For more than 100 years, from roughly the 1850’s until after World War II, Asians in America were deemed foreign, unwanted, and uncivilized. Asians were termed the “yellow peril” and were thought to be a menace to Western society. They were the targets of racial attacks and discriminatory laws because of their image as a threat. However, starting in the 1960s, this negative view drastically changed to one of admiration as Asian success stories started becoming more and more prevalent throughout American society. Since then and to this day, it is believed that Asian Americans have overcome past prejudices and are now doing well in society. Because of this, Asian Americans are termed the “model minority” and serve as an example to other minority groups. However, this assumption, a form of discreet discrimination, is incorrect and has many negative consequences not only for the Asian American community, but for all other minority groups as well. The model minority label ultimately puts all minority groups at a disadvantage, pulls minority groups apart, and provokes discriminating, racist beliefs.
Ever since I was a young child, I have always been exposed to some form of this discreet discrimination. Throughout my years in school, there have always been high expectations for me because of my race. I have always gotten comments like, “Oh, you must be smart, you’re Asian,” or “Wait, you bombed your math exam? But you’re Asian!” At first, because I was young, I did not fully understand what my being Asian had to do with anything. However, as I got older, I began to understand exactly why there were so many high expectations of me. Because I am Asian, I get stamped with all of the labels that come with being Asian, such as being a part of the model minority. As a part of the model minority, it is assumed that I, as well as every other Asian American student, should be hard-working with a successful future. However, those assumptions were, and still are, incorrect. Not all Asian students are brilliant and overachieving. I would feel inadequate when asked, “How did you bomb that math exam? You’re Asian. Are you not as smart as the other Asians?” But why was I being publicly accused of being “not smart enough” when students of other races were not? Why did I have to live up to higher standards than my peers of other races? Because of this, I felt distanced from other non-Asian minority groups. I felt as if no other minority group could understand what I had to go through; I had to be extremely intelligent and there was no other choice. If I did not fall under this stereotype, I was publicly humiliated. However, I have realized now that other minority groups also face many negative stereotypes as well as a result of the model minority label. The model minority label creates many negative stereotypes, which pulls minority groups apart and puts them at a disadvantage.
On the surface, this issue may seem like a battle between Asian Americans and other minority groups. However, underneath the surface, there is a much bigger issue at hand. As a result of incorrect assumptions, minority groups in America are being pulled farther apart instead of coming together and identifying with one another’s problems. Because Asian Americans are the model minority, many Americans believe that non-Asian minority groups suffer consequences as a result of their own shortcomings. This belief creates negative feelings towards Asian Americans and non-Asian minority groups start to feel as if they cannot identify with the Asian American community as a minority. However, what many fail to recognize is that the Asian American community is just as negatively impacted by such a label as non-Asian American groups. Many Asian American students and families are still struggling but are overlooked and remain invisible because of the model minority label.
Jean Wing, manager of Research and Best Practices for the New School Development Group of the Oakland Unified School District, designed a study in order to analyze the invisibility of Asian American students by documenting the actual experiences and achievement of Asian American students from Berkeley High School. Wing argues that Asian American students face difficulties and failures that go unnoticed because of the widespread acceptance of Asians as the model minority. From her findings, Wing states that each of her case studies faced different academic challenges that go unrecognized and unsupported because they are “masked by a general perception that Asians are the model students, they do not experience failure, and their success comes easy to them”(466). This commonly-held belief is a form of discreet discrimination and has negative implications not only for Asian Americans, but other minority races as well. The success story of Asian Americans is often pitted against African American and Latino demands for equality. Wing declares, “The model minority stereotype fosters discord among people of color rather than unity in struggle against racism and for greater equity for all people” (481). The model minority myth segregates minority groups and reinforces racist ideas in a country that should have overcome racial obstacles from the past.
Another study investigating the different types of races and ethnicities participating in gifted education programs today in the U.S. also shows how racism is promoted by the model minority label. Yoon Yoon, a doctoral candidate in gifted education at Purdue University, and Marcia Gentry, director of the Gifted Education Resource Institute at Purdue University, argue that equal representation of students by race and ethnicity is one of the major issues concerning gifted education programs. Yoon reports that on the national level, White and Asian American students have been consistently overrepresented in gifted programs, whereas American Indian, Alaska Native, Hispanic, and African American students have been and continue to be underrepresented (128). This underrepresentation of minority students other than Asian Americans in gifted programs can be argued as racism. The logic underlying this argument is, “If Asian Americans can be successful in gifted programs, then other minority groups should be able to as well.” This idea provokes racist thoughts because it is then believed that other minority groups are not in gifted programs simply because they are lazy or not as intelligent. However, it is not fair or accurate to assume that those underrepresented in gifted programs are lazy and unintelligent because there are many other social implications for these observations that often get overlooked.
The model minority label also creates stereotypes for Asian and non-Asian minority groups, which plays a part in fueling discrimination in the U.S. These negative stereotypes have been shown to negatively impact both Asian and non-Asian students’ test scores. Non-Asian minority groups face stereotype threats with academic testing, which causes them to underperform. Sapna Cheryan and Galen Bodenhausen, from Northwestern University, investigated these negative effects of stereotypes on intellectual performance. They found that for non-Asian minority groups, negative stereotypes undermine performance by “creating concern on the part of the stereotyped group that their performance might serve to confirm the negative expectations other people hold about their group” (399). This concern, termed “stereotype threat,” hinders academic performance by adding the burden of worrying about confirming the low performance expectations of others (Cheryan 399). The low performance expectation that causes non-Asian students to underperform on testing is due partly to the Asian American model minority label. Because non-Asian minorities are compared to a high-performing minority group, a feeling of inferiority may arise, hindering academic performance.
In addition to the underperformance of non-Asian minority groups because of the model minority label, Cheryan and Bodenhausen show that Asian students are negatively impacted by such a title as well. The model minority label pressures Asian American students to succeed and overachieve, which may cause them to underperform on exams because of “choking” under high expectations. When exposed to a supposedly positive stereotype such as the model minority, a positive performance is anticipated by an external audience, causing an individual to experience apprehension about meeting those high expectations, which can lead to a phenomenon known as “choking under pressure” (Cheryan 399). Just as fear of confirming a negative stereotype can undermine performance, so fear of confirming a positive stereotype can undermine performance. Although Asian Americans are labeled the model minority, this stereotype can be limiting. The model minority label generates a racial stereotype which puts both Asian and non Asian students at a disadvantage because of stereotype threat, causing them to underperform on academic testing.
Not only does the model minority label undermine academic performance for Asian students, but it can also lead to more serious consequences. The pressure to succeed and overachieve often times becomes overwhelming and may even result in suicide, especially among young Asian American females between the ages of 15 and 24, who hold the highest suicide rates in the nation (Le). The Chicago Tribune describes a study conducted by Joel Wong, an assistant professor of counseling and educational psychology at Indiana University, about the top reasons why Asians consider committing suicide. Wong’s internet survey of 1,377 Asian American students revealed that 48 percent cited family problems as being the reason behind suicidal thoughts, with 43 percent citing academic problems, and 25 percent stating financial problems. This study shows that model minority expectations can produce expectations of success that can be overwhelming to many Asian Americans.
Another example of the negative effects of stereotypes generated by the model minority label was investigated byFrancis Dalisay and Alexis Tan, both a part of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. Dalisay and Tan were interested in the effects of exposure to information reinforcing the Asian American model minority stereotype on views of Asian Americans and African Americans. Dalisay and Tan found that experimental participants were more likely to positively evaluate Asian Americans and negatively evaluate African Americans when exposed to the model minority stereotype. Dalisay states that the “favorable images of some social groups, such as Asian Americans, could breed unfavorable judgments regarding other groups, such as African Americans” (7). Because the model minority stereotype is widely accepted by many Americans, negative stereotypes are generated towards other minority groups such as African Americans and Latinos, reinforcing racist ideas.
The generation of negative stereotypes of non-Asian minority groups can also make these groups feel isolated and alienated. This feeling of alienation may lead to discriminatory feelings between minority groups. Such separation of minority groups is evident at many college campuses today in America. One specific example is at Berkeley University in California. In the state of California, Proposition 209 was passed in 1996, which eliminates racial preferences in public institutions. As a result of Proposition 9 and its strict meritocracy, the rise of Asian students at the University of California, Berkeley campus has greatly increased at the expense of underrepresented blacks and Hispanics. Timothy Egan, a journalist for the New York Times, reports that Asian American enrollment is at an all-time high at elite colleges and universities, making other minority groups at these universities feel isolated and alone. Egan states, “The diminishing number of African-Americans on campus is a consistent topic of discussion among black students and they feel isolated, without a sense of community” (24). Amilia Staley, an African American law student interviewed by Egan, says, “You really do feel like you stand out…I’m almost always the only black person in my class” (24). Staley also states that she does not identify with the Asian community as a minority. It is unfortunate that Staley feels this way because Asian Americans are a minority; they make up less than 5% of the national population. All minority groups have experienced some feelings of alienation in America and should be able to come together to cope with this issue, but instead are being pulled away from one another because of racial stereotypes generated by the model minority label.
In defense of non-Asian minority groups, the idea of pure meritocracy is challenged in Egan’s article by Eric Liu, author of ''The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker'' and a domestic policy adviser to former President Bill Clinton, who argues that that the high Asian makeup of elite campuses reflects a post-racial age where merit prevails. Liu insists that until all students from impoverished urban settings have equal access to advanced placement classes that have proved to be a ticket to the best colleges, then the idea of pure meritocracy is ridiculous (24). Liu then claims that with Proposition 209, the State of California is trying to measure in a fair way the results of an already unfair system. Because many Asian American students on the Berkeley campus have parents with college educations, they have easier access to resources that better prepare them for a college education, unlike other minority students who come from poor families with little access to good schools. Such a system of pure meritocracy is unfair and eliminates diversity from college campuses by isolating and alienating non-Asian minority groups. As a result of the model minority label, Asian Americans are held at a high standard and are overpopulating elite college campuses, eliminating any chances of diversification and further separating minority groups.
By labeling Asian Americans as the model minority, there are many negative consequences for all minority groups in the U.S. The model minority label generates negative stereotypes for Asian and non-Asians that put these groups at a disadvantage. Not only are negative stereotypes generated, but minority groups begin feeling alienated and isolated, which ultimately separates these groups from one another. This separation of minority groups promotes and fuels more negative stereotypes as well as discrimination and racist beliefs.
(Photo: Marco Grob. Grooming by Reneé Majour for Orlando Pita T3/Jump.)
Sometimes I’ll glimpse my reflection in a window and feel astonished by what I see. Jet-black hair. Slanted eyes. A pancake-flat surface of yellow-and-green-toned skin. An expression that is nearly reptilian in its impassivity. I’ve contrived to think of this face as the equal in beauty to any other. But what I feel in these moments is its strangeness to me. It’s my face. I can’t disclaim it. But what does it have to do with me?
Millions of Americans must feel estranged from their own faces. But every self-estranged individual is estranged in his own way. I, for instance, am the child of Korean immigrants, but I do not speak my parents’ native tongue. I have never called my elders by the proper honorific, big brother or big sister. I have never dated a Korean woman. I don’t have a Korean friend. Though I am an immigrant, I have never wanted to strive like one.
You could say that I am, in the gently derisive parlance of Asian-Americans, a banana or a Twinkie (yellow on the outside, white on the inside). But while I don’t believe our roots necessarily define us, I do believe there are racially inflected assumptions wired into our neural circuitry that we use to sort through the sea of faces we confront. And although I am in most respects devoid of Asian characteristics, I do have an Asian face.
Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality. An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits. Not just people who are good at math and play the violin, but a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally.
I’ve always been of two minds about this sequence of stereotypes. On the one hand, it offends me greatly that anyone would think to apply them to me, or to anyone else, simply on the basis of facial characteristics. On the other hand, it also seems to me that there are a lot of Asian people to whom they apply.
Let me summarize my feelings toward Asian values: Fuck filial piety. Fuck grade-grubbing. Fuck Ivy League mania. Fuck deference to authority. Fuck humility and hard work. Fuck harmonious relations. Fuck sacrificing for the future. Fuck earnest, striving middle-class servility.
I understand the reasons Asian parents have raised a generation of children this way. Doctor, lawyer, accountant, engineer: These are good jobs open to whoever works hard enough. What could be wrong with that pursuit? Asians graduate from college at a rate higher than any other ethnic group in America, including whites. They earn a higher median family income than any other ethnic group in America, including whites. This is a stage in a triumphal narrative, and it is a narrative that is much shorter than many remember. Two thirds of the roughly 14 million Asian-Americans are foreign-born. There were less than 39,000 people of Korean descent living in America in 1970, when my elder brother was born. There are around 1 million today.
Asian-American success is typically taken to ratify the American Dream and to prove that minorities can make it in this country without handouts. Still, an undercurrent of racial panic always accompanies the consideration of Asians, and all the more so as China becomes the destination for our industrial base and the banker controlling our burgeoning debt. But if the armies of Chinese factory workers who make our fast fashion and iPads terrify us, and if the collective mass of high-achieving Asian-American students arouse an anxiety about the laxity of American parenting, what of the Asian-American who obeyed everything his parents told him? Does this person really scare anyone?
Earlier this year, the publication of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother incited a collective airing out of many varieties of race-based hysteria. But absent from the millions of words written in response to the book was any serious consideration of whether Asian-Americans were in fact taking over this country. If it is true that they are collectively dominating in elite high schools and universities, is it also true that Asian-Americans are dominating in the real world? My strong suspicion was that this was not so, and that the reasons would not be hard to find. If we are a collective juggernaut that inspires such awe and fear, why does it seem that so many Asians are so readily perceived to be, as I myself have felt most of my life, the products of a timid culture, easily pushed around by more assertive people, and thus basically invisible?