April 25, 2007

Model minority? A 'myth of the American dream,' says panelist at Asian American discussion

The model minority myth derives from the perception that Asian cultural values of hard work, family cohesion, self-sufficiency and a drive for success propelled recent immigrants into and beyond the American middle class within a generation or two. But three panelists, speaking in McGraw Hall April 20, held that such easy categorization is a gross distortion of reality.

Participating in the discussion, "Deconstructing the Model Minority," Derek Chang, assistant professor of history at Cornell, said the model minority was first popularized 30 years ago in mainstream U.S. media. The perception of one group's achievements was then used to pit Asian Americans against African Americans and other groups. If they can do it, went the argument, why can't you?

"In the last 20 or so years, in particular through Asian studies, these ideas have come under fire," Chang said. "We have associated historically an ethnically diverse group of people under the model minority group: East Asians, Chinese and Japanese Americans, Southeast Asian groups. The model minority papers over ethnic and class diversity within those groups."

The shock that the Virginia Tech shooter was Asian and an English major "raises levels of assumptions," said Alan Gomez, an Ithaca College historian of labor and social movements. "In the 1960s and '70s, people tried to see each other's humanity by working together." He touched on nativism and immigrant backlash. "The model minority is the myth of the American dream," he said. "What are we going to do to stop the perpetuation of allowing ourselves to be divided?"

On the issue of mental health, Asian Americans suffer exactly the same rates of schizophrenia and depression as the general population. The difference comes in access to health services and cultural stigmas against admitting to mental health problems. Dozens of languages, culture shock and post-traumatic stress disorder among refugees contribute to the problem.

"The model minority leads us to distort the health status of the diverse population of Asian Americans," said Pilar Parra, senior lecturer in the College of Human Ecology. She presented statistics that demonstrated the health of some Asian-American groups falls far short of the imagined ideal.

Depending on the specific ethnic groups -- for instance comparing the Hmong and the Japanese -- educational attainment and overall health vary widely. Parra said that because 70 percent of Asian Americans are recent immigrants and the population is aging, health care must be culturally appropriate, and the larger population needs to be sensitized to these issues.

The event was sponsored by the newly formed Asian Political Action Committee, a Cornell student group.