White As The Standard: Where Do Asian Americans Fit?

by Kathy Hong

In society, white people are used as the standard of success. I’ve experienced this firsthand because growing up, I dreamed of a white picket-fence house with a dog, annual Christmas photos in matching sweaters, and Sunday pot roasts. I imagined happiness as being part of an upper middle class white family, so my first step towards success, my American dream, was to trade in my culture and assimilate to American culture. I thought that this would make me happy and successful, but in reality, it just masked the challenges of being Southeast Asian. My parents were still immigrants, blue collar workers, survivors of war, and I was still a first generation Vietnamese-American. I didn’t have the privilege and resources that a middle class white student would and ignoring my culture wasn’t going to help anything. 

(Keep in mind that these illusional thoughts belonged to an impressionable, elementary child who watched way too much reality television for her own good)   

Just as they do in society, whites set the bar in education. This implies that people of color must respond and gauge themselves against white standards as a measure of success. (Coloma 11)

Similar to how I thought being successful was being part of an upper middle-class white family, students of color are considered successful when they perform the same as white students in school, e.g. performance on standardized testing, involvement on campus, access to higher education.

Many problems arise when the standards are so biased. For example, the standardized testing that is used as a measure of success is inherently biased because they favor the backgrounds of middle to upper-class English speaking White students whose backgrounds reflect the creators of the tests (Ochoa 64). Also, students of color don’t have access to the same resources that a white student would, whether it be a parent who understands how the education system works, a parent who speaks English and can help with homework, the opportunity to join after-school activities instead of getting a job, or school faculty who understand their experiences at home.

Consequently, when Asian Americans do well in school, they are stereotyped as the “model minority” and framed as a homogenous racial group who have overcome the discrimination against them and achieved success (Coloma 10). The model minority myth praises Asian Americans for reaching the White bar despite their struggles as a minority group, implying that if they can do it, other groups should be able to as well.

There are many, many problems with this overgeneralized assumption, but to start off, the model minority myth aggregates all Asian American experiences when it only refers to students who are doing well according to white standards. Overgeneralizing the academic success of a small portion of the population assumes that the rest are doing just fine. This not only masks the academic challenges of Asian Americans, but it considers them irrelevant because some people were able to overcome them (Poon et al 14).

Secondly, even if they are doing well, their success does not make them white. They are still Asian American and face all of the discrimination and struggles that come with it.

Next, it’s used to pit minority groups against each other and completely ignores their cultural background and lived experiences (Poon et al 20). All minority groups come from different backgrounds which result in different struggles. These should be addressed instead of glazing over them under the premise that if Asian Americans can do it, then they should too.

And finally, why should white performance even be used as the standard of success in the first place? Minority groups will never reach this bar simply because they are not white and they will never be white. Using this as the standard supports a system of white supremacy and implies the inferiority of minority experiences.

I am a first-generation, Vietnamese American, and I am successful not because I did well on my SAT and attend a highly ranked university, but because of who I have become. My American dream includes children who know and appreciate their culture, annual Lunar New Year photos in áo dài’s, and Sunday brunch with bánh xèo. The white standard is not my standard for success because my culture is an important part of who I am and what I have accomplished, and if students of color are to prosper, this must be the case in education as well.

Coloma, Roland Sintos (2006) Disorienting race and education: changing

paradigms on the schooling of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Race Ethnicity and

Education

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 Research, 86(2), 469-502.

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