The dangerous belief that certain racial minorities have become hardwired to thrive. Photo: Stocksy
Superpowers might be considered the domain of comic book heroes but they're also the secret weapon of kids who stand out. In her best-selling memoir Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, the Indian-American comedian Mindy Kaling recalls obsessively learning Latin in high school. Arthur Chu, a writer and Jeopardy! champion whose father migrated to the US from Taiwan as a grad student, spent hours attaining a Midwestern accent to fulfil dreams of working as a voice-over artist one day. When I was in primary school in Perth in the early '90s, I resolved to spend my recesses reading the dictionary from A to Z.
In a world where brown-skinned 10-year-olds who exceed basic literacy are met with responses that range from curious to flat-out incredulous, I'd figured that knowing how to define "axiomatic" was the ultimate sick burn. "How did you learn to speak such good English?", teachers would routinely marvel, as if they'd stumbled on Columbus' mythical modern outpost. "I didn't think they spoke it where you come from?"
Although a running date with Webster's was always going to be a patchy path to acceptance, this childhood quest for excellence didn't appear out of thin air. Back in 1987, Time magazine ran a cover story entitled "Those Asian American Whiz Kids", alongside an image of shiny-haired students toting oversized backpacks. "No matter what their route, young Asian Americans, largely those with Chinese, Korean and Indochinese backgrounds, are setting the educational pace for the rest of America and cutting a dazzling figure at the country's finest schools," the article gushed.
It also invoked the model minority myth, the notion - introduced by sociologist William Petersen in 1966 - that certain groups are equipped with the abilities and steely work ethic that predispose them to socio-economic success. The Asian American Achievement Paradox, a new book by Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou, investigates why Asian immigrants are the country's highest-earning, best-educated racial group and concluded that this idea that this group are smart and high-achieving has created a self-fulfilling prophecy that meant that they were likelier to excel.
In Australia, the narrative that selective schools in Sydney and Melbourne double as production lines for child geniuses - summed up in Anna Broinowski's January 2015 Good Weekend feature which uncovered that students from Asian backgrounds account for 80 to 90 per cent of enrolments at the country's top high schools - contributes to the belief that the children of immigrants have become immune to racist hurdles and hardwired to thrive.
Fifty years since the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act - which granted immigrants from China or India entry into Australia based on their ability to pass dictation tests in French or German - being recognised for your industriousness can feel like receiving an apology from a parent whose taunts followed you into your adult life.
But the model minority myth may also be history's most passive-aggressive strategy for denying racist structures while reminding Asian immigrants of their place. In an October 2015 Huffington Post article, Sarah Nguyen points out that these allusions to "Asian Advantage" conveniently overlook the fact that Asia is a "massive conglomerate of 48 countries with distinct cultural differences", that only 14 per cent of Cambodians and 13 per cent of Laotians have a bachelor's degree and that Asian Americans also have a higher poverty rate than the country's white population.
The Asian-American Achievement Paradox highlights the fact that Asian-Americans comprise one-fifth of Ivy League universities (while making up 4.8 per cent of the population) but this is outweighed by the reality that they are grossly under-represented in leadership positions and that a Chinese applicant needs to submit 68 per cent more applications than a white person to receive a callback for a job.
In Australia, a model minority can't flinch when a boss expresses surprise that they're bad at maths and grew up in the suburbs of Brisbane. They're supposed to ignore the connection between a myth that casts them as hardworking and self-sufficient and one that suggests indigenous Australians are to blame for their own disadvantage.
In a must-read 2014 VQR essay, Roxane Gay explores why so many of us conflate the model minority myth with real agency and forget that equality should be based on our humanity and not on dizzying success. "Many people of colour living in this country can likely relate to the onset of outsized ambition at too young an age, an ambition fuelled by the sense, often confirmed by ignorance, of being a second-class citizen and needing to claw your way toward equal consideration and some semblance of respect," she writes.
Looking back, I should have put down the dictionary and gone out to play dodgeball instead. Honing a superpower isn't a secret weapon. Over time, it starts to look more like a trap.