I’m sick of the ‘model minority’ designation, and so are other Asian Americans. It’s time to define our own identities

People who don’t know its history think the model minority myth assigned to Asian Americans has positive connotations. After all, on the surface, it is tied to success and achievement which are usually considered desirable. But, most of us who sit under this given identity don’t see it as beneficial or liberating. We find it a constricting and confining designation put upon first-generation Asian immigrants decades ago that feels in so many ways harder to wear in the here and now. After waiting patiently for so long, we are finally in a rare moment where a rewrite is possible, so we can pen success, and define our own identities, on our own terms.

My parents came to the United States from Kerala, India in the late ’60s, with strong educations but not much else. They had few resources and very little savings when they moved to Parma, Ohio. It was only as I watched the 2006 movie The Namesake, the first story I’d ever seen depicting the rift between first- and second-generation immigrants, in my thirties, that I finally understood my feelings of being misunderstood and not belonging were universal, and not unique to me. It was the first time I could begin to imagine the displacement my parents must have felt as they searched for signs of their old home in their new lives.

I still remember sitting crowded on my couch, my parents next to me, hoping for some type of breakthrough in our challenged relationship as we watched the movie together. And, we had one. After the movie ended, Amma, my mom, shared that her move to the U.S. was frightening in the ways depicted in the movie. She had never shared her story with me before. Amma had never been outside of India when she boarded a plane by herself dressed in a sari and a lightweight sweater. She froze, not used to the air conditioning on the airplane, and had no idea what to do when she had to transfer planes in Paris. When she arrived in Ohio, in her sandals and sari, she was surprised my father hadn’t thought to bring a winter coat or boots for her to meet him in the snow. Picturing how she must have felt, the juxtaposition of excitement and disappointment feels so palpable as I sit here now in my home in Sherman Oaks, California.

It’s this very personal dimension of the story that gets lost when we label immigrants like my parents, and the Asian community as a whole, a “model minority,” this ideal way to be a newcomer—conscientious, diligent, law abiding, and agreeable. While appearing innocuous, the label encourages people to assume we came to this country with all the necessary components to be successful hidden away in our suitcases—and diminishes the challenges and obstacles we have had to negotiate to rise and even survive. Even amongst my parents, who each have nine siblings, the range of education, training and income varies greatly. Some have graduate degrees, some never finished college.

Besides the obvious issue that the model minority trope paints almost 60% of the world’s people under a monolith, it reduces us to hard workers and meek appeasers. I think about the milk toast my mother would feed us when we were little and our tummies hurt. Palatable, easy to digest, but boring. We have been encouraged to be invisible, conform, lose and give away our edges in the same way the toast turned to mush and disappeared in the milk.

And it’s not just inaccurate; it’s harmful. It sets us up against other communities who have been hurt, sidelined, and marginalized as the group to aspire to and serves as “the racial wedge,” weakening our combined solidarity and strength as a political force. As I have dug deeper into the term, I’ve learned that selective immigration policies in the ’60s and ’70s, admitting only specific degree holders and people with targeted skill sets, set the stage for the “model minority” labeling, and then a desire to discourage political participation reinforced it.

Like other immigrants around us, my parents adhered to the model minority pattern of assimilation publicly, but simultaneously expected us to code-switch privately, holding onto our otherness through food, language, and community gatherings. This left me feeling I was never Indian enough at home and yet never quite American enough outside our family.

Growing up, I saw my parents as conformists and rule followers, acquiescing to the model minority narrative imposed on them. They left their home country with crystalized but antiquated ideas on gender, culture, and customs like marriage. As many of their peers in India modernized their thinking and relaxed their philosophies, the U.S. immigrants of my parent’s generation held on to their “old India” thinking, like the parents in The Namesake, still locked into the norms of the ’40s and ’50s even as customs evolved. Their abundance of caution and overbearing rules felt like weakness to me growing up.

On top of the dance of identity, my parents tied our worth to success and stability and pushed us toward Ivy League educations and professional jobs, indoctrinating us with the ideas that playing “nice,” working hard and producing wasn’t about compromise, it was the price of admission for being an immigrant in America.

They regularly reminded us of what they lost and who they left behind while imploring us, guilting us really, to comply with the painted characters of the model minority myth so that we could live out the American dream. But like many, they never hit pause and questioned who was doing the dreaming and the price we might pay for those dreams.

It may be that my parents, and other immigrants like them, understood the price they were paying to chase their dreams when they came to the U.S. They were resigned and didn’t carry the cognitive dissonance that I, as a second-generation Indian American, do.

They didn’t see that teaching us to play into the model minority lure—to assimilate to survive, to tone down our differences to blend in, to choose hiding—set me up at a crossroads with them and even with myself. I was single, opinionated, and headstrong, never one to hold my tongue, do as I was told, or sit in my place. I often felt lost about my identity, deeply questioning who I was as I navigated the world without realizing that my resentment came from wanting to be more at ease with who I was versus what was expected of me.

In the end, I was successful by many of their standards. I have three prominent degrees, I was one of the youngest women—and the first Indian American woman—to partner at Deloitte, and I have a best-selling book hailed by news outlets like the Financial Times. Yet, even in achievement, my family remained circumspect since no matter what I accomplished I never met the objectives of their traditional Indian beliefs. In rebellion to their teachings and opinions, I learned to question everything.

I, and many others, have collectively begun to acknowledge the price tag—the shame, pain, and isolation—of being the so-called model minority and the lines it makes us draw within. Playing small and staying quiet may come with certain protections, but it also comes at a cost.

I can’t help but reflect on how difficult it is to emerge from this designation assigned to us. The model minority label is inadequate for first-generation immigrants, and it’s an impossible set-up for the rest of us who are left chasing a nebulous construct.

Most Asian Americans I interview don’t see themselves as the model anything. No one talks about deference, waiting your turn, or even looking the other way. They may talk about cultures of respect and about the virtue of being humble, but in the same stories, they speak of lineages of wisdom and about being warriors. We come from cultures and histories of strength, battle, art, and culture.

Those of my generation and after share story after story about how many of the topics they grew up hiding around their identity are now en vogue. From yoga to ayurveda, from martial arts to spicy chili sauce, so many of the distinctions people of my generation hid are now front and center, and yet we feel an elevated level of collective invisibility as a group navigating America. It’s only in the last few years that we are finally seeing Asian Americans as main characters in their own right.

I have been reading about how speaking up and speaking out, showing up with pride and a healthy dose of defiance, are the new acts of rebellion and civil disobedience. The order of the day isn’t censorship, or political correctness; it’s the courage to be our whole self, and in turn to inspire others to do the same.

I want us to reclaim, rewrite, and reimagine the model minority trope. It’s time we define for ourselves what it means to be Asian American. We aren’t one thing, we are many things.

Just like Gogol, the main character in The Namesake, as I grow older and wiser, I have a greater appreciation for the migration chronicle, the love story, and the life history of my parents. I can now see that my parents were from a generation of rebels and rule breakers even though American culture doesn’t see them that way. They left everything behind to enter the unknown.

If I could tell my parents’ generation one thing, it would be I hope now, in your golden years, you too can find joy, you can slow down, you can rest, you can have a voice. You can shift from conforming, performing and obeying the model minority myth to survive, to writing your own stories to thrive. That is my wish for all of us and especially my wish for you.

Deepa Purushothaman is the founder of the re.write—an unconventional think tank advancing a new story of work—and an executive fellow at Harvard Business School. She is also the author of The First, the Few, the Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America.

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