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Tackling the Model Minority Myth

Oct/08/2023 / by Brian Sodoma

Author Prachi Gupta addresses a touchy topic in her new memoir

Portrait of South Asian woman with long dark hair
Photo credit: Ruben Chamorro

Discussion around the subject of the model minority myth has accelerated in the past few years, and you could say that Prachi Gupta has had a strong hand in that. The stereotype centers around those of Asian descent being models for achievement. With this stereotype, many South Asian immigrant children place – with added encouragement from family, society, and other systems – a potentially unhealthy amount of importance on career achievement.

While on the surface this may sound positive, it can put tremendous pressure on children and families. Gupta, who recently published her memoir “They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies That Raised Us”, boldly reflects on the myth’s impacts on her family.

“There’s this idea that all Asian American families are innately hardworking and successful and have tight-knit families and they don’t struggle and they don’t have problems,” Gupta said. “We feel a lot of pressure to present a certain way and come across as very put together within our own communities and the context of white America or Canada.”

Through her story, Gupta opens the door to bringing more frank conversation about mental health stigma and family dysfunction in her culture. Much of this is perpetuated by the model minority myth.

Personal Tragedy Becomes A Motivator

In 2017, Gupta’s brother Yush passed away due to complications from a leg-lengthening surgery. Estranged from her brother for a few years before his passing, Gupta began exploring why her brother would make the decision to undergo such an extreme surgical procedure, and what his mindset may have been before he died.

Her estrangement with Yush was tied to differing beliefs around gender roles in society and other values. Gupta had turned to feminism, something her brother saw as a justification to hate men and not accurately recognize the pressures they themselves feel in society. These differences created a divide between the once very close siblings.

Her research and introspection about her and her brother’s relationship produced the 2019 essay “Stories About My Brother,” which helped to personalize and put a face to the model minority myth. Study of this myth had largely been academic in nature up to now.

The South Asian community took notice of the essay. Gupta began to hear from immigrant moms who said they now wanted to be more open with their families about mental health, and Asian American men reached out and said they saw themselves in her brother.

“What I realized is we were all dealing with such similar issues but we all felt we were alone.  When I realized that, I felt like I had so much more to say about how this happened within our family,” she added. “We’re all taught to buy into the American dream and believe that if we simply work hard, we’re going to achieve, and if we achieve we’re all going to be happy.”

How The Model Minority Myth Was Born

The roots of the model minority myth can be traced back to when the U.S. passed the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Gupta explains in her memoir. The act favored educated immigrants with professional skills and was an opportunity to present the U.S. as a diverse democratic superpower. The new legislation prompted what Gupta refers to as an “influx of upwardly mobile Asian immigrants” into America.

“This is really where the model minority stereotype comes from, this observation that the people from Asia coming here are bringing skilled labor. Therefore, this whole story was created. It pitted communities of color against each other, but it also created a very narrow role for immigrants and their children to play,” Gupta said. “So, you were considered a good person of color, if you could fit that image as the model minority. If you didn’t adhere to that, you risked being a ‘bad’ minority.”

Shedding Mental Health Stigma

Her parents were immigrants, but Gupta herself was born in the U.S. Even still, she faced the pressure to succeed. She and her brother were both high achievers growing up. Her brother entered computer programming, while Gupta studied finance and writing at the University of Pittsburgh. After college, she immediately found work.

“I got a management consulting job. I was engaged to a doctor, I did try to fit that role, but what I found was that I wasn’t actually any happier. I thought if I did these things, it would bring me and my family peace. It brought the opposite. I saw us unravel and I began to question the story,” she said.

Gupta hopes her memoir and future writing work helps to shed mental health stigma among the Asian American community and encourages future South Asian immigrant children to form a healthier perspective around career and personal success.

“I hope that through my work I can help people think about what ideas they have wrapped up in success and what qualities they overlook in other people or themselves in the pursuit of success,” she said. “I really hope this book can help people reevaluate the importance of success and the importance we place on it and what we’re missing when we do that and how that gets in the way of creating intimacy in our own lives.”

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