Model Minority Mutiny

250 Years of Asian American Social History

“Unless we know ourselves and our history, and other people and their history, there is really no way we can really have positive kind of interaction where there is mutual understanding.”

-Yuri Kochiyama, human rights activist

From Sikh-American farmers fighting British imperialism to the intersectional work of human rights activist Yuri Kochiyama, Asian Americans have played a fundamental role in the shaping of American race relations today. Yet for years, Asian Americans have lived under the stereotype of being the “model minority,” a myth has been active throughout much of Asian American social history--a history spanning approximately 250 years--and has proven to cause more damage than good.

In 1987, TIME Magazine released a cover with the headline “Those Asian-American Whiz Kids,” coupled with an image of beaming Asian students, falsely portraying Asian Americans as the faceless ethnic group that experienced robotic-like success. Both then and now, this dominant narrative has reigned over the diverse range of individuals that encompass the “Asian American experience.”

The Asian presence in America extends far beyond just the railroad workers along the Transcontinental, or the internment camps post-World War II. Rather, the Asian American experience is intersectional and inclusive. Not only does using the term “model minority” reinforce pre-existing stereotypes, it also undermines the experiences of marginalized Asian Americans; these misplaced generalizations render their experiences trivial at best and invisible at worst. The stereotype perpetuates conflict between communities of color, prohibiting solidarity and promoting racial hierarchies. 

This syllabus seeks to amplify the voices that need to be heard, while also dismantling the myth that has driven a rift through Asian American identity. We cover state violence, sexuality and queerness, representation in pop culture, contemporary activism and more. This is meant to start conversations, not finalize them.

It’s time for a revolt.

This syllabus was written and complied by Valerie Wu and edited by Abaki Beck. It was last edited on September 25, 2017.

Historical Timeline: Essential Chronology

Filipino Presence in Louisiana, 1763 - Filipinos are the oldest Asian American community in North America, as many ships left from the Manila-Acapulco trade route to settle in Louisiana's bayou country.

California Gold Rush, 1848 - Many Chinese laborers came to California during the Gold Rush and faced harsh treatment, including taxes only imposed on them, racist violence, and were even victims of murder. In 1852, Chinese laborers sue for unequal treatment by state tax collectors, but are not allowed to testify in court.

Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882 - The nation’s first immigration law, this act excluded Chinese people from entering the United States. It was originally meant to last 10 years, but was extended to bar Chinese immigration until 1902. It was not officially repealed until 1943. Though initially intended to exclude Chinese laborers, it was eventually extended to apply to Japanese, Indians, Filipinos, Koreans, and other Asian immigrants.

“Oriental School” built in San Francisco, 1885 - Even though Joseph and Mary Tape had successfully sued San Francisco’s school board a year before in order to enroll their daughter in public school, a new “oriental school” was constructed by the city the next year to ensure segregation. This occurred despite the legal requirement for integration.

United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 1898 - This case found that individuals born in the United States were still considered citizens--even if their parents were not--and could not be stripped of that citizenship because of their parents’ country of origin.

Founding of the Gader Party, 1913  - Indian Americans founded the Gader Party (“Party of Rebellion”) of political activists and published weekly revolutionary newspapers. Some California Sikh farmers returned to India to fight against British imperialism between 1890 and 1920, where they were occasionally jailed or executed.

United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 1923 - This case ruled that Bhagat Singh Thind was ineligible for U.S. citizenship, as he was neither white nor black. Thind, who was Indian, argued that he was descended from Aryans, and should thus legally be considered Caucasian. The court argued that, because of his skin color, his appearance did not fit the “common understanding” of whiteness, and was thus ineligible for citizenship. This case helped define race and whiteness in the U.S.

Executive Order 9066, 1941 - President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order to imprison Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants in military camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. There were ten government run prison camps in five states during WWII. The same year, 2,265 Latin American Japanese people became prisoners of war and were brought to the U.S. to be forced in the same prison camps.

Magnuson Act, 1943 - Repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and allowed Chinese immigration for the first time since 1882. It also naturalized some Chinese people who already lived in the United States.

For a more extensive timeline, check out this PBS resource.


Historical Context


State Violence Against Asian Americans


Queerness & Sexuality


Pop Culture Representation


Voices on Community & Identity


Contemporary Activism


Additional Resources