities against the model minority myth and all forms of discrimination, and to continue to break down generalizations about these groups.
Every minority group is affected by negative stereotypes and prejudiced societal systems, and by confronting stereotypes—within our communities and workplaces—we can help build a culture of diverse allyship and solidarity, which in turn will increase the sense of belonging at work and employee retention.
First and foremost, it is important to recognize minority groups, which we can accomplish by acknowledging cultural and historical moments and listening to the voices of our colleagues within these groups. Secondly, we must call out generalizations and stereotypes when we see them and stand in solidarity with each other’s communities both within the walls of our organization and outside of them. Thirdly, we can help our clients follow in our footsteps by guiding them to approach identity issues with nuance and insight.
By facilitating these conversations and knowledge-sharing, we can begin to break down the invisible walls that divide us and support each other to create real change.
*This blog post has been updated to reflect updated statistics on antisemitic incidents as of May 27, 2021.