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What It's Like To Grow Up As A Member Of 'Model Minority'


In 1966, a sociologist coined the term model minority to describe immigrants from Asia. At the time, the quote in The New York Times Magazine had been referring to Japanese Americans. But later, use of the phrase expanded to include most Asian Americans, including those from India. But in the decades since, the words model minority have drawn unfair, even toxic, comparisons by implying that somehow, there are problem minorities. Arun Venugopal has reported extensively on immigration and race for member station WNYC. And he writes in The Atlantic about his own experience as part of this so-called model minority.

Welcome, Arun.


CHANG: So I'm curious. Growing up, when did you first start thinking about the phrase model minority as it applied to you and to your family?

VENUGOPAL: You know, I think even well before you have heard the term, you kind of take on many of the attributes simply by growing up in certain immigrant communities where there is an idea that we are - I guess you could call it the chosen few; that we live the right way. We have the right ethics. We live in a nice neighborhood, as my family did. And, you know, you're destined for good schools, good jobs, having all the right values. These are things you take on from a very early age, depending on your social milieu.

CHANG: And you grew up in this, like, wealthy suburban enclave outside Houston - a place called Piney Point. Can you just, like, paint us a picture? What was it like?

VENUGOPAL: It was heavily forested - all these tall trees and these big homes, sometimes on these one-acre lots. I mean, it just felt like we were kind of lucky. We had this big, gorgeous stucco home with huge windows. We got a dog. And we had a three-car garage and all that stuff.


VENUGOPAL: My parents played tennis even though they were relatively...

CHANG: That is so funny.

VENUGOPAL: ...Fresh off the boat, if you will, right? All that stuff happened (laughter).

CHANG: (Laughter) Well, I mean, like, in the middle of all that, how much of that life did you understand as privilege? Or was it more like - in your head - my parents earned this with their hard work?

VENUGOPAL: I think it's definitely more of the latter. I mean, we have this deep-rooted idea in this country of meritocracy. The myth, if you will, of the model minority is really a way of kind of propagating that idea and saying that if you come to this country, regardless of your background, if you just put in the right amount of work and you have the right values, you can make it. But it also has this flip side, which is that certain people just don't have the right work ethic or the right values, and they don't make it; you know, too bad for them. It was really kind of a racial dodge really.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, do you remember any early conversations with your parents about this phrase model minority?

VENUGOPAL: Oh, definitely. There's a belief in the system which they have entered into as immigrants. They put in the hard work. They came here from far away land with other immigrants like them, who also came from India or other places, you know? And when we moved into this community, I think at some level, we felt like, you know, we'd done right. And I think there was a certain level of naivete about the systems; all that had gone into making this possible for us to sort of move into this neighborhood, to move amongst these people, you know, to take on all the sort of trappings of upper-middle-class life, whether that meant...

CHANG: Yeah.

VENUGOPAL: ...(Laughter) Going to the symphony or the opera, my parents, you know, dressing like other people they knew in tuxedos and gowns, you know...

CHANG: Yeah.

VENUGOPAL: ...And feeling not necessarily like you're one of them but that you had earned the right to be there.

CHANG: You mention that there were certain systems in place that favored immigrants like your parents at that point. But I want to just take a step back for some context. Can you just walk us through how the U.S. government first did discriminate against Asian immigrants and then transitioned to policies that came to favor those Asian immigrants, policies that helped people like your parents and my parents come to the U.S.?

VENUGOPAL: Well, if you go back to the late 1800s, there was a Chinese Exclusion Act. And what followed were decades of discriminatory policies aimed at immigrants from India, China, Japan, Korea. And during the Second World War and in the post-war era, the U.S. started changing its attitudes, cultivating ties with those countries and initiating a series of measures that would bring in more educated, relatively privileged immigrants from some of those countries in ways that had never happened before.

CHANG: Right. You frame that as kind of, like, this social engineering.

VENUGOPAL: Yeah. Yeah, it really was. I mean, we're talking about an incredibly sort of rarified slice of Indian society; you know, people who are the best of the best. They may not have been really wealthier, you know, back in their home countries. But they had social capital. They had intellectual capital. They had the means to travel across the world, come here and land in the suburbs with great jobs. And they really became the cream of the crop in American society as well.

CHANG: Which only helped set in motion the myth of the model minority.

VENUGOPAL: That's right. I can't count the number of times that people have asked me if I know Dr. Patel, you know? (Laughter).

CHANG: (Laughter) Like, no, there are a lot of them.

VENUGOPAL: (Laughter) There sure - there are a lot of Dr. Patels out there. My dad was a doctor. You know, just all these ideas that came out of the popular culture - all the spelling bee winners, all the people who were...

CHANG: (Laughter) Yeah.

VENUGOPAL: ...These IT gurus and, you know, CEOs. All this cumulative weight of this, in many ways, it was very exciting to be part of before you realized there was a flip side to it.

CHANG: Well, you bring up this really interesting point in your piece. You say that the nature of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. has always been different from racism directed at Black Americans.

VENUGOPAL: Well, if we go back to a certain era and even, of course, to this day, we certainly see that racism directed at Asian Americans is alive and well. But the U.S. was really founded not just on the idea of white supremacy but on the idea of anti-Blackness. It is core to our nation's history in a way that the Asian experience never was - or the exploitation of Asian laborers and talent. Even when we talk about things like the yellow peril, going back to an earlier era, that was quite haunting for many people, culminating in experiences like the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans.

But as we can see from the evolution of that, we know there was never as deep-seated as anti-Blackness was in this country. And I think Asian Americans, Asian immigrants, their children, we were used as a wedge - you know, a way to justify the continuation of anti-Blackness and policies, whether it was mass incarceration or racial segregation. So many of the worst elements of American society, we were often held up as sort of the counter example - look; they can do it. Why can't you, too?

CHANG: So ultimately, what do you think on balance? Has the term model minority helped us or hurt us more - people like our families?

VENUGOPAL: You know, model minority is such an alluring term, isn't it? It feels nice to be called a model minority, but why it's called a myth is because it's a very specious concept. And I think that's the hard part. That's the work that goes into sort of discarding these narratives and saying, like, yes, I have and we have in some ways really benefited. We've been allowed to come here, succeed, move into the best neighborhoods in America. But at what expense? At the expense of separating ourselves physically and otherwise from other communities of color and upholding these really malignant ideas about...

CHANG: Yeah.

VENUGOPAL: ...The superiority of certain people over others.

CHANG: Arun Venugopal covers race and immigration for WNYC. His piece "The Making Of A Model Minority" appears in The Atlantic.

Thank you so much, Arun.

VENUGOPAL: Thanks, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOHN'S "SIGNAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.