#ReModelMinority: Considering Disability

50 years ago, New York Times writer William Petersen wrote an article titled “Success Story: Japanese Style” and in it, coined the term “model minority.” Today most of us know what this term means, but in case you don’t, here is a fairly good history of the term and its social and political impact for the last half century.

What I don’t think many people pause to consider is that the model minority myth did not flourish because it was true, or that Asian Americans fully embraced it, but rather because it was beneficial to the racist status quo. Who was writing about the model minority? In 1966, not Asian folks.

More importantly, for whom are we modelling?

I think there are valuable lessons here when we consider how disability fits into the mainstream narrative. What does it mean to “overcome” one’s disability? Or to proclaim that we are only disabled in attitude? Or to applaud examples of average daily tasks as inspirational or against all odds?

50 years since its birth, the model minority myth is not exclusive to the AAPI community. This kind of narrowly elevated yet not equal status is a tool used against the disability community as well. In the Down syndrome parenting world, this manifests as pressure for us to “catch more flies with honey” (i.e. Don’t sound too angry or the discrimination your child faces is your fault) or to be thankful that our children are labeled with positive rather than negative stereotypes.

It is true that yelling and screaming at an IEP meeting will likely not get ideal results. Yet, is the frustration invalid? Why does a parent “breaking nice” relegate a child to fewer educational rights? A bigger question: What does it mean to have IEP proceedings (and its required assessments) for only some children and not all? It is also true that cursing the person at the grocery store who used the r-word is unlikely to make them engage in a meaningful discussion of word choice and ableism. Yet, again, is the frustration invalid? A bigger question: Whose responsibility is it to maintain kind and just behavior?

Regarding positive stereotypes,yes, I suppose I would rather my son be approached with a smile under the mistaken belief that he is “always happy” than he be actively shunned. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that. Because by definition, a stereotype is not something any human being can fulfill, all positive stereotypes lead to failure.

In failure, we see the racism or the ableism for what it is, because the penalties for failure are steeper for the model minority than for his other peers. Growing up I learned to be very wary of men who were romantically interested in me for being Korean. On more than one occasion I have feared for my safety after disappointing a man by not being a submissive “good girl.” Ethan Saylor suffered the fatal consequence of not living up to this model minority phenomenon; three years ago, Saylor died at the hands of the police after failing to be docile or sweet after a miscommunication in a movie theater.

These two examples seem wholly unrelated, but I believe the commonality is powerful. Both are examples of how physically and emotionally dangerous it can be for the majority to dictate the attitudes and behavior of a disenfranchised minority, however “positive” those expectations can seem.

As we strive for a more inclusive society, I think there are valuable lessons in the model minority myth for parents in the disability community. Whose standards are we raising our children to fulfill? What is good for us, the parents, and what is good for our children? What do we do when our interests as parents seem to conflict with our children’s? How could our narrative today impact our children tomorrow?

Let’s have the conversation.

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2 Comments on “#ReModelMinority: Considering Disability”

  1. mevlyn2014 says:

    Thank you for this. I hadn’t considered the consequences for failing to meet the “model minority” expectations. Great connection to disability and very helpful to think about.


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