Model What?

We’re all familiar with the term “model minority”—a label that has been bestowed upon Asian Americans, South Asian Americans, and Indian Americans as a kind of pat-on-the-head for our relative economic, educational, and familial successes in the United States.

It is a term with which most of us have a great deal of discomfiture: Whosemodel? Model what?

Every time Indian Americans gain coverage in the mainstream media—from profiles on yet another string of spelling and geography bee winners, to celebratory pieces on a kuchipudi record for the Guinness Book, to Bollywood segments on So You Think You Can Dance?—we hear echoes of that collective appellation, with all its attendant requirements, limitations, and condescension.

Over the course of the last four decades, the connotations of the term “model minority” have in subtle and dramatic ways shaped the experiences of immigrants and children of immigrants: from inflating expectations of academic performance, to undervaluing nontraditional career choices, to preventing full integration of our communities with other mainstream and minority communities in America.

Together, we have lamented the first two points. As Vijay Prashad memorably writes in The Karma of Brown Folk, “A young Asian child now, like a pet animal, performs his or her brilliance.” Magazines like India Currents devote a disproportionate number of pages to actors, activists, and artists because we realize that the “ideal” professions—medicine, engineering—continue to hold sway over the desires of our community.

But it is the third result of the “model minority” label—the inability of Indian American communities to be fully engaged with other communities—with which we must be deeply concerned.

Today, dismissals of the term “model minority” are de rigueur, but for the wrong reason. We reject the term because we know that not all Indian Americans fit the bill. We should be rejecting the term because of the way it cuts us off from other populations: those immigrants and marginalized communities who are, as a consequence of our model-ness, expressly not.

The individuals profiled in our cover story are engaged with these populations: families in poverty, sexual minorities, children of parents with HIV/AIDS. But here, too, I want to make an important distinction.

The Indian American social workers featured are not working with marginalized communities because of their “model” status or superior knowledge of how to live and work in America. They are engaged with diverse communities because of their expansive understanding of the American experience and the connectedness of all communities.

Rather than allow the mainstream media to uphold the special successes and privileges of one “model” immigrant population, we must make new models of engagement, of shared responsibility, and of success.


Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan was Editor of India Currents from July 2007-June 2009.

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