Let’s talk about the model minority myth

Let’s talk about the model minority myth

By Kelvin Fung

I am a son of Chinese immigrant parents from Hong Kong. Though I was born in Toronto, I was raised by my grandparents in Hong Kong until I was school age. When I moved to Canada as a 4 year old, my parents strongly encouraged me to assimilate so I could fit in my classroom and neighbourhood. I was the only Asian kid in my class and I didn’t know English, so trying to fit in was confusing to say the least. In school, I was fortunate to have a dedicated English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher along with my parents who actively practiced with me at home.

Along the way, as I became more accustomed to the Canadian way of life, I lost fluency with my first language, Cantonese and even forgot some Chinese customs. In my early teens, I was embarrassed that I could barely hold a conversation in Cantonese with my visiting relatives from Hong Kong. I would attempt to string a sentence with my broken Cantonese and rely on my parents to be my translators to fill in the gaps. My first language now became a distant second language. I’m very proud of my heritage and in that moment, I realized I didn’t want to lose that part of me, so I made an effort to reconnect with my roots and relearned Cantonese. I felt a sense a validation when I visited the same relatives in Hong Kong and was able to have an easy flowing conversation in Cantonese with them.

I’m Chinese and Canadian. I acknowledge both these aspects of my upbringing and identity. It took the devastating Atlanta shooting incident to make me realize that my larger Asian community was under attack. And more importantly, that we’re not talking about it enough! In the past month, I’ve felt a roller coaster of emotions – sadness, anger, grief, guilt and frustration about the recent horrific events against the Asian community and at times towards those who didn’t feel the need to check in with me or their Asian colleagues. It’s time to call this what it is – Anti-Asian racism and to spread the needed awareness for positive change.

When talking about Anti-Asian racism, a key contributor to it is the model minority myth. The model minority myth is the idea that Asian communities are inherently intelligent, hardworking and polite – and these traits have led Asian communities in western countries to be successful, wealthy and less likely to experience racism compared to other minority groups.

I didn’t know the model minority myth by name, but it has greatly shaped me today. My parents constantly reminded me of it while growing up and into my professional career. I was taught that to be successful I had “to keep quiet, put my head down and work hard”. I made every effort to do so in all my roles and my personal interactions but I recently realized that all it did was further play into the expectations and stereotypes that come with the Asian community. It played out in how my work ethic was taken for granted and in how I was passed over for promotions, formal recognition and compensation even though I was high performing. And when I inquired why, I was told that I needed to work even harder to clearly demonstrate my desire for these results. Growing up in a culture that glorified hard work, this was a confusing response. Unfortunately, a lot of us in the community aren’t comfortable asking why – we’re scared of ‘rocking the boat’. We’re so conditioned to accept the model minority myth that it’s prevented us from breaking this mold we’re put into. Understanding and dismantling it is key to achieving our true and full potential.

This myth is also problematic that it generalizes all Asians and groups us as the same without acknowledging the cultural, economic and social diversity that exists within the community. This casts a wider net for racism and bias, hurting East, Southeast, South Asians and, the Pacific Islander communities. And unfortunately, it pits Asian groups against other BIPOC groups who have been labeled as the problem minority. Racism and hate towards any BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, People of Colour – group is unacceptable. When one BIPOC group is under attack, we’re all under attack and more so than ever, we need to unite to fight this common virus of hate.

I feel driven to spread awareness and share tangible actions with my personal and professional network. Whether you’re a part of the BIPOC community or a supporting ally, here’s a few things that you can do today:

  1. Acknowledge that Anti-Asian Racism exists.
  2. Check in with your Asian friends, family and colleagues to see how they are doing. Be a supportive listening ear for them.
  3. Learn, research and understand the history of Asian immigration and Anti-Asian racism. It will give you perspective on the topic. Raise awareness on the topic with your network and don’t shy away from those difficult conversations.
  4. Seek allyship – “it takes a village” to amplify our voice and speak up to any injustices against our community; asking for help is not a sign of weakness or believing we as a community are unable to do it ourselves.
  5. Donate to local organizations who actively work towards standing up against racism to help those hardest hit. Check out these lists of local organizations on BlogTO and CanadaHelps to get you started.

Kelvin works in process and change management for the Marketing division at the TD Bank Group. He’s a passionate advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion. He started a grassroots Diversity & Inclusion committee in his former department that focused on education and awareness and provided a safe place for employees to share their experiences and to learn how to be better allies. He is now in progress of establishing Lean In Circles for his Asian colleagues and allies in the Marketing division. He is also a mentor with the Toronto Regional Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) supporting new immigrants navigating the Canadian workforce.