Asians and the "Model Minority" Myth

Apr 22, 2013

Asian Americans have been dealing with the "model minority" myth for decades. And it's playing a role in high suicide rates. The idea of Asians as a model minority dates back to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Scholars began publishing articles that argued against themes of social reform.

"It was used to point to people of color who were not Asian Americans to say, 'Look Asian Americans are doing it on their own. They have the right cultural stuff. They work hard. They have the good educational values, they have strong family values. So, that really discredits the idea that there is anything as structural inequality,'" said Eliza Noh, a professor of Asian American Studies at California State University, Fullerton.

Speaking recently in Hartford, Noh said the idea of Asian success is far from the truth in many cases and focuses on people from China, Japan and Korea. And worst of all, she says, its backlash has contributed to a startling suicide rate among Asian Americans, one that touched her personally. "My sister committed suicide during college. In that time, it was in the '90s, early '90s. And in that time, I ended up wanting to find out more."

So, she conducted her own study of Asian American women across the country. And by the early 1980s, the Centers for Disease Control began collecting data on suicides. Over a nearly 30 year period, Asian females had the highest suicide rate across all races in three age groups ranging from girls to seniors. And suicide is second leading cause of death for Asian American women ages 15 to 24 and Asian men ages 15 to 34.

Some of the women Noh studied said pressure of living up to a successful image played into their own attempts at suicide. This myth has lead to depression and makes students vulnerable to bullying. It is dangerous because it creates the idea: "That Asian Americans are a healthy minority, that they don't have social problems."

The Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission in Hartford says there's only one clinic focuses on the needs of the more that 150,000 people of Asian decent living in Connecticut. The commission is hoping to combat stereo types that Asian Americans don't need help and destigmatize conversations about suicide.