Homogenizing Asian Americans as “model minorities”

Asian Americans are smart, they excel over other ethnic groups because that is just how they were genetically programmed, they are nerds who study hardcore math and science, they are taking over education: these are some examples of stereotypes that are used to overgeneralize the Asian American community. Many may argue that Asian Americans should be “flattered” that they are placed up on a pedestal with such “positive” labels. However, when thinking of “Asians,” which ethnic subgroups come to mind? Perhaps, the Chinese? The Indians? The Koreans, Filipinos, and Japanese? But what about the Vietnamese? Did you know that Cambodians and Laotians are also Asians? Were you aware that Asian subgroups such as the Pacific Islanders and the Hmong exist? Looking at Asia as a continent, there are 48 different countries that represent it. However, data collected from various media and university studies only cover the major Asian ethnic subgroups (Chinese, Indian, Korean, Filipino, Japanese) to explain Asian Americans and their academic success. When data on academic achievement is disaggregated to ethnic specificity, the disparity among Asian American groups is striking. Labeling and homogenizing Asian American students as “model minorities” is harmful in ways that it lumps all Asian subgroups together and ignores the heterogeneity within the group.

The 1990 Census showed that 64.3 percent of Cambodians, 59.8 percent of Laotians, 71.7 percent of Hmong, and 39.4 percent of Vietnamese living in America have less than high school education (Khatharya 2). Numbers have shown progress over the years; however, improvement in educational attainment remain slow for these under represented Asian subgroups. At the University of California Berkeley, Vietnamese students accounted for only 7 percent of the 41 percent of the undergraduate student population, and Cambodian and Laotian student representation remained so statistically low that they were continually lumped in the category of “Other Asian” (Khatharya 2). Many Southeast Asian American students experience lack of support from their teachers, administrators, parents, and community because they do not succeed in the same rate as other groups. Khatharya states, “Students continue to drop out or be ‘pushed out’ of the educational system (Khatharya 3).” Because they are homogenized with the Asian American “model minorities,” their interests and concerns are marginalized. They are essentially caught in the vicious cycle of invisibility, marginality, and persistent under-representation (Khatharya 21).

Long beach is home to the largest Cambodian population outside of Southeast Asia, and there, Cambodian American students lack support and resources to reach their potentials through higher education. In the documentary Pass or Fail in Cambodia Town, Hinojosa interviewed Alex Pham. Alex, who found himself in the midst of family issues and recurring incarceration, said “we are not the Asians that you guys think we are (Pass or Fail in Cambodia Town).” Shameka Min, a senior at Jordan highs school who is juggling poverty, homelessness, teenage pregnancy, and her last few weeks of school that will determine whether she graduates or not, said “This year has been tough because of my living situations and problems with my family (Pass or Fail in Cambodia Town).” The model minority myth undermines such struggles and only places weight on the success factor. It lumps Asian Americans into the same group as other Asian subgroups that might not be experiencing such poverty/conditions.

Homogenizing all Asian Americans as natural born smart model minorities ignores the countless Asian Americans who do not fit that stereotypical mold. It undermines their struggles, creates divisiveness, and puts pressure on young generations. Asians are not born knowing what a limit to a definite integral is. Just as we learn that 2 plus 2 equals 4, knowledge is something that is attained through learning. Next time you think about copying off of the exam of the random Asian sitting next to you, think twice.

-Debbie Kim

Works Cited

Um, Khatharya. A Dream Denied: Educational Experiences of Southeast Asian American Youth: Issues and Recommendations. Washington, DC: Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, 2003.

Pass or Fail in Cambodia Town. Dir. Leslie Asako Gladsjo. Perf. Maria Hinojosa. America By the Numbers. PBS SoCal, Nov. 2014. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.

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