Haas Voices: How the ‘model minority’ myth hurts Asian Americans

Haas Voices is a new first-person series that highlights the lived experiences of members of the Berkeley Haas community. 

Undergrad student photos
L-R, clockwise: Erinn Wong, BS 21, Mia Character, BS 20, and Vivian Feng, BS 24.

The myth of the “model minority” stereotypes Asian Americans as a polite, law-abiding, hard-working group that’s overcome discrimination to achieve educational and career success through drive and innate talent—typically in math and science.

The myth defies the fact that the Asian American community is diverse socioeconomically and culturally. The perception of the Asian community as a monolith is also the reason why people remain mystified by anti-Asian racism, says UC Berkeley alumna Hua Hsu, who wrote in the New Yorker recently that the “needs and disadvantages of refugee communities and poor Asian Americans have been obscured.”

Recently, several high-profile incidents of violence against Asians have shone a spotlight on long-simmering anti-Asian racism, and also highlighted the way the “model minority” myth has been used as a wedge between Black and Asian communities. We talked to two undergraduate students who are Chinese American, along with a recent undergraduate alumna who is Black, about what the myth means to them and how it impacts their lives.

The students also created a list of Asian American resources on campus and beyond.

Our interviewees:

Erinn Wong, BS 21, who grew up in Sacramento. Wong is a queer Chinese American; her parents are from Hong Kong.

Vivian Feng, BS 24, a freshman in the Berkeley Haas Undergraduate Global Management Program who grew up in Oakland. Feng is Chinese American and a graduate of Oakland High School.

Mia Character, BS 20, a native of Gretna, Louisiana, grew up in Redlands, Calif. She is now a recruiting coordinator at Robinhood via contract with AppleOne.

When did you first hear the term “model minority?” 

Erinn Wong
Erinn Wong

Erinn Wong: I first heard the term back in high school. I thought it meant to stereotype Asians as hardworking, good at math and education—that somehow we work hard and we succeed and it was very much aligned with the meritocracy myth. I really bought into that and internalized it growing up, believing that if you work hard, you’ll be successful. It wasn’t until college that I was able to put two and two together and recognize that these stereotypes are rooted in anti-Blackness and white supremacy to show that Asian Americans are the “model minority” and to situate Black Americans as the “problem minority.”

Mia Character: It was probably when I first moved to California from the South that I was first introduced to Asian people and to the stereotypes. I don’t think anyone within my inner circle or family perpetuated these stereotypes, but I did hear them in the media or at school with jokes the kids at school would tell. From early on, I always thought of Asian American students not as competition, but as the ones to emulate because they were really good in their classes and played all these instruments and seem to have it all together. It wasn’t until I got to Cal that I really started paying attention to and listening to other Asian American folks that I learned how dangerous the model minority myth is.

It wasn’t until college that I was able to put two and two together and recognize that these stereotypes are rooted in anti-Blackness and white supremacy to show that Asian Americans are the “model minority” and to situate Black Americans as the “problem minority.” — Erinn Wong, BS 21

Vivian Feng: I’ve been aware of it for so long, but I didn’t really put a name to it. When I first heard it, I just thought of the stereotypical views of how Asians are better at math and internalized the belief that if I worked hard enough, I would be able to achieve success. But I never really talked about it until high school, when I fully embraced my identity.

How did your thoughts about the model minority change once you got to Berkeley?

Mia: I think it wasn’t until I got to Cal that I realized that the model minority myth impacts the Asian-American communities a lot more than just a simple “Oh, you’re good at math.” It’s a socioeconomic issue and it’s very systemic. At Cal, I started listening and paying attention and I was able to learn and grow in my understanding. There are groups within the Asian-American community that are disproportionately impacted by things like colorism that I didn’t know about in high school. Everybody has a different experience in America and all minorities face different stereotypes. I think my time at Cal has made me a lot more comfortable having conversations with my Asian friends and asking how they’re doing and how they have been impacted by racism and the systems of oppression that America is built on.

Vivian Feng
Vivian Feng

Vivian: It affected me mentally before even going into Berkeley because I felt like I had to go to Cal to meet expectations. In the end I chose Berkeley because it was the only college that I applied to with a major that lined up with my interests of international development, cross-cultural experiences, and traveling. When I got my acceptance letter, I had some doubts, but I ultimately felt this need to pursue my passion. Being at Haas as a freshman is even more drastically different because most people typically get in their junior year. You have this imposter syndrome. People internalize the model minority myth and say, “You got in, you’re smart. You can get through it, you’ll pass your classes.” But in reality, I don’t feel like that because I am a first-generation college student who went to an under-resourced high school. I do not feel prepared, and I’m literally in a system that wasn’t necessarily designed for me to succeed.

People internalize the model minority myth and say, “You got in, you’re smart. You can get through it, you’ll pass your classes.” But in reality, I don’t feel like that because I am a first-generation college student who went to an under-resourced high school.— Vivian Feng, BS 24

Erinn: Coming to Cal was my first time experiencing being with a larger East Asian population in school. I feel like people lump all Asian Americans together. I went to high school with, and was classmates with, many Hmong students, who are severely underrepresented in higher education and other areas, not to mention Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians. The model minority myth is really destructive. My classmates who were Hmong would either go to community college or work to support their families or go into the military and a few would go to a state college.

I also learned here at Berkeley that the identity and label “Asian American” had radical roots. It was coined by graduate students Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, who formed the Asian American Political Alliance in 1968 at UC Berkeley to bring together Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese students to stand in solidarity. They fought for the self determination and collective liberation of Asian Americans and Third World Peoples, and in the Third World Liberation Front strikes, which led to establishing Ethnic Studies majors at colleges across the U.S. Asian American was a radical label then because it brought together a multi-ethnic, multi-class, and multi-generational coalition of Asians and shifted away from the “Oriental” label. To call yourself an Asian American at the time was a political statement. It’s wild now that Asian American has lost its radical, political roots because of the way it has been wielded by the white mainstream and model minority myth, and then internalized by all of us, to homogenize, invalidate, and erase our struggles and solidarity with each other and other communities of color.

How does the model minority myth hurt you personally?

Vivian: I’m told I’m too aggressive, but I don’t like being quiet when I feel the urge to speak up. I wasn’t engaged politically when I was younger because I had this perception that politics was only for white people. It was just ingrained into my life. Growing up, whenever I brought up politics with my mom, my thoughts were dismissed. It felt like I was talking to a wall. Eventually, I realized that my mom’s lack of political engagement is because of her lack of education while being in survival mode. Many East and Southeast Asians in my community have to worry about their basic necessities before even thinking about studying. As I became more knowledgeable about the model minority myth, I was always told that I was “too political” among my peers.

However, this fueled my desire to stop being a bystander and conforming to societal standards. Our reality is that the model minority myth hurts everyone as it perpetuates white supremacy.

Erinn: I got feedback at two tech corporate internships that I needed to be more confident, even though I thought the way I presented myself was fine, despite struggling with imposter syndrome and confidence at times. At the same time, in other spaces I’d get feedback that I was too strong and too aggressive, something East Asian women face. You’re expected to be submissive, not speak up, and just do what you’re expected to do. And when you do speak up and contribute, you’re seen as too strong, aggressive, bossy, a bitch. It’s the long-standing East Asian stereotypes of East Asian women being docile and exotic, while also being the dragon lady or tiger mom. The term also impacts how much space I take up, because as an East Asian woman, I’m expected to not take up space. The model minority myth compounds that by making me think, “Oh, maybe my struggles are not as marginalized as another person of color and I cannot take up as much space.”

You’re expected to be submissive, not speak up, and just do what you’re expected to do. And when you do speak up and contribute, you’re seen as too strong, aggressive, bossy, a bitch. — Erinn Wong

I’ve heard both East and South Asians say ‘we’re not really people of color,’ which is not true. I think it’s the model minority myth that creates this feeling that we’re not “POC enough.” But something that helped was what Haas alumna Michelle Kim said to me: that we need to think of ourselves as co-strugglers with Black people and other people of color, not as perpetual allies because that’s a white model of allyship. And when I really sat with that and made the connections to how the model minority myth makes me feel shame and guilt for “taking up space,” I saw how it’s white supremacy that makes me feel like I can’t take up space alongside other people of color because white supremacy creates and thrives from scarcity, that there is only enough space for one marginalized group to share their struggles and to thrive.

Mia Character
Mia Character

Mia: As a Black person growing up in a state with a fairly large Asian American population, the model minority myth had an adverse impact on me. It was created to pit Asian American and Black people against one another by saying, “if Asian people can thrive in America and be exceptional and thrive in their roles in our capitalistic society, then Black people should have been able to do it, too.” But if you take a step back and look at the different histories, they aren’t comparable. They don’t need to be compared and contrasted because we faced different kinds of oppression that all stem from white supremacy. Growing up and not understanding this, it was easy to feel like you have to be just as “perfect” to be worthy of respect. That you have to get the best grades, be a part of multiple clubs, and go to the best universities to prove that as a Black person you are worthy.

Growing up and not understanding this, it was easy to feel like you have to be just as “perfect” to be worthy of respect. That you have to get the best grades, be a part of multiple clubs, and go to the best universities to prove that as a Black person you are worthy.—Mia Character, BS 20

How do you think that the model minority myth hurts your community?

Erinn: The model minority myth has real impacts on the Asian community. For example, in tech, East and South Asians are overrepresented in certain departments. But as a whole, we don’t hold a lot of power, which is another reminder that under/overrepresentation is different from marginalization. We are least likely to be promoted to management, and there’s still a “bamboo ceiling.” This can be attributed to people internalizing the model minority and stereotypes of how we’re supposed to just shut up and work hard, or that somehow we don’t have “leadership potential and qualities,” communication skills, or “executive presence.” Southeast Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders are severely underrepresented in tech, and data on Asians is rarely disaggregated.

Beyond tech, Southeast Asians are systemically impacted by deportation, ICE raids, and poverty, Chinatown neighborhoods and Asian-owned businesses have been struggling in this pandemic, and Filipino nurses, Pacific-Islanders, and Native Hawaiians have had some of the highest COVID-19 mortality rates. The model minority myth ignores our struggles and our communities lack sufficient resources and attention. And I learned last year that less than 1% of philanthropic funding goes to Asian American Pacific Islander causes, which proves the model minority myth is at work again.

What are your thoughts about how the myth is connected to the recent anti-Asian violence?

Mia:  This was happening long before Trump, but violence against Asians is never talked about. In some ways I think that’s also part of the model minority myth. We’re taught that because Asian Americans are the “model minority,” they can’t face racism and the violence that comes with it.

Vivian: It’s nothing new. Historically, many fail to recognize xenophobic practices, such as The Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment camps, as well as the murder of Vincent Chin. Asians are never really talked about in our history classes, and if it is, it’s always about East Asians from a divisive Eurocentric perspective.  Now, the main difference is that anti-Asian violence is captured on camera and that more people are open to talking about it in the younger generation. Social media has changed everything in the way we approach politics. The elderly, especially Asians, are either scared or there’s a language barrier and they won’t report the incidents. And at least in Oakland, the violence has happened for as long as I can remember. I know so many people who have been affected by the violence before the pandemic and it’s a shame that it wasn’t recognized until now.

Black History Month: “A time to reflect on the past, assess the present, and plan for the future”

We’re celebrating Black History Month with words and images of members of our Black community.  We asked students and staff what the unique history and achievements of the Black community mean to them, and why taking time to honor the month is so important. Photo illustrations and interviews by Natasha Payés.

Portrait: David Brown-Dawson
Portrait: David Brown-Dawson, MBA 21. Former vice president of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the full-time MBA Association.

David Brown-Dawson, MBA 21, former VP of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,  FTMBA Association

“Black History Month is a time to reflect on the past, assess the present, and plan for the future. It’s a great opportunity to reflect on accomplishments and progress made and the pain endured by Black Americans who came before us. Many times these accomplishments and atrocities were left out of history books.

It’s a great opportunity to reflect on accomplishments and progress made and the pain endured by Black Americans who came before us. Many times these accomplishments and atrocities were left out of history books. —David Brown-Dawson, MBA 21

It’s great to see examples of Black Americans excelling in their respective areas. It’s also an opportunity to see the work being done currently by Black Americans and look inward to identify the actions I am taking to leave a legacy for those who come after me. Lastly, it is an opportunity to identify, discuss, and address the root problems which led to our country needing Black History Month, while ensuring that textbooks reflect both the beauty and accurate history of this country.”

Portrait: Cheukai Makari
Portrait: Cheukai Makari, BS 22. Vice President of the Haas Undergraduate Black Business Association (HUBBA).

Cheukai Makari, BS 22, Vice President of Haas Undergraduate Black Business Association (HUBBA)

“Black History Month represents a time of learning, remembering, and celebrating. Every year, I’m reminded that there is so much to be proud of, yet so much to work toward. I’m reminded of the sheer greatness we hold within ourselves to make our own mark on future Black History Months. I’m reminded of the power of community, especially on this campus, as revolutionary students find ways to come together and uplift each other. This month allows us to look at where we are and acknowledge, highlight, and celebrate the people who paved the way.”

Portrait: D'Juan Wilcher, his wife and son
Portrait: D’Juan Wilcher, EMBA 22, and his wife and son.

D’Juan Wilcher, EMBA 22

“Black History Month reminds me to forge a path and create a legacy for future generations. It’s never lost on me that I’m the product of resilience and unyielding ambition. It’s not lost on me that I carry  the great privilege and responsibility to be a shining example of excellence and humanity for my children and their children.

Black History Month means possibility. Every day of the month, I’m reminded and enlightened about the unimaginable accomplishments of those who came before me. I beam with pride knowing the same imaginative spirit and fortitude courses through my veins.

Black History Month means unity and education. As Dr. King said, ‘All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.’ This is one month of the year in which most people are willing to accept and learn about the endless contributions Black people have made to our society.

Black History Month means unity and educationThis is one month of the year in which most people are willing to accept and learn about the endless contributions Black people have made to our society. —D’Juan Wilcher, EMBA 23

Black History Month means everything to me.”

Portrait: Tiffany Shumate, EWMBA 23
Portrait: Tiffany Shumate, EWMBA 23.

Tiffany Shumate, EWMBA 23

“Black History Month has changed in meaning for me over the years. Before, I saw it as an opportunity to showcase Black Americans’ past contributions to the country. There would be talks about DuBois, Madam CJ Walker, Douglass, Tubman, and all the ancestors we honor today. Their experiences, though related, seemed disconnected from my Black life in America. Though the message was always relevant—Black Lives Matter—I had difficulty relating the stories to my life today. 

In 2018, things shifted. I began to hear the word ‘Afrofuturism‘ to describe Black joy and the possibility of what it means to imagine our community today and 100 years from today. Afrofuturism is more expansive. It connects Black people across the African diaspora and focuses on uplifting a Black identity that exists on its own—instead of in opposition to whiteness. 

Before this, BHM felt like an ode to the past—a reminder of a painful history Black Americans have endured. I like to call it Black Futures Month now, because it flips the frame. I honor our ancestors and use their learnings to build for future generations. My Afrofuturist perspective is inherently rooted in joy for today—what’s more joyful than imagining Black communities healthy and thriving, globally?”

Portrait: Tyrone Wise
Portrait: Tyrone Wise, associate director of Student Experience, Berkeley Haas Full-time MBA Program.

Tyrone Wise, Associate Director of Student Experience for the full-time MBA program

“Black History Month is an opportunity to tell the history of Americans who have oftentimes been misrepresented. As a descendant of slaves, it’s important that I acknowledge and celebrate the leaders who’ve come before me—people like Frederick Douglas, a former slave and prominent abolitionist, as well as the Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first Black military pilots who fought in World War II.  (Being related to a Tuskegee Airman is even more inspiring.)

It’s important that I acknowledge and celebrate the leaders who’ve come before me—people like Frederick Douglas, a former slave and prominent abolitionist, as well as the Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first Black military pilots who fought in World War II. —Tyrone Wise

Their perseverance and drive to create a better country has afforded me the opportunities that I have today. All in all, Black history is my history and it shows me that I can be a leader and create the change I want to see.”

Portrait: Amber Moore Harrold, assistant director of Financial Aid.

Amber Moore Harrold, Assistant Director of Financial Aid

“Black History Month is a time to reflect on how far Black people have come in America and how much further we have to go. This past year has truly shown the world that while we have made progress, we still have a long road ahead. It’s a time to highlight and celebrate Black excellence and the many contributions that Black people have contributed to the fabric of this country. It’s a time to celebrate and honor our ancestors whose shoulders we stand on. It’s a reminder that Black history should be recognized, appreciated, and celebrated every day.”

Portrait: Tamarik Rabb, BS 21
Portrait: Tamarik Rabb, BS 21. President of the Haas Undergraduate Black Business Association (HUBBA).

Tamarik Rabb, BS 21, President of Haas Undergraduate Black Business Association (HUBBA)

“Black History Month represents acknowledging our community’s contributions to society. I love that during this month, Black stories and achievements are amplified. I feel a great sense of pride when learning about our passionate and dedicated advocates, inventors, artists, scholars, and leaders from the past because they’re exemplars of Black excellence. I’m fortunate to have more opportunities, by way of countless Black individuals who found the strength to endure incomprehensible challenges to their bodies, mental health, and culture as a result of deeply-rooted racism. This month will continue to remind me of the work that still needs to be done to increase opportunities for Black people, while providing greater confidence that through both individual and collective efforts, the work can be accomplished.”

Haas Voices: Luis Alejandro Liang on being “paperless, not powerless”

Haas Voices is a new first-person series that highlights the lived experiences of members of the Berkeley Haas community. Our first perspective is by “double Bear” Luis Alejandro Liang, BS 12, EWMBA 23, who is among the approximately 644,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients granted special immigration status because they were brought to the U.S. as children. Liang’s path to Berkeley was challenging—he’s been accepted three times. He shares his story below.

Liang and his motherxico when Liang was 14, celebrate at his 2012 Haas undergraduate commencement.
Liang and his mother, Rosario Garcia, celebrate at his 2012 undergraduate commencement.

Many times over these past four years, I’ve woken up in fear. Fear of deportation. Fear about what was going to happen to our community. Fear that ICE could knock on my door and take me away.

I grew up in Sinaloa on the Pacific coast of Mexico. I’m half Chinese, half Mexican. I grew up multicultural—going to Catholic church on Sundays but celebrating Chinese New Year. I started helping my family in their Chinese restaurant when I was six years old. I was surrounded by entrepreneurs.

When I was 14, my mom moved me and my three little sisters to Orange County because she wanted to provide us with better chances. I entered high school as a sophomore without knowing any English. It was a culture shock, but I wanted to honor my mom’s sacrifices by excelling academically. I was put back in algebra, even though I was taking calculus when we left Mexico. As a senior, I got into a couple of UCs, but my first scholarship was taken away because I didn’t have a social security number.

Liang, an advocate for undocumented immigrant communities, marching to defend DACA at San Francisco’s City Hall in 2017.

So I decided to go to Fullerton College. In high school, I had been really shy because I was new, so I didn’t know anything about things like AP classes or honor society. When I got to community college, I decided to get involved. I joined the Puente Program, which is mostly for Latino students to help get us into four-year colleges. I was really active, working long days because I was also a tutor. The Puente Program gave us a tour of all the UCs. That was the first time that I actually went to visit the campuses.

When I visited Berkeley I fell in love. I remember the Campanile, Sather Gate and thought of all the famous people who went there, including Mexican presidents.

I knew that I wanted to study business. I also knew that I was gay by that time too, and that San Francisco was LGBTQ friendly. I knew I could be myself at Berkeley.

My dream came true when I got accepted to Haas as a junior and received the prestigious Regents’ and Chancellors’ Scholarship, given to the top 2% of students. But when I went to the financial aid office, they again took away my scholarship because I still didn’t have a social security number. I was crying, and the woman who broke the news to me was crying too.

They again took away my scholarship because I still didn’t have a social security number. I was crying, and the woman who broke the news to me was crying too.

I remember seeing the César E. Chávez Student Center in front of me and I just went in and I started walking around. I thought, “If this is César Chávez’s building, there’s going to be a Latino person here who can help me.” I ended up meeting Lupe Gallegos-Diaz, director of the Chicano Department at Berkeley. Lupe became a support for me when I returned to community college more determined to achieve my dreams.

I became more politically active, creating the Fullerton College Dream Team to support undocumented students. In 2010, I got into Berkeley Haas for the 2nd time, having raised $70,000 to cover my tuition.

When I graduated, I was a first-generation Berkeley Haas grad deemed ineligible to work in the U.S. I felt lost, but by then I knew I wasn’t alone. My life took a turn when President Obama passed DACA in 2012, extending opportunities previously unavailable to those of us brought to the U.S. as children. A door of possibilities opened up and led me to a job at Salesforce, helping non-profit organizations leverage technology to amplify their impact.

My life took a turn when President Obama passed DACA in 2012.

Being the first DACA employee at Salesforce motivated me to use my voice in a space where underrepresented groups lack a sense of inclusion. I worked with the chief equality officer on a podcast about diversity and inclusion, served on the leadership board of multiple employee resource groups, and came out of the shadows by sharing my story on a video called “Proudly Me.”

Liang, second from left, with President Obama at the White House in 2013.

In 2013, another dream came true when I traveled to the White House and met President Obama after I received the LGBT DREAMers Courage Award, which honors individuals who have shown courage and perseverance in the face of injustice.

Still focused on social impact at my current job at Twilio, I decided it was time to go back to school for an MBA. I applied to the Berkeley Haas Evening and Weekend MBA program and got into my dream university for the third time, starting last fall. My focus is to become a chief social impact officer and a social leader at a company. In my classes, surrounded by fellow Type As, I’m learning things that I put into practice at my job. I love the community and I can’t wait to get back to campus.

Luis Liang with family
Luis Liang with (left to right) sisters Jeniffer Liang and Marisol Looper (with daughter, Isabella); mother, Rosario Garcia, and sister Janette Liang.

Growing up, I thought  that life would change the day I could finally get my residency—that something would change inside of me and that things were going to be better. But as the years passed, thinking that way made me believe that I was incomplete and something was missing. But being paperless doesn’t make us powerless. We have purpose and an eagerness to give back, by creating communities, by finding the power in helping people. I now find so much joy in helping other “Dreamers” get into school and finding their dream jobs.

But being paperless doesn’t make us powerless. We have purpose and an eagerness to give back, by creating communities, by finding the power in helping people.

There are 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., not by choice, but because we needed to survive. I hope to highlight the narrative of joy, love, and pride that comes from living a life dedicated to serving our families’ and communities’ dreams.”

Luis Liang, an account manager in social impact at communications company Twilio, is passionate about advocating for human rights and supporting Latinx, LGBTQ, and undocumented immigrant communities. Liang has served as a board member for the Association of Latino Professionals for America, The Greenlining Institute Alumni Association, and on several corporate Employee Resources Groups.

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