Asian American Students: The Invasion Theory

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.



  1. edna

    Thank you. I am not certain when this narrative began. It seems to date back into the 1980’s at least. Phrases like “Look out for the Asian invasion,” are noted by Ronald Takaki as part of a new wave of Anti-Asian sentiment in his 1989 book, Strangers from a Different Shore. I also understand that Robert Teranishi has a new book “Asians in the Ivory Tower: Dilemmas of Racial Inequality in American Higher Education” that discusses inaccuracies in the data related to AAPI students.

  2. Tessa and Kimberley

    Dr. Chun, thank you for your amazing post. I used your post today in my Introductory Sociology class to illustrate the “model minority” concept; along with citing “The myth of the model minority: Asian Americans facing racism” (Paradigm, 2008).

    Here in Canada, where I teach, criticism continues months after Canadian magazine ‘Maclean’s’ published a controversial article claiming that white students find it difficult to get into preferred schools because Canadian universities are overpopulated by Asian students. Brad Lee, a Toronto-based activist who spent twenty years as a journalist with the ‘Toronto Star,’ has created a Facebook page entitled “‘Too Asian’? TALK BACK.” You might like to check it out.

    ‘Maclean’s’ has since changed the online title of the article from “Too Asian?” to “The enrollment controversy.” In the face of widespread criticism from student unions, politicians, and readers, City Councils in Toronto (Ontario), Victoria (British Columbia), and Vancouver (British Columbia) have demanded an apology from the magazine. Though the article claimed that a predominantly Asian population in universities is a dilemma that most schools avoid discussing, universities across the country are holding rallies against ‘Maclean’s.’

    Last month, students at Ryerson University (in Toronto) held a rally called: “‘Too Asian? Talk Back: Calling Media to Account” to discuss the media’s responsibility in perpetuating stereotypes. McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario), the University of Toronto, the University of Victoria, and the University of British Columbia have held similar organized talks. The University of Victoria’s Students’ Society passed a motion in late November 2010 to ban sale of the magazine if an apology was not issued.

    I thank you sincerely for the amazing post. You effectively communicate these complicated issues to my students far better than I ever could.

  3. Hillbilly

    Wasn’t the whole “Asian student invasion” ploy just a spin-off of the fear of the U.S. economy being overtaken by Japan a few decades ago and the quite small increase in Asian American students enrollment on campuses?

  4. edna

    Thank you so much for the feedback and comments. I appreciate very much Tessa and Kimberly’s update and the proactive efforts of our Canadian allies in holding organized talks as well as your insightful work in communicating these important issues to your sociology students. I think Hillbilly has a point about the fear of the economy being overtaken too; perhaps as Ron Takaki speculates regarding the model minority stereotype,”Like many congratulations, this one may veil a spirit of competition, even jealousy.”

    I appreciate greatly this forum and the efforts of leading scholars like Joe Feagin and Rosalind Chou who have done important work in dispelling predominant stereotypes of Asian Americans.


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