A Googler’s fight against the “model minority” myth

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.