In my last post, I presented the historical foundation of the Indian American Identity and left off at how our cultural mindsets perpetuate the model minority myth that is pinned on to us. This concept of the model minority, the myth that is spun and kept up in society, and its reality are all topics that hit home for me on a very personal level. I know I am a member of the Indian American model minority group. The majority of us reap some benefits from the positive stereotypes that are assumed by those around us; many of them even hold true in our lives. But, still, in many ways, the Indian American reality is very different from what the stereotypical life of model minorities is supposed to be.
So, today, I want to dig deeper into the details of this myth and its dangers. At this point in American history, the model minority label has been placed on various subgroups of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans. We are generally stereotyped about our success in American society, our hard work, and our invisibility in dialogues about minorities. On it’s surface, being called a “model minority” might sound like a good thing. After all, being the “model” or the ideal for anything sounds like an honor!
But, beyond the surface, we are “show-and-tell” pieces that people bring out when they need to claim that racism and colonial attitudes of White supremacy can’t be the real reason for systemic inequities and injustices in America. We are contrasts to claim that Black Americans (and other historically established disadvantaged minorities) aren’t successful because they don’t want to work hard enough.
Many of us “model minorities” have been able to blend into the existing arrangements of American society without causing even a ripple in its fabric. We are the “model” because we don’t seek to alter the “American” (White) storyline. As model minorities, we “accept” White supremacy as the status quo. We have been able to use the widespread post-colonial mindset of “integration but not inclusion” to create our own communities and flourish within them. In fact, our success as a model minority helps promote the stereotype of the American dream as much as it keeps us from addressing our internal prejudices. To me, it is pure irony that in a span of just 50 or so years, some of those very people who were systematically and categorically excluded from even setting foot in America suddenly became twisted proof of “racial equality”.
The Foundations of the Indian American Model Minority Myth
The Asian Model Minority Myth in America dates back to the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and early 1960s. By this time, those Japanese who were allowed into the United States (after they were in internment camps during World War II), had quietly and successfully achieved financial stability in America. As immigration policy reforms opened America to Asians, a steady and large influx of skilled, educated migrants from all parts of Asia, including India, began. Their selective immigration allowed them to prosper in this country. For many of them, their advantages in their native nations allowed them access to means and opportunities to create their own niches within the larger American society.
In the midst of debates about equal rights, this large group of educated, and successful Asian immigrants began to be mentioned as exemplary cases that relied only on their persistence to accomplish the American dream. They began to be used to as “counter points” to Black Americans, and any other minorities who protested the inequalities and inequities in their lives. They became the “model minority” groups. The implication here was that other minority groups would also succeed if only they were more like these “model” groups, regardless of the reality of their histories and circumstances.
What is the Indian American Model Minority Myth?
Indian professionals in particular were praised for being highly intelligent and having a stellar work ethic. We were admired for our stable, traditional, two-parent family dynamics. We were applauded for how well we fit into the dominant American (White) picture. Many of us even changed our names and religions to be able to fit into this structure. We were commended for achieving success with intelligence, grit, determination and persistence. In fact, when we were overlooked for any opportunities, we were known to work harder to prove ourselves, without complaint. We were used as shining examples of those who gave to their communities and society without asking for much in return.
Even now, we are painted as paragons of family stability, educational excellence and professional expertise. We are assumed to be financially comfortable and stable if not upwardly mobile. Indian Americans are thought to fit well into society without asking too many questions or being troublesome. We are characterized as successful, hard-working, and agreeable. We do keep our noses to the ground and conform, which helps us in many ways. And naturally, we try to avoid anything that might jar this image of perfection that gives us our good reputation and blessed invisibility in largely conflicted society.
The problem with the Indian American model minority trope (or any model minority for that matter) is that it doesn’t present a complete picture of the cultural group. Since America has allowed Asian immigration, educated, skilled and previously privileged immigrants aren’t the only ones who migrated. We also have a significant minority of low-skilled workers who immigrated here truly hoping to find their “rags to riches” story. Many moved here to escape the social and religious conflicts in a recently Partitioned India. In a sense, they were cultural refugees, with no other place to make their homes. Many of these people also brought their families with them, or sent for them as soon as they could.
The Indian American model minority myth excludes all of these people and more. Stereotypes about Indian Americans don’t include anyone who is not a well-educated, financially comfortable, legally settled heterosexual medical doctor, lawyer, or engineer/IT professional. And, we make up only 1% of the American population. So, at a quick glance from the outside, it might be easy to mistake that most, if not all the stereotypes about Indian Americans are true. But it is the quickness of this glance that we get that also makes model minority stereotypes so dangerous for our community.
The Indian American Model Minority Myth blurs our internal diversity.
It doesn’t allow us to represent the Indian-American community and its needs accurately. It turns us into mere “tokens” of our group. This myth minimizes the real voices and lives of all the people who don’t fit into its mold – anyone who is not a doctor, engineer or lawyer, single parents, people who are not highly educated, single parent families, low-income families, people with learning and cognitive disabilities, the entire LGBTQA community, illegal Indian immigrants, and others. Right now, many of these narratives are either missing completely, or are not being represented enough, in almost any national conversation about inclusion, because of the influence of this model minority myth.
The Indian American Model Minority Myth is a two-headed monster.
We have to contend with being “model Indian Americans”, and with being “model Indians” within our Indian communities. In addition to being the targets of stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination from America, we impose an entirely different layer of stereotypical expectations and prejudices on people within our communities. The “model” Indian American is thought to be someone who is able to show their “Indianness” in as many ways as they can.
Model Indian Americans are stereotypically those who can speak English and at least one Indian language (stereotypically, Hindi) fluently. We are typically doctors, engineers or lawyers. Marrying another Indian person used to be a requirement of this group, but these days, it is only a very strong recommendation. Model Indian Americans take part in religious activities, and wear the latest Indian fashions to Indian events. We enroll our kids in as many Indian cultural activities as we can. Our kids can speak English and an Indian language (again, stereotypically, Hindi but really, our native language), although maybe not as fluently (extra points if they can though!) We don’t have any “experience” with relationships, but we have picture perfect marriages. We stick to traditional gender roles and identities and we do not get divorced. Within the larger American society where a skinny body with an exotic tan (but not Black) face is beautiful, the Indian American model minority myth still promotes “fair and lovely” (and skinny) ideals and skin lightening rituals. We strive hard to typify the perfect Bollywood blend of our Indian and American cultures.
Of course, most of us who do these things (except skin lightening, perhaps) do so because we love embracing and expressing our Indian heritage. But there are also many Indian Americans who strongly and proudly identify with our cultural heritage, yet do only some or none of these things. We defy the stereotypes and the myth, yet are equally, if not more affected by their distance from the “model minority” ideal. In the midst of all of this conformity and keeping up with the stereotypes, we neglect to consider the effects of these stereotypes, prejudices and pressures on our health and sanity.
The Indian American Model Minority Myth stunts our growth.
The pressure to meet the “perfection” of this model minority life turns many of us into hyper-competitive, anxious and frustrated people with never-ending to-do lists. Almost everything in life becomes only a means to an end, to keep up this external façade of perfection. Many of us deal with regular existential and identity crises. We don’t seem to be able to make sense of what we really want in life until we have a major life crisis, because we’re never taught to think about that. We don’t (or can’t) talk to anyone about it, because we’re either taught not to air our dirty laundry, or to stop thinking about such silly things. Our immigrant parents give us their formula for success, and most of us follow it because it is a sensible choice. But, a lot of us chase these dreams from a place of fear – a real and tangible fear of failing to living up to the model minority expectations; in the Indian American culture, that just might be the worst type of failure. We are the worst ranked Asian immigrant group for utilizing mental health services, and considering the stereotypes about the other Asian model minorities, that’s saying a lot!
Buying into this model minority myth is dangerous to us on personal and group levels. It diminishes our capacity to realize what our true potential as an independent human being is. When we conform to some “prescribed ideals” of how others perceive us, over time, we can’t see ourselves or shape our own growth beyond the stereotypes. When we get caught up in stereotypes, our focus stays on constantly proving them right or wrong.. We forget to see that we might be far more than just another good Indian American token.
Unraveling the Myth is a step towards inclusion.
The model minority myth keeps us confined to the restrictions of all the comparisons we deal with in life. Because we are supposed to be the “models”, we compare ourselves, and are used to being compared by others, often unfairly. We internalize these comparisons without question. It keeps us from honestly addressing our prejudices and our problems with them internally within our subculture, and externally, within the overall American culture.
As a community, I think our conversation about inclusion, equality and equity has to start by looking at some of our internal prejudices, and many of us are already having these conversations. But, just not enough and not openly. We cannot represent ourselves well and grow well if we can’t acknowledge our privileges and address our problems. I have my ideas about what I think some of our biggest internal prejudices are, and why I think they’re stunting our potential in my next post. But, I am curious.
What do you feel are the prejudices we have towards other Indian Americans internally within our communities? And how do you think we might be able to help ourselves build more inclusive communities? I’d love to hear from you!