“Positive” Stereotyping of Asian Americans


Stereotypes, regardless of the nature of their intent, can be devastating for those expected to not only live up to them, but embody and epitomize them. In Stacey J. Lee’s Unraveling the “Model Minority” Stereotype, she explores how a certain stereotype affects Asian American youth. She conducted an ethnographic study at a prestige high school with a diverse Asian population and what she found was startling. In this paper, I will briefly discuss her methodology and the school she chose, the educational history of Asians in America, the groups she encountered and issues within those groups, Asian academic success and my reactions to the reading.

The Study

From January to June of 1989, Lee conducted her research at a school she calls Academic High. She was there four days a week and her research consisted mainly of observations, lunches with students and staff as well as sporting events and extracurricular activities. Out of 82 Asian America students, she conducted regular semi-structured interviews with 47 of them. As a researcher, she was aware that her identity, social class, gender, age, American Born Chinese and grad student status influenced how students and faculty interacted with her. Her graduate student status made it especially difficult for her to gain acceptance with students who weren’t high achievers in academics. At first, she attempted to hide her political attitudes and ideologies in an attempt to remain neutral. However, she later came to the realization that her silence wasn’t neutral; it could be misinterpreted for sanctioning racist or sexist acts she observed and she didn’t want to do that. Lee’s book wasn’t well received with the Korean-identified students. The Korean-identified students only spoke with her because they deemed her to be successful enough (Lee, 2009).

The school she chose, Academic High, was held in high esteem in its community. Students were required to pass an entrance exam in order to be admitted. During the time of the study, the student population was approximately 2,050 students. The ethnic breakdown of the student population is as follows: 45% white, 35% black, 18% Asian American and 2% other (Lee, 2009). The school’s desire to reward students based on achievement created competition among the students. There were three academic tracks at the school. The highest, or most prestigious track, included Advanced Placement courses and college level exams. The second highest track consisted of what the school called star classes, which were similar to honors courses (Lee, 2009). Then there was also the mentally gifted track; students in this track had to be identified as mentally gifted by the school district. It is important to note that there were no remedial courses available, unless of course one considered ninth grade English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses remedial. However, they are not considered remedial courses rather alternative language services for English Language Learners. While a majority of the student body was white, they dominated the highest tracks, while other minorities attempted to gain access into them.

The Stereotype and Brief History Asian American Education

A school that fostered and encouraged competition had little or no patience for those that were under achieving. This was especially true for the Asian American students. The “model minority” or “honorary white” stereotype reinforces the ideal that Asian Americans are hard workers and that their cultures, no matter how diverse, all value and encourage getting an education. The term “model minority” first surfaced in 1966 in a New York Times article entitled “Success Story Japanese American Style” (Lee, 2009). The article praised the Japanese on not being a problem minority, but one that worked hard and attained success the American way. Asian Americans were used to embody the American achievement ideology. Consequently, all Asian Americans were seen as “quiet, uncomplaining, and hard-working people who achieved success without depending on the government” (Lee, 2009, p.7). It was assumed that Asian Americans had strong, traditional families whereas blacks did not. Because of this idea, the stereotypical image of the Asian family was created: strict father, dutiful mother, and obedient children, which served the rhetoric of traditional family values desired by conservatives. This stereotype is an example of racist love; Asian Americans’ status as a “model minority” depends on the dominant group’s view of their position relative to Asian Americans (Lee, 2009). Asian Americans were compared to blacks, because even though Asians were a minority they were able to be successful. This stereotype not only put pressure on Asians to succeed academically, but also made it so that blacks appear to be a problem in American society. “The model minority stereotype pits Asian Americans against African Americans” (p.107).

The impact of this stereotype is two-fold: pressure on Asian American students to succeed and lack of consideration for Asian Americans that were unable to live up to the stereotype.

Despite the diverse educational realities of Asian American students, too many educators and educational policy makers assume that Asian America students are high-achieving model minorities, and rely on aggregate data that support the model minority stereotype (Lee, 2009, p.15).

Those students who do not live up to this stereotype are seen as broken. A teacher in the book referred to a student as “mutant Asian” because they were not comfortable with math. The pressure to live up to the stereotype can affect students negatively. Mei Mei Wong, a student who identified herself as Asian, felt like she wasn’t good enough. Wong had won scholarships and had good grades, still she didn’t feel as though she measured up. “Because the model minority stereotype sets the parameters for “good” and “acceptable” behavior, students like Mei Mei feared that failure to live up to these standards would mean being perceived as “unacceptable” (Lee, 2009, p.68). Low achieving Asian American students at Academic High were typically enrolled in ESOL and would rarely speak because they were ashamed of their accents. The stereotype has historical implications. For example, “The assumptions about the educational achievement of Asian Americans has excluded them from the debate over school desegregation” (Teranishi, 2001, p.255) as well as their immigrant status.

In 1965, an immigration law was passed in the United States that allowed formerly restricted groups, such as East Asians, South Asians and Southeast Asians, which increased the Asian American population in America (Tamura, 2001). From 1960 to 1994, the Asian American population increased by nearly 900% (Tamura, 2001). Before World War II, Chinese and Japanese were the largest Asian populations in the US (Tamura, 2001). By 1990, the Asian ethnic groups in the States – listed by numerical value – consisted of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Asian Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodia, Thai and Hmong (Tamura, 2001).

Like many immigrants and minorities, Asian Americans were not given the right to public education, but had to fight for it.

In 1885 the parents of eight-year-old Mamie Tape, an American child of Chinese descent, won their case in the California Supreme Court when it upheld a lower court’s decision that affirmed the right of Americans of Chinese ancestry to attend public school. (Tamura, 2001, p.65)

Segregation was still enforced around the country, which affected access to education for Asian Americans. Forty years later, Gong Lum fought to get his daughter – who was born in America – accepted into a white public school (Tamura, 2001). The United States Supreme Court ruled against him in 1927, but his case was the basis for future challenges and showed that Asian Americans would not have their rights denied (Tamura, 2001).

During the 1990s, race-based policies came under attack. Affirmative action and its intersection with college admissions were greatly criticized. Critics of affirmative action proclaimed that Asian Americans were victims of race-based admissions policies. It was their belief that the model minority was losing admissions to “less-qualified beneficiaries of affirmative action policies” (Lee, 2009, p.8). Throughout the decade, using Asian Americans as model minorities showed that they were achievers when discussions equated minorities with underachievers, this “deminoritized” Asian Americans, which served to combat race-based policies (Lee, 2009). The case of Ho, Wong & Chen v. SFUSD challenged affirmative action and desegregation in 1995; Chinese Americans were outraged at San Francisco’s School District’s ethnic and racial caps for attendance at all public schools. The plaintiffs fully embraced the model minority stereotype to help with their case, while consequently demonstrating that other minorities were not succeeding as they were. However, it went unmentioned that whites benefitted most from Asian Americans’ low population in the school district.

The term “Asian American” was used to refer to all Asian ethnicities without regards to the diversity among them. This term was used plenty of times throughout Lee’s book. However, she found that there were students who identified themselves as Korean, Asian, New Wave or Asian American.

Korean-identified Students

While conducting her study, Lee found that Korean-identified students had generally emigrated when they were in elementary or middle school. Many came from middle-class or merchant family backgrounds, as well as urban, Christian and educated backgrounds (Lee, 2009). Korean parents of believed many Southeast Asians received public assistance and didn’t want to be associated with draining the economy or becoming a welfare sponge (Lee, 2009). This group tended to distance itself from other Asian Americans. One Korean-identified student, Lisa Kim, had this to say: “We think of ourselves as being more superior” (Lee, 2009, p.27). Many of the group’s members shared the belief that they were better than other Asians because they had a higher socioeconomic status than most Southeast Asians. The idea goes beyond class; Linda Park, another Korean-identified student, saw other Asians as hideous, while others of the same group viewed them as tacky. Jane Le felt insulted when one of her non-Asian teachers suggested she help Phum Ng (Chinese) with his homework. As far as she was concerned she had nothing in common with him even though the teacher saw them both as Asian.

Students in this group purchased their clothing at suburban department stores where whites shopped. Another attempt to get closer to white people was to learn American ways. That meant learning their culture or even taking up hobbies and sports they saw that whites were interested in. For example, many Korean-identified boys took up skateboarding because it was seen as a “white boy sport” (Lee, 2009). The parents were well of these attempt to learn American ways and become Americanized and encouraged their children to do so. While they wanted their children to learn and keep Korean traditions by staying in contact with other Koreans, they also wanted to make sure that they were socially acceptable to whites. However, because many of the families were merchant families, Korean students often felt like they were being scrutinized every time they would patron a store owned by a Korean.

Gender roles were frequently complained about, as far as Korean-identified girls were concerned. The girls felt that their parents treated the boys better. They didn’t feel as though they were given the same rights, privileges and respect as the boys were. Many believed that Chinese men would make good husbands because they would be respectful and treat them well. This was contrary to what their parents wanted, which was for them to marry an economically successful Korean man. Boys, on the other hand, believed in traditional gender roles for girls; they thought females should stay at home, take care of the hose and children, be respectful and obedient to their husbands, and not to discuss anything sexual in public. These students refrained from speaking about sex while Lee observed them. Kay Rowe, tutored two other Korean boys, and even though she was helping them they still thought of her as nothing more than just girl.

Racial identity was almost fully rejected by this group. They were trying to gain white acceptance by acting like their white peers. This included, but was not limited to, sharing similar interests, extracurricular activities, and physical appearance. For example, Korean boys took up skateboarding because it was considered a “white boy sport”. “Imitating of white behavior evolved into idolizing all that was associated with middle-class white people” (Lee, 2009, p.37). This included physical features. Linda Park, for example, believed that she and other Koreans were the most similar to whites socially and physically. One of her white friends agreed saying that Koreans were more white looking (Lee, 2009).

Academics were very important for Korean-identified students. They viewed education as vital for social mobility. Their parents came to the United States because of the educational opportunities available for their children. They found their own way of living up to the stereotype by working hard and viewing education as way to better their socioeconomic status as well as prove they were smarter than even the American students. When there were low achieving Korean students, Kay took it upon herself to help those students. She felt as though it was her responsibility to help them succeed.

Asian-identified Students

The second group Lee study was the Asian-identified groups. The members consisted of immigrants from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as refugees from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Instead of distancing themselves from other Asians, they were a group of diverse Asian ethnicities and felt most comfortable with other Asian-identified students. “Students would stress their pan-Asian identities in interracial situations and would stress their specific ethnic group affiliation within Asian circles” (Lee, 2009, p.39). They were comfortable with maintaining a pan-ethnic identity because they believed in sticking together because they had similar cultures. Students in this group “looked beyond social-class, ethnic, and other differences in order to forge a pan-ethnic identity” (Lee, 2009. p.44).

They felt that their similarities brought them together, while faculty and staff thought it made them all the same. These students felt that non-Asians treated all Asians the same. They recognized the non-Asians couldn’t distinguish among Asian ethnic groups despite their differences. Teddy Lee, a Chinese immigrant with Southeast Asian refugee friends, recognized that they had their differences but that they all still experienced racism. However, they didn’t confront the discrimination that they faced. They instead altered their expectations to fit what they assumed their limited opportunities were. For example, Thai Le wanted to be a lawyer or politician, but because of his accent and mother’s advice against choosing a public-speaking career with an accent like his, he opted to strive to be an engineer.

This group was most likely to live up to the “model minority” stereotype. Many believed that they should live up to the stereotype and be proud they had such a positive stereotype to aspire to. They participated in math club or physics club for their extracurricular activities. Similarly to Korean-identified students, these students believed that hard work would lead to success and ultimately respect from the dominant group (Lee, 2009). They wanted all Asians to live up to this stereotype and saw those they resisted to do so as an embarrassment. Ming Chang was one student from this group who was having trouble achieving, but he didn’t let his peers know because he felt that his problems should not be discussed.

This was another group that advocated traditional gender roles as well. Han, Vietnamese wanted to marry an old-fashioned Vietnamese wife because he believed that she would be obedient (Lee, 2009). Parents and boys in this group believed that girls should marry from their respective ethnic group. So although they were friends regardless of ethnicity, interracial marriage and relationships were looked down upon. They also refrained from talking about sex.