With Prachi Gupta, author of They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies that Raised Us. The Canadian Encyclopedia says the model minority is a stereotype that “depicts Asians as hard working, successful at school and in the workplace, and as economically prosperous.”

It may seem like a positive stereotype. But it divides non-model and model racialized communities, ignores vast disparities in wealth and well-being faced by pan-Asian people, and trivializes the impacts of racism.

That the model minority stereotype is racist is no question. But how does it impact people differently depending on their gender? How does it work to alienate us from ourselves and from each other?

We’re joined by Prachi Gupta, award-winning journalist and former senior reporter at Jezebel. She won a Writers Guild Award for her investigative essay “Stories About My Brother.” Her work was featured in The Best American Magazine Writing 2021 and has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post Magazine, Marie Claire, Salon, Elle, and elsewhere. ⁠They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies that Raised Us⁠ is her debut memoir, named one of the top 40 books of 2023 by Amazon and top 18 memoirs of the year by Audible. She lives in Brooklyn.

A note about content: this episode addresses gender-based violence.


00:00:04 Prachi

And I really wanted to write about what this is costing us and our families, to both men and women.

00:00:12 Andrea

How does the model minority myth impact women? How does it harm us all?

I’m Andrea Gunraj, from the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

Welcome to Alright, Now What? a podcast from the Canadian Women’s Foundation. We put an intersectional feminist lens on stories that make you wonder, “why is this still happening?” We explore systemic routes and strategies for change that will move us closer to the goal of gender justice.

The work of the Canadian Women’s Foundation and our partners takes place on traditional First Nations, Métis and Inuit territories. We are grateful for the opportunity to meet and work on this land. However, we recognize that land acknowledgements are not enough. We need to pursue truth, reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship in an ongoing effort to make right with all our relations.

00:01:08 Andrea

The Canadian Encyclopedia says the model minority is a stereotype that “depicts Asians as hard working, successful at school and in the workplace, and as economically prosperous.”

That may seem like a positive stereotype. But it divides non-model and model racialized communities, ignores vast disparities in wealth and well-being faced by pan-Asian people, and it trivializes the impacts of racism.

That the model minority stereotype is racist is no question. But how does it impact people differently depending on their gender? How does it work to alienate us from ourselves and from each other?

We’re joined by Prachi Gupta, award-winning journalist and former senior reporter at Jezebel. She won a Writers Guild Award for her investigative essay “Stories About My Brother.” Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, and more. They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies that Raised Us is Prachi’s debut memoir. It was named a top book by both Amazon and Audible.

A note about content: this episode addresses gender-based violence.

00:02:24 Prachi

I am a journalist based in Brooklyn, New York, and the author of debut memoir They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies that Raised Us. It’s deeply personal, it’s deeply vulnerable. I wrote it as a letter to my mom, where I’m sort of explaining to her how our family, from my perspective fell apart and through that letter, I’m exploring the model minority myth and what it costs us to uphold that myth and why, ultimately, we should all dismantle that myth and abandon it.

So, it’s a deeply personal story with a very strong political message because so many of us are raised to abide by this myth, to present an image of perfection in order to fit into Western societies. But this really comes at a huge psychological and social toll, and I wanted to, you know, I wanted to talk about that toll in a really honest and authentic way and show how it affects us and harms us. And give people a way to see another way of engaging with the world around them and what that can look like when we embrace our authentic.

You know, as a kid, I was really into… Well, I mean, I was super nerdy, but I was also like, you know, I’ve always been an artist and a writer and a painter. And in high school, I discovered a love for cross country running and a natural talent for that. So, I ran cross country in high school and then a little bit in college and then after college, I ran a few marathons.

But I racked up a lot of injuries along the way and only more recently when I started working on the book, I needed that release that running gave me. It’s always really helped me connect my mind to my body and really feel grounded. It’s very meditative for me. I also do a lot of writing while I’m running. Like, you know, thoughts will just sort of flow and come to me. But again, I got really intense with it, and I got injured again and so I was really tired of getting injured all the time and that led me to discover weightlifting for strength training, which is very important for any long-distance runner and especially as we age and get older, which I was finding that I was getting injuries more frequently.

When the book came out, a lot of friends had warned me that, you know, you might experience some what they call like the post-book. I mean, they compared it to postpartum depression. I decided that I needed a goal to pursue that was not writing related. That would help me get back into my body. That would help me take care of my health and help ground me.

So, I decided to take up weightlifting where I work with coaches, and they have a runner specific program that I follow, and I’ve been doing that for the past… really since the book launch. I could not believe like the changes that it’s given me in my life, and I am absolutely addicted. I love it. I think I’m in it for the long haul now.

00:05:20 Andrea

I was quite moved by your book. I found it so insightful. Can you share a bit about why you wrote it?

00:05:27 Prachi

In 2017, my brother Yush died. We had been estranged for two years at the time that he died. We hadn’t been talking. I didn’t know the circumstances that led to his death. I didn’t even really know who he was as a person and understand the choices that he made that led him down the path that led to his death.

In my grief and my rage over his death, I had to understand how this had happened, and I had to find a way to make peace with it and accept the thing that I you know, I didn’t want to accept. I’m a journalist and I was a reporter at Jezebel at the time. And as you know, Jezebel is a feminist website. And my brother had started to espouse some pretty strong men’s rights views. And that was really the crux of our separation, our estrangement.

And so, I was really nervous in even trying to begin with writing this because I was like who would want… I’m humanizing somebody whose views are so antithetical to my readership, to my own values. But I love this person more than anyone. In that exploration, what it uncovered was this deep dive into masculinity, mental health, Asian American identity, racism and how all of these things can affect a person’s psyche and their relationships. So that culminated in an essay called Stories About My brother, which ran on Jezebel.

I was prepared for so much backlash. But what happened instead was, I heard from women who said they live with sibling estrangement for very similar reasons, and they don’t know how to deal with it, and my essay was the first thing that they’d ever read that helped them understand their estrangement and helped them find a way to maybe deal with it differently.

I heard from men, including Asian American men who said this essay saved their life. That they were heading down a similar path as my brother was, and that the essay convinced them to change, to seek help, to start talking about racism and sexism and the effects of this.

I heard from moms also, like immigrant moms, saying like I didn’t know my kids could be struggling with their mental health, and now I’m going to start talking to them about it. I wasn’t the only one and my brother and I were not the only ones struggling with this.

We really needed conversations in our communities and so my story was really important. And I realized I had so much more to say and that by telling the full story, I really believed that I could help so many people and so many families have these conversations that we just don’t know how to have.

After my brother died, I was thinking a lot about mortality and the thought of losing my parents or the thought of them losing me without a chance for me to at least share with them who I really am and why, at least from my perspective, we have this distance between us. I needed to find a way to explain that to them, and I knew that I couldn’t just call them up and talk to them so I felt an urgency to write this, to share that with them before it was too late.

00:08:45 Andrea

Can you tell us about the model minority myth? How did it start in Canada and the US, and how is it gendered?

00:08:51 Prachi

I did actually a lot of research. I read ethnographies and anthropological studies and psychiatry books and just like to really try to understand how the model minority myth was constructed and what its psychological and social effects on all of us are. And one of the things that came up time and time again that I saw reflected back in my own experiences was how racism has a gendered component.

Part of white supremacy – you know, all these systems are intertwined – so white supremacy works hand in hand with capitalism, works hand in hand with patriarchy, and they’re multilayered. One of the ways that white supremacy functions is by gendering a race. When, for example, Asian Americans first came into this – I mean, Asian American is a racial construct – but when Asians came into the country, mostly like Chinese labourers working on the railroads, they began to be seen as an economic threat by White America. And so very quickly, laws were passed to block Asian immigration into the United States and Canada.

And along with that came a whole set of other laws that tied Asian men to domestic labour to like quote unquote women’s work as a way to emasculate them, to make them less desirable or less threatening to white men. And then at the same time, Asian women were very gendered in a hyper feminine way. So, all of these rules kind of work in tandem and you can see the effects of that throughout history and they remain today.

So, one of the things the model minority myth does – it does emasculate men, you know, we have a very narrow idea of what masculinity is to begin with in America and the model minority myth uses that same model and then strips out layers of it for Asian men and says that you cannot be… You’re never going to be that. But if you work hard and you’re smart and you can behave, then maybe you can acquire some of these things.

A lot of people who don’t see another way out follow this and what that does is that replicates the same hierarchy within, often with our own family systems, which is what happened with mine. You know my brother and my dad, the way that they could get you know any sense of power or respect in the world was by performing this idea of masculinity. The problem with that was that it then turned into sexism at home against, you know… That’s the only place where they actually you know, where some of these men have power is in the home domain.

The solution here, I mean it’s not very simple, but it’s understanding the conflict. The source of the conflict isn’t men versus women. It’s patriarchy and it’s white supremacy, and these systems are created to divide us, and they’re created to reduce us into parts – all of us into parts, not just women, and not just men. And when we understand that, we can begin to empathize with the pain that all types of people have under these systems and the different ways in which we’re taught to suppress parts of ourselves.

You know my brother, for example, learned that part of performing masculinity was suppressing his emotions. So, he dealt with depression and other serious mental health issues, in part because of this myth, because he was told that he was less of a man if he did express emotions. You know, between the two of us, he was the one who was just so kind and compassionate, really taught me what it meant to love and to be compassionate. So, watching him turn into this hardened version of himself that just never felt like him, was heartbreaking for me, and I saw that the allure that these systems have, and I really wanted to write about what this is costing us and our families, to both men and women.

00:12:56 Andrea

You speak about how the model minority myth plays a part in our experiences of gender-based violence. Can you share more about that?

00:13:04 Prachi

I will read a page or two from the book because I think it really illustrates what we’re talking about.

I’m reading a passage from when I was starting to really question the stories that I was raised on because there was such a disconnect between the image that I projected to the world and everything that was happening at home. And you know, how the world saw me as successful and you know really this perfect daughter and I had acquired all these roles, but inside I felt like a failure.

I had never thought of myself as a feminist.

I believed, as I’d been raised, that women had achieved equality already, so everything happening now was just female supremacy. But now I worked in the progressive media among coworkers who wrote about abuse and assault. Beyoncé sampled author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s definition of “feminist” in a hit single.

I had never read a single feminist text, but I had a lifetime of resisting and surviving the patriarchal norms these women openly criticized. I began to call myself a feminist too, as a way to honour my values and figure out how to return to myself.

That label helps me understand why so many people supported Papa’s version of reality over mine.

For the first time, I read literature that described the dynamics of our home not as love or duty or tradition as I had understood them, but with harsh, unforgiving words – domestic violence, emotional abuse, gaslighting. I had thought of abuse as purely physical, brutish fathers who came home drunk and battered women, black and blue, never showing their families a shred of kindness.

What I read offered nuanced depictions of emotional and psychological abuse in which people of all genders were capable of genuine care and affection but maintained control over loved ones through a constant but abstract threat of violence and culture of secrecy.

So, labels and definitions offered me a new frame for understanding my experiences within our family, turning my fuzzy feelings into concrete shapes with names from which I began to form a language.

Realizing that our family dynamics matched with established patterns observed again and again by others allowed me to recognize myself in something beyond my microscopic view of the world.

The literature validated my sense that what you and I experienced at home was not something either of us had to accept.

While the readings empowered me at first, they ultimately shamed me into a deeper silence.

Everything I read revolves around white families.

I knew that I couldn’t take these resources to you or Yush, so I couldn’t quite articulate why that felt impossible.

At the time I interpreted my sense of isolation through the colonizer story.

I felt as if these progressive white women had all this information that could help us, but we couldn’t access it because we came from some backward, regressive place.

Now I understand my isolation differently.

I grew up surrounded by white people, alienated from my cultural heritage and its history.

My understanding of both was so limited that I assumed I was alone, that no one in South Asian American communities felt like I did.

They of course did, but many didn’t feel safe talking about these issues openly either. I thought our family was an aberration and therefore hyper dysfunctional.

When these white women empathized with me, I believed that they accepted me when no one else ever would.

But while I read about similar dysfunction in their homes, I knew that their solutions wouldn’t work for us.

I didn’t understand why not though.

And I assumed, yet again, that this reflected some inferiority on our family’s part.

Years later, I found resources that contextualized our home life within the American immigration system, colonialism and the caste system.

The interventions that work for white women did not consider the various structural, racial or cultural barriers that immigrant women of colour faced and accessing help. Assuming also a familiarity and cultural acceptance of divorce.

The South Asian specific resources articulated the double bind that trapped you.

You bore the burden of maintaining the cultural image that predicated our communal belonging in America. But your ability to project this image was then used against you to delegitimize your own feelings.

So long as you portray the image that you were expected to portray was anything really that bad at home?

00:17:58 Andrea

How has the response been from readers so far?

00:18:01 Prachi

You know, I was really scared to publish this. I was terrified. It’s the scariest thing that I’ve ever done. You know, before I published it, only a handful of people had read it – a few friends, my book editor, obviously, and my agent and some of my family members.

And all of these people, I know that they wouldn’t lead me astray, but also I have personal relationships with them and most of them are, you know, they’re people I love and so it was really hard for me to trust like whether or not you know this was actually good, whether this would actually resonate with people. People might pigeonhole this – me, and say this is just an Indian American story or this is just trauma porn.

The response has been overwhelming. You know, I’m so grateful for the readers. I hear from people all the time and it’s really hard to process it, to be honest, because it’s so much and I don’t think I can fully, like soak it in, but I’m hearing from a lot of people who are saying, like, I’ve never seen these feelings articulated before, and I’ve never seen my experiences written on the page before and the power of being seen of just being validated. I think that that’s what this book is giving so many people. And when we can feel seen, and we realize that the way that we feel like we’re not the only ones, it is so empowering, and it is very healing.

00:19:23 Andrea

One of the things that struck me is how you write about men who feel trapped by the model minority myth. You offer an empathetic lens that I think we need more of to start breaking down the harms of gender and racial injustice and build better relationships with each other.

00:19:38 Prachi

That observation you made is so powerful and really hits close to home. Like you know, in my 20s, like I had so much anger and it was justifiable, right? I really thought and approached the world in these binaries of like good and bad and like right and wrong and like men versus women. And now the truth is that we are all so flawed and no one, I mean we are so complex and like the world crushes all of us. It’s not that it just affects women. It really harms men, too, and if we want to really solve these issues, we have to move beyond the binary and I don’t mean that in a way that’s minimizing what patriarchy does to women, but we have to acknowledge and think about what men get from it and what they lose from it and what it steals from them.

I love my brother. You know, and I love my dad, and I love my family, right. And they were so invested in these ideologies, despite the fact that how much I know that they love me, that they weren’t able to extricate themselves from this way of thinking. And it took them from me, and it took us from each other. And I think that this is what it does to most people and most families when we’re invested in it. And so, it’s not about good and bad or right and wrong. It’s about understanding how these systems are set up, how they work, and how they make us feel about ourselves. And looking past this idea of like, if you do this, you are a bad person. I’m more interested in: Why are you doing this despite how it’s making you feel and how it’s affecting your relationships and what do you get from this and how do we change that so that you want to divest from this and increase the connection in your life?

And that is a harder thing for people to do because that requires real vulnerability and there are no guarantees. But if we’re going to heal, and if we’re actually going to reach to a place that is more equal and just and compassionate and accepting, then we have to do that work and we have to do it from all sides. It’s not just about men or women.

00:21:57 Andrea

Any tips you can offer to our listeners who personally wrestle with the model minority myth?

00:22:02 Prachi

Growing up, I was really skeptical of this idea of community because I saw how, you know, we talk about the Indian community, just anyone who’s Indian is now your community. And I was like, this is not what I want community to be. What real community is, is finding people with your same sense of values who help create a space where you can actually be you.

For the longest time, I thought the idea of being you or being authentic or like what does it mean to just be yourself, was, honestly I thought it was like B.S., I thought it was like new age like ohh yeah, that’s so easy for you know maybe like somebody who’s white to be able to do that or say that. But like, what does that mean for me? Like I have so many different identities. Like and so many different expectations will come along with all these identities. And so, I just thought that that was like not applicable to me.

That’s part of the damage that that living under these systems does. And it’s so hard to make this step to say, like, I don’t know who I really am, but I want to find out.

We’re taught we have to change to fit in. We have to be better, we have to be smarter, we have to get good grades, we have to do this, we have to do that.

All of these things break down our ability to really love ourselves. And again, I thought that self-love was this uwu idea, this like… it was selfishness. It was… it made you egotistical.

But what I am realizing now is that self-love – and when I say self-love, I mean true self love, I mean like living in a way where you are embodied, where you are in tune with your emotions and you can regulate your nervous system or are learning how to and you respond and engage with the world and with your community from that core place. When you begin to learn how to do that, you facilitate the kind of connections and relationships that you really want to have in the world and the work that you do.

Everything starts to come in alignment. It is the most worthwhile journey that I could imagine, and it is that key to, I would say, my resilience – is being committed to that work and seeing you know, there’s so many things that have happened in the book that, and in my life, that I had no control over, they just happened to me.

I was being rocked, you know, by these crashing waves. But what learning how to love myself – and I’m still on that journey, I always will be. But what dedicating myself to that has done, is helped me turn myself. You know, I can’t control those waves. They’re going to come and they’re going to hit me. But I can control my ability to withstand them, to maybe not get so knocked down and to be able to move forward and move through them.

I think my biggest advice to readers to relate to anybody is to invest in that journey and however, that looks like for you. And usually it you know, it starts small, it starts by asking the questions that we’re really afraid to ask and facing the things that scare us the most. Getting curious about why that scares us so much and what were to happen if we leaned into that instead of trying to suppress and run away from that. Because I guarantee you that that’s where the growth is and that’s actually what’s going to lead to you having more peace.

00:25:28 Andrea

Alright, now what?

Check out They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies that Raised Us by Prachi Gupta.

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