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Asian Americans Under the Model Minority Gaze PDF Print E-mail
By Tojo Thatchenkery
International Association of Business Disciplines National Conference
March 31, 2000



A perception exists that Asian Americans in the United States have overcome the various cultural, racial, and social barriers to advancement and have established themselves as a successful "model minority." This paper looks into the various aspects of this stereotype and shows how a good part of it is a myth. In organizational settings, under the constant gaze of being perceived as the model minority, more is expected out of Asian Americans. Yet, from an organizational politics and power point of view, they end up becoming an invisible and forgotten minority reaching impenetrable glass ceiling at the middle management level. This paper explores the paradox of being a model and invisible minority all at the same time.


Asian Americans have "made it" in America. That’s what the media and the general public believes. Asian Americans are a "model" minority because they are thought to have overcome the cultural, racial, and social barriers to advancement and have established themselves as a successful group. It is perceived that by hard work, diligence, entrepreneurship, and discipline they have succeeded educationally, occupationally, and professionally in America. Other minorities are asked to learn from the Asian American experience and emulate their successes.
The primary source of the model minority myth is the impressive educational achievement among Asian American students at all levels (Thatchenkery & Cheng, 1997; Friedman & Krackhardt, 1997). For example, among the Westinghouse Science Talent Search Award recipients each year is about 30 to 40% Asian Americans, though as an ethnic group they comprise only of 4% of the U.S. population. Similar disproportionately high representations are found among the other science awards such as the Tandy’s and Intel’s as well. Asian Americans are over-represented among the top performers in SAT, G.M.A.T, and G.R.E. Further, in these tests Asian American students typically score higher than all other groups, including Caucasian Americans.
 Asian Americans had the highest graduation rate among all ethnic groups in 1995, the most recent year for which data were available. Graduation rate for Asian Americans was 65 percent, followed by white students (59 percent). The number of Asian Americans in higher education has more than doubled between 1984 and 1995, from 390,000 to 797,000 (Thatchenkery & Cheng, 1997). Similarly, Asian- American women have doubled the number of degrees they have earned in each category since 1985 (Tang, 1997). Asian Americans also earned 19.9 percent more doctoral degrees in 1995 than in 1994, the largest one-year increase among the four major ethnic minority groups. The number of Asian Americans earning doctorates has more than doubled since 1985 (Tang, 1997).

Are Asian Americans a Model Minority?

The exceptional showing by a small percentage of Asian Americans in educational testing should not imply that it is dispersed equally among the entire ethnic group. According to an Educational Testing Service (ETS) research (Kim, 1997), the notion that Asian-Americans as a group are blessed with almost universally excellent scholastic abilities is a myth that has done a disservice to a diverse population. According to her study, Asian Americans represent a mixture of extremely successful students who have attained higher education and a large undereducated class, creating a bimodal distribution. Kim studied 12th grade students from six major Asian-American ethnic groups (Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, South Asian and Southeast Asian descent) and found large variation in their educational backgrounds and achievements. According to her, contrary to the stereotype, many Asian Americans are undereducated and have low socioeconomic status. They are diverse cultures representing over three billion people in many countries and cultures. The myth of them all being educational high achievers has kept many from needed students services and support. As a result, Asian-Americans receive less poverty assistance and welfare than the general population and are more likely to experience a discrepancy between their education and income.

Model Minority Gaze in Industries and Organizations

Asian-American entrepreneurship is mostly visible by the over-representation they hold in industries or neighborhoods that "native" entrepreneurs shun as undesirable (e.g. lower income, communities of color). According to Ong (1993), Asian-American entrepreneurship is largely limited to "backward" and "declining" industries that are characterized by informal organization and hyper-exploitative working conditions (There is a new exception, namely, small information technology companies where Asian Americans have made significant progress during the last five years).
The model minority perception has found its way into corporate America as well (Cheng & Thatchenkery, 1997). Several studies (summarized in Uba, 1994, and Thatchenkery & Cheng, 1997) have shown that white managers perceive Asian Americans as the model minority who are modest, polite, soft spoken, non-confrontational, diligent, agreeable, flexible, well-educated, hardworking, intelligent, quantitatively minded, and less complaining. They are also perceived as keen on maintaining harmony in relationships, placing group interests over individual interests, duties over rights, accommodating, conciliatory, blending in with groups rather than distinguishing oneself through either good or bad behavior, withholding free expression of feelings, refraining from openly challenging others’ perspective, and placing high importance for fulfilling obligations.
The model minority perception is a myth in corporate America too. Though Asian-Americans are the most educated group in the engineering workforce, they earn 18% less than native-born Caucasian Americans (Tang, 1993). Asian Americans fill only 0.3% of top positions in Fortune 500 firms. The ratio in 1990 for Caucasian officers and managers to professionals was 0.54 (19,902 to 36,747), almost twice as high as the ratio for Asian Americans at 0.28 (Park, 1996). The 1995 Glass Ceiling Commission's report has powerfully documented discrimination in hiring practices, salaries, and advancement for Asian Americans, notwithstanding the fact that the group has the highest level of educational attainment of any group in the United States.
One study found that the return on investment (ROI) on education for Asian-Americans is significantly less compared to Caucasian Americans. An addition of a college degree or higher produces a gain of $4,349 for Caucasian Americans, $1,936 for Chinese Americans, and $1,297 for Indian Americans (Barringer, Takeuchi, & Xenos, 1990). Similarly, Asian American men earn less than comparable Caucasian American men do (Duleep & Sanders, 1992). Yet another study found that native-born Asians had incomes that were proportional to those of Caucasian Americans but that they held fewer managerial positions and were less likely to be promoted than equivalently educated Caucasian Americans (Tang, 1993). Studies have shown that even among immigrant Asians who have been in the United States for long periods of time and among native-born Asians, there still exists evidence of lower returns to education than for European Americans. Among the highly educated, European Americans are more likely to be in supervisory positions, whereas Asian Americans are more likely to be in professional positions (Kim & Lewis, 1994).

Social Capital and the Model Minority

Asian Americans see investing in education as the most appropriate means to achieve social mobility. They believe that human capital generated by superior education will translate into career advancement. Human capital translates into improved career by producing greater social capital. Friedman & Krackhardt (1997) have reported that the ability of organizational members to translate education into social capital is enhanced by being in the dominant group within an organization and diminished by being in one of the non-dominant groups. As a result, they indicated that Asian Americans are less likely to be able to turn human capital into social capital. Friedman & Krackhardt also found that there were lower returns on education for Chinese and Asian Indians than for Caucasian Americans in terms of managers’ assessment of career potential. Further, analysis of their data from the computer services division of a major bank that was staffed by a sizable number of immigrant Asians showed that education translated into work team centrality (a measure of who is most sought after in a group) only for Caucasian Americans (Friedman & Krackhardt, 1997). The "best" education (degrees from prestigious universities) doesn’t typically translate into career growth for Asian Americans.

Asian American Experience

The Asian American experience in corporate America is a paradoxical one. The model minority perception has created career advancement difficult for the group as a whole. An expectation of superior performance places tremendous pressure on most Asian Americans. Living up to that image is often a burden than a blessing. Further, the model minority perception has boundaries that confine Asian Americans to non-managerial or non-leadership positions. The Asian is bright and intelligent but not leadership material, according to the stereotype. This explains the fast career advancement they make from entry-level jobs to middle management. Transition to the next level is almost impossible for Asian Americans. This glass ceiling has its roots purely on ignorance than reality because Asian Americans have proved that they are highly entrepreneurial by their successes in starting small firms and growing them. Yet, when they join an institutional setting, they are stereotyped as not having leadership skills.
As the Glass Ceiling Commission report showed, the most compelling reason for creating opportunities for breaking the glass ceiling is the bottom-line. Diversity makes organizations more competitive. It is in the interest of an organization’s long-term growth and survival that its diverse and talented employees stay and not leave to work for the competition. This has become very demonstrable in high technology industries. Asian Americans constitute 20-40 % of several well-known blue-chip information technology companies. Most of them are at the entry level or near middle level positions. Due to the high demand for information technology professionals many of them have started leaving to join small firms where they get more freedom, autonomy, and stock ownership. Large organizations have woken up to this new development and have started offering leadership positions and other incentives to Asian Americans to avoid this exodus.


There are serious implications of the model minority perception. At the public policy level, the perception gives ammunition to those who argue that Affirmative Action is unnecessary. At the organizational level, employers who regard Asian Americans as the model minority may exploit them. Park (1996) has shown that human resource managers in Silicon Valley saw Asian Americans employees as expendable workers who may be hired and fired at will since they would take what is offered, are too passive to complain, and file less wrongful termination lawsuits.
In 1998, there were only 65 Asian American board members at the 1,000 biggest public companies, which accounted for less than 1% of the directorships. Asian Americans have indeed become the "invisible minority." Between 1971 and 1997, there were 8403 studies on women and career development, 101 studies on African Americans and career advancement, but just 4 studies on Asian Americans and career advancement (Korn/Ferry International, 1999)! Not surprising, in a way, when we consider how deep-rooted is the model minority stereotype. If Asian Americans are a "model" to others why would they need anything? Therein lies the biggest challenge to the Asian American community: To persistently and persuasively work to change the model minority perception. Asian Americans should be treated just like any other ethnic groups, that is, people with different skill levels and accomplishments.


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Uba, L. Asian Americans: Personality Patters, Identity, and Mental Health. New York: Guilford, 1994.. Quote this article on your site

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+1 #1 2010-06-21 09:24
I totally agree that Chinese Americans are polite. Now there are more and more companies like to use Chinese Americans employees because they have good personalities.

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