|Interrogating Stereotypes: The Case of the Asian ''Model Minority''|
By Carlos J. Ovando
Relative to stereotypes of other racial minorities, the model minority stereotype appears to be positive and flattering. Indeed, what could be wrong with being described as smart and hardworking? . . . Despite the privileges that I may at times enjoy from being cast as a model minority, history tells us that the label is dangerous.
— Stacey Lee (1996), Unraveling the “Model Minority” Stereotype
In this article I will interrogate stereotypes and connect the discussion to the controversy surrounding the “model minority” stereotype often applied to Asian Americans. I will conclude by recommending that educators and researchers become ethnographers of their multicultural student populations, in order to deconstruct conformist formulas, overstated concepts, and descriptions based on limited information.
Conscious and Unconscious Stereotypes
Ideally we should all judge others by the content of their character, not by their race, gender, social class, religion, or culture. Yet, because our identity is also a function of the nature of our relationships with others, there is a tendency for insiders and outsiders alike to see us as a reflection of our linguistic or cultural background. At some point in our lives, most of us, either consciously or unconsciously, have generalized about the values, attitudes, and behaviors of individuals affiliated with particular groups, and we have done so without having sufficient knowledge of the complexity surrounding their lived experiences. While we may recognize the inappropriateness or limitations of such thinking, there is ample evidence that “stereotyping is as natural to people as thinking itself” (Longstreet, 1978, p. 10).
Stereotyping has understandably earned a bad reputation, for it sacrifices the uniqueness of individuals and intra-ethnic variation at the altar of narrow imagery. The psychologist Daryl Bem, however, sees the genesis of stereotyping in a more positive light: “It is important to realize that the process by which most stereotypes arise is not evil or pathological. Generalizing from a limited set of experiences and treating individuals as members of a group are not only common cognitive acts but also necessary ones" (cited in Longstreet, 1978, p. 10).
Because stereotypes are such an inherent part of human cognition processes, we must establish an aggressive agenda to cross-examine the dangerous effects of stereotypes in the lives of students and communities: We are all involved in stereotyping. To hide this from ourselves or to allow public institutions to ignore the phenomenon does not eliminate the stereotype but rather allows them to exist, perhaps as inaccurate or exaggerated generalizations, unchecked by logical examination or empirical evidence (Longstreet, 1978, p. 11).
The “Model Minority”: Hegemonic Ploy?
What is wrong with mainstream society’s characterization of Asian Americans as the “model minority”—smart, achievement-oriented, hardworking, respectful, and staunch believers in pulling yourself up by your bootstraps to achieve the American dream? Why should some Asian Americans object to the “model minority” stereotype? Why should some consider it dangerous? Does the “model minority” offer any potentially good outcomes? Is there any substance to the allegation by some Asian Americans that the “model minority” stereotype is a clever hegemonic ploy by the dominant mainstream society to create invidious comparisons between and among ethnic and racial minorities?
At first glance, the “model minority” stereotype comes across as a fine compliment to an entire people from Asia who now reside in the United States. Therein, however, lies the first problem, as the stereotype homogenizes the Asian American population, masking the diversity within Asian American communities due to social class, religion, language, ethnicity, migratory status, length of residence, and education. In her year-long ethnographic study of a high school, Stacey Lee, for example, discovered that Asian American students’ feelings about the “model minority” stereotype varied considerably according to which of four groups they defined themselves as belonging to—Asian-identified, Asian American-identified, Korean-identified, and Asian New Wavers. Asian-identified students were tradition-bound students who held tenaciously to ancestral sociocultural and linguistic norms and patterns and tended to conform more often to the “model minority” stereotype. Asian American-identified students saw themselves as bicultural. They tended to critique their cultural positionality along a traditional Asian and Western continuum. They also tended to question the “model minority” stereotype because it did not represent the diversity among Asian students. Not all Asian students, for example, do well academically (Lee, 1996, p. 67). Further, they felt that the stereotypes tended to polarize students along academic, social, and ethnic lines. Korean-identified students in Lee’s study tended to set themselves apart from other students of Asian origin, considering themselves superior both academically and socially. Very conscious of what it takes to make it in U.S. society, they tended to adapt to the academic, behavioral, and social patterns of their white peers in high school. Socially, for example, they tended to emphasize good appearance by purchasing designer clothes.
Asian New Wavers represented counter-cultural behavior patterns. They tended to present an unconventional persona (e.g., baggy pants, combat boots, dyed hair) and were more likely to smoke openly, skip classes, and listen to hip-hop music. In doing so they challenged the notion that all students of Asian ancestry are “model minorities.”
Possible Advantages of the “Model Minority” Stereotype
Are there any positive outcomes to be derived from being labeled a “model minority"? Intuitively, one could speculate that voluntary minorities' positive appraisal of their situation is likely to have a positive influence on their overall performance. The self-fulfilling prophecy or Pygmalion effect may be activated—one gets what one expects from others. One could also conclude that those Asian Americans who voluntarily migrated to the United States and are perceived by the larger society and their teachers to be high academic achievers will fulfill the “model minority” stereotype (see Ogbu, 1993, 1992, and 1990).
A Dangerous Side of the “Model Minority” Stereotype
However, as we have noted, the main problem of the so-called "model minority" stereotype is that it oversimplifies the lived experiences of many Asian students. In addition, even when they want to be accepted by the larger society, so-called “model minorities” may feel the sting of racial discrimination and prejudice often directed toward native-born minorities such as African Americans, American Indians, Chicanos, and other Latinos. The stereotype can also be used by the dominant white culture to maintain its power while also maintaining the invisibility of Asian Americans and other minority groups. Through the "model minority" stereotype, the dominant white culture implicitly denigrates other minorities, including less successful whites (Minami, 2000). The “model minority” stereotype can also lead to invidious comparisons across racial lines. Victor Lewis, an African American male and a member of the cast of the provocative video “The Color of Fear,” states, “When I see Asian people being praised for intelligence and Black people invalidated for being stupid, I feel bitter about it. . . . It hurts me to see that acknowledgment given up to other people when it is taken away from me.” In the same video, David Lee, a Chinese American male and also a member of the cast, says, “Growing up, I picked up stereotypes that Blacks were lazy; that they were violent; that they were dangerous. There is a tape in the back of my head that plays that back all the time. But there is another tape that I’ve developed that says, This isn’t true.” There is also speculation, if not substance, that with the changing face of the United States—browner, poorer, and multilingual—sectors of white society are becoming concerned about losing their dominant grip on society. Hence they are using Asian Americans as props to buttress their power and control (Hu-DeHart, 2000). In this view of the world, Asian Americans are not in control of their own destiny. Rather, they are manipulated at will by the white dominant society.
Acknowledging that stereotypes are here to stay but need to be interrogated, we all need to be sensitive to the linguistic, intellectual, creative, social, and emotional adjustment and development of Asian American youth without falling into the trap of cultural determinism (Plucker, 1996; Kitano, 1989, p. 139). In his review of the literature on Asian Americans’ schooling and counseling experiences, Plucker (1996) notes that we “need to consider carefully the specific characteristics and beliefs of each family on a case-by-case basis” (p. 333). Since the termination of the “national origins quota system” in 1965, which limited the entry of non-English-background speakers, and Asians in particular, to the United States (Crawford, 1995, p. 14), the Asian population has grown from 1 million to about 10 million (Hu-DeHart, 2000). Hence, their impact will continue to be strongly felt in schools and society. Because a high-quality education is viewed by most members of society as the sine qua non for achieving the American dream, teachers, professors, researchers, and policymakers will have to take into account the formidable educational, cultural, linguistic, and social class needs of the great diversity of Asian Americans in the United States in the 21st century.
Crawford, J. (1995). Bilingual education: History, politics, theory and practice (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Bilingual Education Services.
Ovando is a professor of education.Quote this article on your site
To create link towards this article on your website,
copy and paste the text below in your page.
Powered by QuoteThis © 2008