Culture as the Reason for AAPI Success: the Too-Easy Explanation

Much of the discourse around Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the United States revolves around their (academic) success. The model minority myth posits that AAPIs are hard-working, academically successful, passive, and compliant (Lew, Chang & Wang, 2005; Ochoa, 2013). AAPIs are the model minority and often compared to other groups of color, such as Latinxs and African Americans, as stark and polar opposites. Often, these differences in “success” are attributed to differences in culture; this cultural determinist view assumes certain cultures have corresponding values that propel or deter success. Yet, this view is all too simple and ignores one of the underlying reasons for differences in “success”: immigration policies and patterns.

A strength of ethnic studies is that it centers history back to its people, showing that knowing history is incredibly important and shapes the way we view things, or groups of people, in the present. Thus, it is imperative that we understand patterns of immigration policy and how these have impacted the racialization of groups of immigrants. The truth is, the United States has been exceptionally selective with who they have let into the country, and when. Lee and Zhou (2015), in their book, The Asian American Achievement Paradox, explain the ways in which the U.S. has always “hyper-selected” certain Asian groups; U.S. immigration policy has historically favored highly educated and skilled immigrants.  These skilled immigrants are not only one of the most highly educated groups in their own country, they are also more educated than people in their host society, the U.S. (Lee & Zhou, 2015). This applies to certain Asian American groups such as Chinese immigrants, Korean immigrants, and Indian immigrants. These highly educated, highly skilled immigrants are able to establish ethnic and social capital when they migrate to the U.S. Not only is this not the same for other AAPI groups, such as Hmong, Vietnamese, Cambodian, or Laotian immigrants –who often migrate to the U.S. as refugees– it is not the same for other working immigrant groups either, e.g. Mexican immigrants. Mexican immigrants, contrary to some hyper-selected Asian American groups, are “hypo-selected.” Mexican immigrants have a different immigration history, with the low-wage mass worker Bracero program, and contrary to hyper-selected groups, are not the most highly educated people in their own country, and are less educated than the general U.S. population. This is mostly unknown or not thought about and pushes the perception of Mexicans as poorly educated.

Many AAPI students do not fit the model minority myth, but are perceived as part of the same large, seemingly homogenous group of simply “Asian.” This not only erases the vast heterogeneity of AAPI communities but also further perpetuates the model minority myth.  It is important to remember that not all AAPI immigrants establish the same ethnic capital and have the same access to resources and frameworks. The model minority myth hurts AAPI students that do not fit into the stereotype. It is not widely talked about that many Laotian and Cambodian Americans live below poverty and do not graduate at the same rates as other East Asian Americans (Lew, 2005). If we do not dismantle the model minority myth, we cannot dismantle the rhetoric behind the supposed Asian culture that drives success. Lee and Zhou (2015) make it quite clear that the macro-level structure of U.S. immigration policy and history, in part, determines the outcomes for groups of color in America.

AAPIs are “buffers” and “pawns” in a larger scheme of white supremacy (Poon, Squire, Kodama, Byrd, Chan, Manzano, & Bishundat, 2016). No matter how “positive” the stereotype may be, it harms many more than it helps. We must start de-colonizing the way U.S. history is taught and we must begin critically examining the U.S.’ deliberate and strategic immigration policies. If we are to ensure academic success for all students, we must provide more opportunities for access to institutions that support students. We must provide non-class-based resources to AAPI students. It is also important for educators to understand the heterogeneity of AAPI communities and the different challenges they may face. Many of these challenges stem from immigration patterns. The model minority myth is a strategic paradigm to position AAPIs over other people of color but perpetually underneath Whites. The model minority myth forces the constant comparison between people of color, while White people effectively remain ambiguously in power as neither group attains the powers and privileges of Whiteness. Let us not forget who benefits from the specific racializations of people of color.



Lee, J., & Zhou, M. (2015). The Asian American Achievement Paradox. Russell Sage Foundation.

Lew, Chang, & Wang (2005). “The Overlooked Minority: Asian Pacific American Students at Community Colleges”. UCLA Community College Review.

Ochoa, G. L. (2013). Academic Profiling. University of Minnesota Press.

Poon, O., Squire, D., Kodama, C., Byrd, A., Chan, J., Manzano, L., & Bishundat, D. (2016). A critical review of the model minority myth in selected literature on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in higher education. Review of Educational Research86(2), 469-502.


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