The Myth of the Model Minority is, Yes, a Myth
In flat contradiction to the “myth of the model minority” — according to which Asian American students achieve academic and professional success despite being marginalized racially and ethnically — a new report from the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education has found that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders don’t all get accepted into highly selective four-year colleges and universities; don’t all major in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; and don’t all achieve exceptional academic success, with accompanying financial benefits.
The report will be published in its final form at the end of the summer, but preliminary findings were released on Monday. As the Chronicle of Higher Education says, the report found that
… nearly half of all Asian-American and Pacific Islander students, known as AAPI students, attend community colleges, and many of their ethnic groups have some of the lowest high-school-graduation and college-degree-attainment rates in the United States…
Among Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders, 55 to 66 percent of adults have not attended any form of postsecondary education. While more than four in five East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) and South Asians (Asian Indian and Pakistani) who enter college earn at least a bachelor’s degree, larger proportions of Southeast Asians (43 percent) and Pacific Islanders (51 percent) report having attended college but not earning a degree.
The AAPI population grew much faster than any major racial group from 2000 – 2010, according to the report, and is projected to reach nearly 40 million people by 2050. But, as the above figures reveal, “college-going and degree attainment” varies widely among Asian Americans, with East Asians — some of whom, including Chinese and Japanese Americans, have been in the US for longer periods of time — and South Asians more likely (so far) to have graduated from college.
As an Asian American — a third-generation Chinese American, who is quite assimilated in American society — I’ve found the notion of being a model minority not only just wrong, but potentially harmful. The myth can cause students to think that, unless they getting into Harvard, UC Berkeley and Stanford and are pre-med or “at least” pre-law — if not pursuing an MD-PhD — they’re failures. College and the academic life are not for everyone and “success” is not all about making it into the Ivies, getting straight A’s, yada yada yada. My own son Charlie is half-Asian and has been in special education programs and schools for all of his education. Reading is a huge struggle, math means learning to count money, science class is non-existent in Charlie’s curriculum. Going to college — the defining experience of being a “model minority” — is not going to happen for Charlie, though many more autistic students are starting to attend college.
The perniciousness of the model minority myth is sadly displayed by a book that aroused a great deal of controversy at the start of this year, Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In her memoir, the author, a self-described over-achiever (she’s a professor at Yale Law School) recounted how she sought to raise her two daughters as “ultra-model minorities” who excelled at school and played classical music on the violin and piano. Chua’s account of herself as a draconian, driven parent who threatened to trash one daughter’s stuffed animals if they didn’t practice their instruments was received with horror and fascination, as if her book contained (finally!) the inside story on how to be a model minority and make your kids one, too. Chua gets her comeuppance when her younger daughter rebels at a Moscow teahouse, after which the Tiger Mother realizes the folly of her ways and (so to speak) retracts her claws. Her younger daughter then puts down the violin and takes up tennis (and, as the media made sure we knew, her eldest daughter got into Harvard + Yale).
While Chua was trying to show the dangers of buying into the model minority myth, her book rather reveals how ingrained, to the point of unconscious, the myth can be. As the new study shows, there are many ways of being Asian American, of being successful and of, yes, struggling. It’s these students stories of adversity that is sometimes only met with more adversity that are crying to be told and heard.
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