1. Think about how your racial storyline has been influenced by the white racial frame and
the field of racial positions.
I come from an immigrant Salvadorean family who relocated to the US three years ago.
Like many immigrant families, I was grateful for the opportunities a life in America provided
me. I worked very hard in school and performed generally well. I was in fact, the first person in
my family to attend college. At first, when I attended High School, I found the language barrier
discouraging, especially when my classmates laughed at my accent. It was hard to fit in and to be
taken seriously. This affected my confidence which made me not participate in classroom
discussions and group work sometimes I still do that because I feel self-conscious. Coming from
a different background, I initially struggled with standardized tests which I did not believe fairly
reflected my ability. At that point, I was always tracked into lower achieving groups because of
the language barrier.
Although I did not experience direct racism while going through the education system, I
now realize that my profile as a minority immigrant influenced my experiences. For instance, as
soon as I started performing well, I was prioritized by my school counsellors who saw me as an
outlier compared to other children that fell into the same racial category as myself. I was
consequently placed in a high achieving category which means I was often recommended by my
school counsellors. As we saw on the articles, most children that come from a similar
background as me are often seen as products of disorganized homes and are thought of as
unmotivated, non-competitive and culturally disadvantaged. Initially it was difficult to shake off
these kinds of stereotypes that seemed to box me and almost predict the kind of life I was
expected to have. For instance, I remember how frustrated I was when one of my high school
teachers could not believe I was the one who had created a video assignment, just because it was
one of the best in my class. She viewed me from a biased racial lens and thus insisted that the
video had been created by another student who fitted her view of what an able student ‘looked’
like. In the university, things were not any better than in high school. I faced many challenges
because of my name that this even affected my financial aid. They wanted extra information to
verify my credentials hence I had to hand over many documents that I did not also have at that
moment, yet I was to submit them on the same day. However, over time, I have been able to
focus my energy on proving them wrong and when I did, the same system rewarded me by
prioritizing my path to college by enabling me to have access to multiple resources, mentorship,
and financial aid.
Asian Americans: The Absent
Minority, the Silenced Minority,
and the Model Minority
On June 21, 1989, Academic High School held its graduation ceremony for the class of 1989. In keeping with tradition, Academic High held
its ceremony at the Academy of Music. This beautiful, historic landmark
is the home of the city orchestra and the city opera company. Graduation
was set for 10:00 A.M. I arrived at 9:00 A.M. and found crowds of graduating
seniors and their families spilling over onto the boulevard. I met parents,
served as a photographer, and even got included in a few snapshots.
This was to be a big day in Academic High School's history. In the
words of the principal, "It was a year of firsts." The principal was alluding
to the fact that it was the first year that Academic High had a female valedictorian and the first year that the school had a female senior class president. Thus this graduation marked the success of coeducation at a school
that had resisted admitting girls until the 1980s. For the principal it was a
personal success. For many of my Asian American student informants, it
was also a year of firsts. For Meng, Pho, Lin, and many others, this marked
the first time that someone from their families would graduate from high
school in the United States. Thu, Sam, and Grace would be the first in
their families to go on to college. After months of fieldwork I considered
many of these students to be my friends, and I was happy for them and
proud of them. The day seemed perfect, and for a while I forgot that I was
there as an ethnographer and began to get caught up in the excitement
of the day.
At 9:45 A.M .• I went inside the hall where parents and friends filled the
seats. At 10:00 AM sharp, the Academic High School orchestra began to
play Pomp and Circumstance, and the faculty, dressed in academic garb,
began to file into the auditorium. After the faculty, the graduating seniors
began to march down the aisles; the audience began to cheer and cameras
began to flash. The auditorium shook with excitement until the proces-
Unraveling the "Model Minority" Stereotype
sian reached the letter C. With the letter C came the first large group of
Asian American students. At that moment the audience suddenly grew
silent. It was as if no one cared about the achievements of this group.
Suddenly I heard the sound of hissing and booing emerge from the front
of the auditorium. My jaw nearly dropped to the ground, and my eyes
began to well lip with tears. While I was upset for my informants, I also
felt personally attacked. Once again, I was reminded that as Asian Americans, we are not always welcomed. After I overcame my initial anger, I
realized that this was an ethnographic moment that had to be recorded.
Thus this event shook me out of the clouds and back to my purpose as
This book is based on an ethnographic study of the Asian American students at a school I call Academic High School. The focus of the book is on
how the Asian American students formed their ethnic and racial identities
within the context of the interracial relationships at the school. In short,
I will examine how Asian American students formed their identities (i.e.,
sense of self) in relation to others. As I will argue, the events at the graduation reflect the fact that many people did not see the Asian American students as legitimate members of the school or of U.S. society. Some saw
the Asian American students as outsiders/foreigners who were pushing
their way into the school. TIley resented what they believed was the overachievement of Asian American students. Still others held Asian Americans lip as exemplars of the American dream of success (i.e., model minorities).
I will pay particular attention to how the stereotype of Asian Arnericans as model minorities affected the Asian American students' experiences, their relationships with non-Asians, and their self-defined identities.
Through observations and conversations with students, I learned that
Asian American students at Academic High divided themselves into four
self-defined identity groups. Each of the four identity groups had distinct
attitudes toward schooling and interracial relationships, and each had a
unique response to the model minority stereotype. By drawing attention
to the students' voices, I hope that this book will go "beyond [the] silencing" (Weis & Fine, 1993) that surrounds Asian American experiences. As
Osajima (1988) notes, Asian American voices have been conspicuously
absent from the literature that describes Asian Americans as model minorities. Broadly speaking, I will focus attention on a minority group that has
been simultaneously ignored and exalted in the U.S. imagination. This
book is about students who live behind the model minority stereotype.
Asian Amencans: The Absent/Silenced/Model
DISCOURSES OF EXCLUSION:
THE ABSENT YOICE(S) OF ASIAN AMERICA
In the United States discussions of race are generally framed in terms
of blacks and whites. Despite the fact that Asian Americans have been on
the mainland of the United States for more than 150 years, Asians are still
regarded as "strangers from a different shore" (Takaki, 1989) and voices
from Asian America are excluded from the mainstream discourse on race.
Two recent books that perpetuate the black and white discourse on race
are Studs Terke!'s Race: How Whites and Blacks Think and Feel About
tbe American Obsession (1992) and Andrew Hacker's Two Nations:
Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (1992). Although both
books mention other racial groups, the authors define race relations in
black and white terms (Winant, 1993). In his reasons for excluding Asians
from his discussion of race, Hacker (1992) suggests that, due to the stellar
achievements of Asian Americans, Asians may soon be considered to be
white. The widespread popularity of these books suggests that many
Americans have been influenced by the black and white view of race.
Because of the black and white discourse of race, most Americans do
not view Asian Americans as legitimate racial minorities. Given this thinking, when institutions think: about increasing racial diversity, they often
focus on African Americans and sometimes on Latinos. Asians, on the
other hand, are not seen as people who add to racial diversity, and thus
they are largely absent from the discourse of diversity. For example, in
constructing categories for minority scholarships and in recruiting minority students for admission, many universities exclude Chinese, Japanese,
and Korean Americans. In her research on the controversy surrounding
Asian Americans in higher education, Takagi (1992) found that Asian
American students were "at odds with university goals of diversity, in
terms of either, and sometimes both, academic achievement and racial
mix of the student body" (p.81).
TIle reasons given for excluding Asian American perspectives from
discussions of race fall into three categories. The first category includes
explanations that center around the argument that there are not enough
Asian Americans to warrant consideration. At a recent lecture on race in
higher education, I was struck by the fact that the researcher had designed
her research without consideration of Asian Americans. Her study, which
examined attrition and retention rates across racial groups, included three
categories for students: black/African American, Hispanic, and white.
When asked whether she included students of Asian descent in her study,
she responded by saying that there were not enough Asians in her study
to constitute a separate category and that where there were Asians, they
Unraveling the "Model Minority"
had been subsumed under the category of whites and others. Ironically,
one of the states included in her study was California, a state in which
14% of the higher education enrollment in 1993 was Asian American. I In
1982, Betty Waki, a japanese American art teacher in the Houston Unified
School District, was classified as white because the system did not recognize Asians as a racial category. Her racial status denied, Ms. Waki subsequently lost her job because there were too many "white" art teachers in
the district (Omi, 1992).
Another reason that Asian Americans are excluded from the discourse
on race in the United States is that Asian Americans are perceived to be
unassimilable foreigners as opposed to American minorities. The image
that Asians are always foreign(ers) has been perpetuated by the Orientalist
discourse which holds that there are innate differences between the East
and the West (Cheung, 1993; Said, 1979). The Orientalist discourse suggests that an Asian person can never become an American. Rudyard Kipling's phrase, "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall
meet," expresses this sentiment. Thus, regardless of the number of generations an Asian American person's family has been in the United States,
he Ot she has probably been asked: "What country are you from?" In my
experience as a third-generation Asian American woman, I have fielded
many questions concerning my origins. When I tell people that I am from
California, most respond by asking yet another question: "But where are
you really from?" Their response to me suggests an unwillingness to accept me or any Asian as American. The persistent image of Asians as foreigners/outsiders implies that Asians are not legitimate members of U.S.
society. This image silences Asian Americans by denying them "the right
to say anything except words of gratitude and praise about America"
(E. H. Kim, 1993a, p. 223).
Related to the image that Asians are foreigners is the fact that Asians
in the United States are often seen as immigrants as opposed to minorities.
In writing about differential educational achievement across minority
groups.john Ogbu (1987,1991) has perpetuated this distinction. According to his framework, which I will discuss in Chapter 3, Asians in the
United States are immigrants, while African Americans are domestic minorities or involuntary minorities. While some Asians in the United States
are immigrants, others are refugees, and still others have been here for
I. According [Q the California Postsecondary
Education Commission (1995), in the Fall of
1993, 36,111 of the 122,271 undergraduate
students enrolled in the University of California
system, 47,468 of tile 262,492 undergraduate students enrolled in the California State Universtry system, and 146,006 of tile 1,074,174 undergraduate
srudenrs enrolled in California community colleges were categorized as Asian/Pacific Islanders or Filipinos.
Asian Americans: The Absent/Silenced/Model
numerous generations. Thus we are left wondering if Asians ever cease
being immigrants. Are second-, third-, and fourth-generation Asian Americans still immigrants?
The final and perhaps most insidious reason given for excluding Asian
voices from the discourse of race is the stereotype that Asians do not have
any problems (i.e., they are model minorities). In the minds of most
Americans, minorities like African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are minorities precisely because they experience disproportionate
levels of poverty and educational underachievement. The model minority stereotype suggests that Asian Americans are "ourwhiting whites" and
have overcome discrimination to be more successful than whites. Ironically, this reason for excluding Asians from the discussion of race (i.e., that
they are model minorities) is the very way in which Asian Americans receive the most attention in the discourse on race (E. H. Kim, 1993b). That
is, when Asians are included in the discourse on race it is usually to talk
about their "success." Asian Americans are described as hardworking entrepreneurs who are doing well economically (e.g., Korean merchants),
and they are described as hardworking students who excel in math and
science (e.g., Asian American whiz kids). While Asian Americans are stereotyped as model minorities, other racial minorities are stereotyped in
overtly negative ways. In describing the 1980s discourse on race in the
United States, Sleeter (1993) writes:
The media frequently connected African Americans and Latinos with social
problems that many Americans regarded as the result of moral depravity: drug
use, teen pregnancy. and unemployment. Asian Americans are hailed as the
"model minority" portrayed as achieving success in the U.S. through hard
work and family cohesiveness (Suzuki, 1989), following the same route to
success that many whites believed their ancestors followed. (p. 160)
Thus. within the model minority discourse, Asian Americans represent
the "good" race and African Americans represent the "bad" race. Asian
Americans represent the hope and possibility of the American dream.
MODEL MINORITY STEREOTYPE AS A HEGEMONIC DEVICE
By describing Asian Americans as model minorities, the diverse and
complex experiences of Asian Americans remain hidden. Instead of seeing
different Asian ethnicities as being separate and distinct, the model minority stereotype lumps diverse Asian ethnicities into one racial!panethnic
group. This representation silences the multiple voices of Asian Ameri-
Unraveling the "Model Minority"
cans, thereby creating a monolithic monotone. In addition, by painting
Asian Americans as a homogeneous group, the model minority stereotype
erases ethnic, cultural, sociaJ-class, gender, language, sexual, generational,
achievement, and other differences. Furthermore, by describing Asian
Americans as model minorities, the dominant group is imposing a categoricallabel on Asian Americans. Espiritu (1992) writes:
category ignores subgroup boundaries, lumping together diverse
peoples in a single, expanded "ethnic" framework. Individuals so categorized
may have nothing in common except that which the categorizer uses to distinguish them. (p. 6)
The stereotype suggests that aUAsians are the same because they all experience success. Thus the stereotype denies the poverty and illiteracy in
Asian American communities (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1992). In
addition to silencing the wide range of Asian American experiences, the
stereotype silences the fact that Asian Americans experience racism
(Chun, 1980; Kwong, 1987; Suzuki, 1980; Takaki, 1989).
As a hegemonic device, the model minority stereotype maintains the
dominance of whites in the racial hierarchy by diverting attention away
from racial inequality and by setting standards for how minorities should
behave. The model minority stereotype emerged during the 1960s in the
midst of the civil rights era. Critics of the stereotype argue that the press
began to popularize the stereotype of Asians as model minorities in order
to silence the charges of racial injustice being made by African Americans
and other minorities (Osajima, 1988; Sue & Kitano, 1973). Prior to this
period, Asian Americans had often been stereotyped as devious, inscrutable, unassimilable, and in other overtly negative ways.
Articles that chronicled the success of Asian Americans began to appeat in the popular press in the mid-1960s. In December of 1966, us.
News & World Report published an article lauding the success of Chinese
Americans. The author wrote, "At a time when it is being proposed that
hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities, the
nation's 300,000 Chinese Americans are moving ahead on their ownwith no help from anyone" ("Success Story," 1966, p. 73). The article went
on to praise the good citizenship of Chinese Americans and the safety
The prescriptive nature of the model minority stereotype is striking
in this 1966 article. Chinese Americans were singled out as good citizens
precisely because the status quo saw them as the quiet minority who did
not actively challenge the existing system. That is to say, Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans were seen as model minorities because
Asian Americans: The Absent/Silenced/Model
they were believed to be quiet/silent and hardworking people who
achieved success without depending on the government. In reflecting on
how Asian Americans have been characterized, Pilipina fiction writer Jessica Hagedorn (1993) writes, "In our perceived American character we
are completely nonthreatening. We don't complain. We endure humiliation. We are almost inhuman in our patience. We never get angry" Cpp.
xxii-xxiii). Within the model minority discourse, "good" minorities, like
"good" women, are silent (Cheung, 1993). "Good" minorities know their
place within the system and do not challenge the existing system. Us.
News & World Report implied that other minority groups should model
their behavior after Chinese Americans rather than spending their time
protesting inequality. Thus Asian Americans were included in discussions
of race in order to exclude/silence the voices of African Americans.
During the 1980s the model minority stereotype reached beyond Chinese and Japanese Americans to include Southeast Asians as well. In his
analysis of the evolution of the model minority stereotype, Osajima (1988)
asserts that, although the popular press began to recognize the potential
negative implications of the model minority stereotype during the 1980s,
it continued to portray Asian Americans as exemplary minorities who gain
success through sheer effort and determination. The cover story for
Time's August 31, 1987, issue illustrates Osajima's point. The article, "The
New Whiz Kids: Why Asian Americans Are Doing So Well, and What It
Costs Them," lauded the academic achievement of Asian American students (Brand, 1987). It included stories of Southeast Asian refugees who
overcame extreme obstacles to achieve academic success. In the author's
words, "By almost every educational gauge, young Asian Americans are
soaring" (p, 42). Once again, Asian Americans are depicted as brave, silent, and long-suffering people. The implicit message is that individual
effort will be rewarded by success and that failure is the fate of those who
do not adhere to the value of hard work. During my research, one of my
earliest cues to the significance of the model minority stereotype for Asian
American students' identities was that Asian American students repeatedly
mentioned that they had read the aforementioned "Whiz Kid" article.
The model minority stereotype of Asian Americans is alive and well
in the 1990s. TI,e popular press and public figures from the New Right
and neoconservative movements have continued to hold up examples of
Asian American success as evidence that minorities can succeed in the
United States (Hamamoto, 1992). Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve:
Intelligence and Class Structure in A merican Life (1994) once again casts
Asian Americans as model minorities and African Americans as inferior. In
the traditional family rhetoric espoused by neoconservatives and the New
Right, Asian American families have been singled out as examples of old-
Unraveling the "Model Minority"
fashioned, tight-knit families (Hamamoto, 1992; Palurnbo-Liu, 1994). The
stereotypic functional Asian American family is contrasted with the stereotypic dysfunctional black family headed by a single black mother on welfare, In his attack on political correctness and affirmative action programs,
D'Souza (992) argues that Asian Americans are a deserving minority
being hurt by affirmative action programs. According to D'Souza, Asian
American "success" is being punished, while African American or Latino
"failure" is being rewarded.
In the 1992 riots that followed the Rodney King trial, the model
minority image of Asian Americans was once again paraded across TV
screens and newspaper headlines. This time Korean Americans were held
up as legitimate victims who bravely sought to protect their private property. The conservative press represented Korean Americans as stand-ins
for white, middle-class America. Korean Americans were depicted as hardworking, self-made immigrants whose property was threatened by the WIlawful anger of black America. Palumbo-Liu (1994) argues that, in the media coverage, "Korean-Americans were represented as the frontline forces
of the white bourgeoisie," and he also argues that Korean Americans literally served as a "buffer-zone between the core of a multi ethnic ghetto, and
white, middle-class America" (1'. 371). Asians were once again used as
hegemonic devices to support notions of meritocracy and individualism.
TIle sad irony, however, was that even while Asians were being used by
the mainstream press to support dominant-group interests, Asian immigrants were abandoned in their time of need (Cho, 1993). Caught in the
buffer-zone between blacks and whites, Asian Americans suffered significant losses.
In all of its permutations, the model minority stereotype has been
used to support the status quo and the ideologies of meritocracy and individualism. Supporters of the model minority stereotype use Asian American success to delegitimize claims of inequality made by other racial minorities. According to the model minority discourse, Asian Americans
prove that social mobility is possible for all those who are willing to work.
Asian Americans are represented as examples of upward mobility through
individual effort. Charges of racial inequality are met with stories of Asian
American success, thereby reifying notions of equal opportunity and
meritocracy (Chun, 1980; Hurh & Kim, 1989). As 1. M. Wong (1993)
Asian Americans have embodied the liberal image of the acculturated 1"
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