Stereotypes of Asian American Students. ERIC Digest.
by Kim, Angela - Yeh, Christine J.
In 1995, 268,000 of the 720,000 new immigrants that came to the United
States were from Asia and the Pacific Islands. The Asian American population
doubled between 1980 and 1990, and it will double again between 1990 and
2020. "Asian American" as a racial group represents 29 distinct ethnic
categories (Atkinson, Morten, & Sue, 1993). Further, there is considerable
social and economic variation between recent Asian immigrants and Asian
American communities that have been in the United States for generations.
The number of Asian American school age children and youth increased from
212,900 in 1980 to almost 1.3 million in 1990, creating a significant influx
in many of the nation's public school systems, especially cities along
the East and West coasts.
This digest discusses the various negative and positive Asian American
stereotypes. It also explores how school practices and individual educators--consciously
or unconsciously--may reinforce them. Doing so has important negative social,
political, and economic ramifications for Asian Americans. Indeed, while
Asian Americans are often characterized as the "model minority" (Lee, 1997,
p. 442), many have serious psychological and emotional concerns which are
not being addressed.
The various stereotypes assigned to Asian American students cause them
emotional distress and create conflicts with their peers, both those of
different races and those in their own racial group. Even more important,
stereotyping limits students' opportunities and access to resources (Fisher,
Wallace, & Fenton, 2000; S. Lee, 1996). Indeed, Fisher et al. (2000)
found higher levels of distress from peer discrimination (being threatened,
called racially insulting names, and excluded from activities) in Chinese
and Korean students than in African Americans, Hispanics, and whites.
S. Lee (1996) reported that high- and low-achieving Asian-identified
students experienced anxiety to uphold the expectations of the model minority
stereotypes. The students who were unable to perform well academically
felt depressed and were embarrassed to seek help. Moreover, dispelling
the Asian American universal academic success myth, the Educational Testing
Service (1997) found that twelfth grade students from six major ethnic
groups (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, South Asian, and Southeast
Asian) had significant variations in their educational backgrounds and
achievement. ETS also demonstrated how stereotyping has led to the neglect
of the development of student services and support for the many Asian American
students who are undereducated and have low socioeconomic status.
Some of the educational stereotypes identify Asian Americans as "geniuses,"
"overachievers," "nerdy," "great in math or science," "competitive," "uninterested
in fun," and "4.0 GPAs" (S. Lee, 1996). Some personality and behavior stereotypes
assert that Asians are "submissive," "humble," "passive," "quiet," "compliant,"
"obedient," "stoic," "devious," "sneaky," "sly," "tend to hang out in groups,"
"stay with their own race," "condescend to other races," and are "racist,"
"not willing to mesh with American culture," "try to be like Americans,"
"want to be Caucasian," and "act F.O.B. [fresh off the boat]" (S. Lee,
1994; 1996; Yeh, 2001). The physical appearance and mannerism stereotypes
include "short," "slanted eyes," "eyeglass wearing," "poor or non-English
speaking," and "poor communicators" (S. Lee, 1996; Siu, 1996). Stereotypes
to the socioeconomic status of Asian Americans and their attitudes about
money identify them as "stingy," "greedy," "rich," "poor," "grocery store
owners," "dry cleaners," "restaurant owners," and "chefs" (S. Lee, 1996;
MODEL MINORITY STEREOTYPES
The model minority stereotypes attribute educational and economic success
to all Asian Americans, with the danger that they ignore the between- and
within-group differences of assimilation/acculturation, social, political,
economic, and education backgrounds (Educational Testing Service, 1997;
E. Lee, 1997; Siu, 1996; Yin, 2000). By focusing on exceptional "success
stories" and generalizing to all Asian Americans, the model minority myth
does not take into consideration the large number of Asian American students
and their families who suffer from poverty and illiteracy (Educational
Testing Service, 1997; Siu, 1996; Yin, 2000). For example, while only 5.6
percent of Japanese Americans have only an elementary education or less,
61 percent of the Hmong Americans fall into this category (Siu, 1996).
Further, although the poverty rates for Japanese and Filipino Americans
are 3.4 percent and 5.2 percent respectively, 24 percent of Vietnamese,
42 percent of Cambodians, and 62 percent of Hmong Americans live below
the poverty line (Yin, 2000).
Within a group, Chinese American parents, for example, who are well-educated,
English-speaking, wealthy professionals from Hong Kong will have different
experiences and needs for their children in the United States than will
a poorly-educated, non-English speaking, financially-troubled laborer from
the countryside in China (Siu, 1996). In addition, Southeast Asian (Vietnamese,
Laotian, Cambodian, and Hmong) students and their families--whose backgrounds
may include war trauma, relocation experiences, family separation, and
education disruptions--will have different psychological and academic needs
from East Asian (Chinese, Filipino, Koreans, and Japanese) students and
their families (Boehnlein, Leung, & Kinzie, 1997; E. Lee, 1996; S.
Lee, 1994; 1996; Leung, Boehnlein, & Kinzie, 1997; Moore, Keopraseuth,
Leung, & Chao, 1997; Siu, 1996).
SOCIAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL CONCERNS
The model minority stereotype that Asian American students are "whiz
kids" (Brand, 1987) and immune from behavioral or psychological distresses
prevents them from acknowledging academic and emotional problems and seeking
help. S. Lee (1996) reports on a Cambodian student named Ming who was failing
his classes but refused to seek help for his academic difficulties, believing
that admitting his academic failure would cause his family to lose face
(be ashamed). He was trying to live within the boundaries of the model
minority stereotype, and as a result was perpetuating his academic problems,
leaving him feeling isolated and depressed.
Whether the Asian American students are excelling academically or having
problems, it is essential to recognize and acknowledge that they experience
school, social, and familial stresses to uphold their "model minority"
image (Chung, 1997; Fisher et. al, 2000; Huang, 1997; S. Lee, 1996; Siu,
1996). In fact, a study (Lorenzo, Frost, & Reinherz, 2000) found that
although Asian American students did better academically and had fewer
delinquent behaviors than Caucasian Americans, the Asian American youth
reported more depressive symptoms, withdrawn behavior, and social problems.
They also had poorer self-images and reported more dissatisfaction with
their social support.
In addition, Asian American students have reported experiencing racial
and ethnic discrimination by their peers (Fisher et al., 2000; Kohatsu
et al., 2000; Phinney & Chavira, 1995; Siu, 1996). Siu's (1996) study
of literate Asian American students at risk demonstrates the social and
psychological struggles resulting from the model minority stereotypes that
foster discrimination and anti-Asian sentiments from their peers. The review
found that a large proportion (63 percent) of Vietnamese, Hmong, and Korean
elementary and secondary students reported that American students were
"mean" to them. Being insulted or laughed at by classmates were cited as
reasons for not liking school and lacking friends. In addition, commonly
mentioned concerns of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cambodian refugee school
age children were physical altercations with peers in school and in social
S. Lee (1996) discusses how Korean students distanced themselves from
Southeast Asian students because they did not want to be associated and
be perceived as "welfare sponges." It was, further, found by Siu that the
proportion of suspensions for fighting was much higher for Filipino and
Southeast Asian students than for all other ethnic groups, including whites,
Latinos, and African Americans. These fights were attributed to cultural
barriers and prejudice against Asians, especially Southeast Asians. Such
racial tensions and a hostile school environment may divert students' focus
from their studies to less productive or even destructive activities, and
spur some Asian American youths to join gangs for their own protection
and for a sense of belonging (Siu, 1996).
The increase in the number of Asian American students in schools highlights
the importance of understanding how Asian American stereotypes are reinforced
in the school context and contribute to a biased and limited perspective
of Asian Americans that does not reflect their within group heterogeneity.
In order to serve the social, psychological, and educational needs of Asian
American students, teachers, counselors, and administrators must be able
to address their own assumptions about this growing group, understand how
those assumptions shape their interactions with the students, and effectively
communicate that they care and want to help.
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