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Unraveling the Model Minority Myth of Asian American Students

By — Diversity in Education Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Oct 25, 2010

There is a popular image of Asian American students as the "model minority." The stereotype suggests that Asian Americans are more academically, economically, and socially successful than any other racial minority groups. Most people believe that Asian American students are more successful than other racial minority students because of their supposedly unique Asian cultural values that emphasize hard work, strong family values, and/or stronger belief in the American meritocracy (Wu, 2002). Contrary to these popular beliefs, the overly positive caricature of Asian Americans as the model minority is false. Further, this inaccurate and distorted comparison leads to adverse effects in the lives of Asian American students (Chun, 1995; Wong & Halgin, 2006).  

Why Are Asian Americans The Model Minority?

During the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s, Asian Americans were first characterized as the model minority. In reaction to efforts in removing institutional, legal, and social disparities between majority and minority groups, political conservatives pointed to Asian Americans as an exemplar and testimony that the American dream was colorblind. The message was loud and clear: "If Asian Americans can succeed in America, why not Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans?" In 1966, William Petersen solidified this ideology by coining Japanese Americans the "model minority" (Petersen, 1966). The success of Japanese Americans quickly generalized across all Asian ethnic groups, regardless of their diversity in culture, education, and class.

Is The Model Minority Label True?

There is a germ of truth to the comparative success of Asian Americans. When examining aggregated mean group differences, Asian American students generally fare better than other racial minority groups in respect to grade point averages, standardized test scores, or even numbers of high school, bachelor, and advanced degrees obtained compared to other racial minorities (NationalCenter for Education Statistics, 2003; U.S. Census Bureau, 2003).  

There are Many Examples That Debunk the Model Minority Myth

1. The model minority myth ignores the heterogeneity of Asian American groups and their significantly varied levels of success. While many South and East Asian American groups such as Asian Indians and Japanese have been successful in receiving high school, bachelors, and advanced degrees, most Southeast Asian Americans including Hmong, Cambodians, and Laotians never finished high school-at times, rates comparable if not lower than other racial minority groups (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004).

2. The model minority myth neglects history and the role of selective immigration of Asian Americans. The 1965 Immigration Act significantly changed the demography of Asian Americans in the U.S. today. In particular, the Act allowed a greater number of educationally and economically successful Asian American professionals who could "contribute" to the American society (Takaki, 1993). Like many other Americans, academic success of Asian American students was correlated with income and educational levels of their parents.

3. The model minority myth fails to capture the more complex representation of Asian Americans in the education system. The myth suggests that Asian American students are over represented in the U.S. higher education. In actuality, the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education (2008) recently found that the increasing presence of Asian Americans in higher education parallels similar increases of other racial minority groups. Further, Asian American student populations concentrate in a small percentage of institutions, giving a false impression of high enrollment in higher education overall. In fact, Asian American students were more likely to be enrolled in community colleges than in either public or private four-year colleges.

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