A Googler’s fight against the “model minority” myth
Editor's note: Charlene Wang, an associate product manager for Google Play Ads, recently published a book on combating Asian American stereotypes. We sat down with Charlene to talk about her book.
Three years ago, Charlene Wang drafted a letter to her brother Warren in Taipei. He was preparing to move to the United States for college, and she wanted to give him advice. Specifically, she wanted him to know what to expect about the stereotypes that Asian people face in America, and her suggestions for how to navigate those harmful expectations while staying true to himself. “I wanted to share all the things I wish someone had told me when I first came here,” she says.
Eventually, her letter became a book: “Model Breakers: Breaking Through Stereotypes and Embracing Your Authenticity,” which was published in April of this year.
The title is a reference to the pervasive and harmful myth of the “model minority” — the stereotype that Asian American people are naturally smart, studious, successful and docile. While that might sound positive on its surface, the myth is damaging in numerous ways. It pigeonholes Asian people into the stereotype of being hardworking, but lacking the people skills necessary to be good leaders. It groups all Asian people — people from diverse backgrounds and cultures from more than 50 countries — into a monolithic, homogenous group under the assumption that all Asian people have the same advantages or face the same challenges. And the model minority myth also acts as a racial wedge, perpetuating inequality by pitting people of color against one another. “That's why we used ‘Model breaker,’ since it's basically breaking up that model minority myth and turning it into something positive,” Charlene says.
In the book, Charlene explores the challenges she encountered as an Asian immigrant facing racist stereotypes upon moving to the U.S., as well as how she healed from these experiences and found her voice in spite of it all.
One example: After she founded a company in 2016, she had an opportunity to pitch to an investor. But when it was her turn to pitch, he shut her down before she finished. “I introduced myself and I didn't even get to say what I was working on,” she recalls. He told her to take an ESL course and learn to speak English. “He didn't even let me finish. And then I didn't say anything because I didn't know I could. I didn’t know how.”
Over time she says she learned how to speak up for herself when she faced similar situations. A year later, she was invited to attend a conference to help entrepreneurs craft their pitches. She noticed that the person who had invited her seemed to doubt her qualifications. “I knew I needed to do something different,” she recalls. “I knew that if I didn't speak up this time I would be repeating the story, so I wanted to stop the pattern.” She called him out, explained why he was wrong to doubt her — and then she became the most popular speaker at the conference. She says he sent her a long apology email after, acknowledging his error. “He apologized for how he made me feel, and he acknowledged that he has his biases, and he underestimated how much age, or sex, or even other biases hurt you,” she says. The experience was eye-opening for her. “I think that moment really changed the way I think about my voice and my story,” Charlene says. It further motivated her to help others understand the power of their voice and story as well.
“The book is the toolkit for how to know yourself, be yourself, tell your own story and take some risks,” she says. The intended audience is young people — high school students, or people just entering the workforce. And her goal is to reach the Asian American community, as well as to raise awareness about challenges that the Asian American community faces.
She originally focused the book on her own personal perspective, but throughout the writing process it evolved to include the voices of other people who have gone through similar things. For research purposes she interviewed nearly 100 people, including Asian immigrants, refugees and Asian Americans representing a variety of ethnicities, as well as non-Asian allies. Interviewing other people helped her to identify common patterns, particularly in how some people may experience and respond to trauma. For instance, roughly 15% of people in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community struggle with mental health, and her interviews reflected that. So she devoted some chapters to family dynamics and caring for your mental health. Another theme she discovered had to do with risk: Some people she spoke with were afraid to take risks, she says. So she devoted some of the book to the benefits of risk-taking.
Ultimately, her research helped her see the necessity of reframing and reclaiming the narrative of what it means to be Asian in America as a way to dispel the model minority trope while valuing your own authentic self. “The first step is to really know what makes you you, what makes you excited, what values you have — from you, not your family or your parents, but what you love to do,” she says. “And then once you’ve found that, how can you see that in your family, in your work, in your passion. And that requires a lot of experimentation. Everyone is different.”
The book is coming out amid the tragic backdrop of a horrifying increase in anti-Asian violence. But racism and anti-Asian sentiment isn’t new. “People didn’t know these things happened before,” Charlene says. She says she wants to encourage Asian Americans to feel brave enough to continue being themselves, and sharing their stories, in spite of the risks: “How can we help everyone feel secure?” she asks. “How can we help everyone see that they’re already good, that they have value? How do you find things about yourself that are so loveable that you just want to share them with other people?”
Charlene believes that recognizing, accepting and embracing your core values is a key first step to living authentically, in spite of stereotypes or pressure to act or behave a certain way. And she also thinks that celebrating your values and your culture can be deeply inspirational for others in your community. “The stereotype is the backstory,” she says. “You have to tell a better story that inspires you to wake up every day, so you can speak up for yourself. It’s hard and it takes a lot of courage, but know that you're also speaking out for thousands of people.”