Asian American academic success may be an Achilles heel. Predominant myths about the so-called “model minority” have obscured the very real challenges that Asian Americans face and that are exacerbated by such fictions as the invasion of American universities by Asian American and Pacific Islander students (AAPI).
In his article, “Asian Evasion: A Recipe for Flawed Recipes,” Mitchell Chang notes the avoidance of fact-based discussions about issues relating to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, leading to confusion on educational issues. As he notes, a 2005 report by the College Board, “Facts not fiction: Setting the record straight” defuses the myth of Asian invasion by demonstrating that AAPI student increases are similar to other minority student populations. Half of these students are in California, New York, and Texas, with two out of three Asian American and Pacific Islander students attending only 200 institutions of high learning in eight states.
A second predominant myth that the report debunks is the notion that Asian Americans attend only elite institutions. AAPI students are evenly concentrated in two- and four-year institutions, with over half of the students in California and Nevada enrolled in community colleges. Like other minority students, Asian American and Pacific Islander students often struggle with poverty, public assistance, and linguistic barriers. In fact, according to a (pdf) report entitled “Beyond myths: The growth and diversity of Asian American freshmen, 1971-2005,” more Asian American families are classified as low income (47.4 percent) than the national population (39.5 percent). Increasingly, the availability of financial aid determines where Asian Americans attend college.
Perhaps another area for consideration is the focus of Asian American culture upon academic achievement at the expense of other domains of knowledge as well as the interplay of shame and family pride associated with the ebb and flow of success. Witness the controversy over the austere view of Chinese parenting offered in Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
How do we account for the high suicide rates among AAPI students cited in the College Board Report, representing 46 percent of the deaths at an elite public institution, and 13 out of 21 deaths at an elite private university? Like other minority groups, Asian Americans may internalize self-blame when achievements do not match aspirations and when faced with the unexpected burdens of systemic racism. Alvin Evans and I share research in our book, Are the Walls Really Down? Behavioral and Organizational Barriers to Faculty and Staff Diversity (Jossey Bass, 2007) indicating that Asian American students have a greater tendency to blame failures on themselves and to minimize discrimination in comparison with members of other minority groups.
And the invisibility of discrimination as it affects Asian Americans only makes the impact of such exclusion more severe. As Rosalind Chou and Joe Feagin observe in The myth of the model minority: Asian Americans facing racism (Paradigm, 2008), “The Asian American experience with racial hostility and discrimination is also very negative and largely untold, and such an untold experience is indeed a very harmful invisibility” (p. 3). Unlike their African-American counterparts, Asian Americans are remarkably fragmented and have not been successful at organized resistance or collective consciousness relating to discriminatory practices.
A new narrative of the Asian American student needs to replace the glamour of the model minority stereotype. More likely, this version will not only make visible the invisibility of Asian Americans as a minority group facing the pernicious effects of discrimination, but it may deviate from the prototypical views of success of their own parents, relatives, or communities. In the face of significant external challenges to self-esteem and self-determination, the new narrative will inevitably need to chart the voyage of Asian Americans from encounter with prevailing stereotypes toward positive self-identity and self-affirmation.