The Historical Context of Asian American Success and Its Subliminal Message

By Danielle Phung

With the enrollment of Asian Americans increasing in universities and colleges all across the nation, the common stereotype that most Asian Americans must contend, the model minority myth, must be addressed. The model minority myth is defined as a stereotype “that depicts AAPIs as exemplary yet unassuming over-achievers” (Coloma 2006). One common misconception that this stereotype conveys is that Asian Americans’ success is because of their culture which values education.  These ideas are part of the cultural determinism framework which “emphasize[s] supposed differences in values, parental expectations, and work ethics…Asian Americans [are] believed to possess the preferred cultural and familial predispositions necessary to excel” (Ochoa 2013). Despite the positive connotations of the model minority myth of Asian Americans, it does more harm than good. The model minority myth pits Asian Americans against other minority groups and normalizes white supremacy.

The model minority stereotype is detrimental to Asian Americans because it holds them to a higher standard of excellence while still subjecting them to racial discrimination. Thus, Asian Americans exist in a liminal space where their overrepresentation in higher education makes them seen as privileged or “honorary whites” despite the fact that they still have to contend with racial subjugation. As a consequence of subscribing to the idea that Asian Americans are exceptionally able to succeed despite the racial discrimination against them, other minority groups are held to the same standards of success. Thus, it is important to acknowledge how this misconception came about in the first place.

In disaggregating Asian Americans into separate sub-groups, certain groups show better results while others show equal or even worse results than non-Asian minority groups. East Asian groups such as the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean display greater academic success than their South East Asian peers. The longer a group stays in the United States, the longer it has to build up its ethnic capital and population. The Chinese Americans have done just that. They were the first Asian group to immigrate to the United States their arrival dating back to the gold rush in the 1800s. They have been able to grow their ethnic capital to what it is today by being hyper-selected. In order to be able to immigrate to the United States, the Chinese immigrant is required to be more educated compared to their country of origin and also more educated compared to their host country.

In comparison, South East Asian immigrants arrived at the United States relatively recently, in the 1980s, because of war in their native countries. Their status when they arrive at the United States is severely disadvantaged because they are refugees and they do not have much ethnic capital already established for a smoother transition. The historical context of how individual ethnic groups came to reside in the United States reveals the reason for the disparities of academic success between different Asian American groups.

By applying this historical lens to the varying experiences that different minority groups experience with immigration policies and law such as the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act which abolished the national –origins quota system and replaced it with a skills-based and family reunification preference system (Lee and Zhou 2015) the effects of institutional systems are revealed. Under this act, “the degree of positive educational selectivity varies considerably across national-origin groups…0.667 for the Chinese, a moderate high of 0.589 for the Vietnamese, and a low of 0.200 for the Mexicans” (Lee and Zhou 2015). The differences in selectivity correlate with how the groups’ educational profiles are perceived. On one end of the spectrum are the hyper-selected Chinese who are seen as overachievers, on the other end are the Mexicans who are seen as lazy underachievers with poor academic skill. Thus, it would be wrong to assume that different ethnic groups have inherent aptitudes or inabilities for success for it is the after effects of the nation’s immigration law that trickle down to what Americans perceive in their everyday lives.

Instead of spreading awareness of the historical context for the disparity between Asians and other ethnic groups, white supremacists use the model minority myth as a tool to disprove the experiences and oppression that other minority groups face. By emphasizing the academic achievement gap, the focus of attention is on how non-Asian minority groups do not have the same academic achievement as Asian Americans. However, more attention should be centered upon how whites are privileged with flexibility of movement without the pressures of conforming to racial stereotypes.

Works Cited

Coloma, Roland Sintos. Disorienting race and education: changing paradigms on the schooling of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Otterbein College, 2006. Race Ethnicity and Education. Web. 11 March 2017.

Lee, Jennifer, and Min Zhou. The Asian American Achievement Paradox. Russell Sage Foundation, 2015, Jstor. Web. 11 March 2017.

Ochoa, Gilda L. Academic Profiling : Latinos, Asian Americans, and the Achievement Gap. Minneapolis, US: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 11 March 2017.




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