by Stephanie Chen

I want to talk about education.  Maybe because it is October and the academic year has started for me, my students and my clients that this time of year marks some important experiences, feelings, thoughts, expectations and worries. And, I want to talk about education and the model minority myth.

As a Chinese American woman, I have benefitted from the existing hierarchies of race in this country.  Being seen as the model minority has made many educational and academic pursuits expected and accessible to me.  I am a very lucky recipient of the best education possible (and worked my butt off, too!), and from teachers who have taken me under their wing and rooted for me and my successes. Even within the Asian American community, this stereotype is a myth that has caused tremendous emotional pain and invisibility: from buckling under the pressure of academic pursuits to eternal conflation of the deep diversity of Asian Americans and their experiences to one label and expectation.  This myth also masks the limitations placed upon Asian Americans in terms of which subjects/fields we are allowed to excel (and those we are not), and the blatant blindness towards those in our community who need educational support and resources the most.

The model minority myth also demonizes other minority groups by perpetuating stereotypes about their academic “failure,” lack of dedication, the inability of prioritizing education as a cultural value.  These beliefs result in internalized biases and discrimination often occurring on a conscious and unconscious level. I have worked long enough as a school-based clinician and then managed a school-based program to witness and to work through and with an education system where Black and Brown boys and girls are often kicked out of classrooms, expelled and or labeled as “emotionally-disturbed” without thought or process.  

In addition, the model minority myth/trope has done an excellent job pitting people of color against each other specifically in the field of education.  Asian American students and families are told that their hard-earned spots are being taken by other people of color (e.g. Latino/a/x and African Americans, in particular) who do not work as hard.  This perspective is the crux of the systematic political maneuvering and re-interpretation being played out in affirmative action debates. It is rarely noticed or discussed that opponents of affirmative action, especially the ones who are shaping the discussions and talking points (if not leading the charge against) are not invested in increasing the admission of students of color but rather maintaining the status quo — preserving white admission rates.  These opponents have used and continue to use terms such as “reverse discrimination” to shift the attention from their main purpose and instead to create conflict between students, families and communities of color. As Kim stated, the model minority myth has conscripted Asian Americans into the conservative war to protect (or, in this case, retrieve) white privileges from Black encroachment” (1999*, p. 120).

Lastly, I am also aware of my current position.  I am not a high school senior applying to college, nor parent/caregiver to someone who is.  My “skin in the game” is not as thick as that high school senior. And my thoughts are not meant to undermine the real dedication and sacrifice of many of these families.  I believe my opinions about model minority myth and affirmative action can and do coexist with the stories of Asian American students and parents. I cannot think of a better time in our current political and social climate to take charge in changing existing narratives.   Asian Americans deserve the opportunity to investigate all the myths about us and other communities and to create new ideas constructed by us to highlight our complexities and richness and not in the service of upholding white supremacy.   

Stephanie Z. Chen is a licensed clinical psychologist who has a private practice in San Francisco and is also a full-time professor.

* Kim, C. J. (1999). The racial triangulation of Asian Americans. Politics & Society, 27(1), 105-138.

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