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Asians in higher education: Research review of the “model minority” myth

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In late 2015, students at college campuses across the U.S. staged protests and called for changes to end systemic racism at their schools and elsewhere. Many protests emphasized the oppression of minorities within higher education, with some of the outcry being prompted by the University of Missouri’s handling of racist incidents targeting black students on its campus in fall 2015.  Meanwhile, around the same time, racial tensions rose at Yale University after the school’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an e-mail to students asking them to avoid Halloween costumes that may offend students of color – costumes that, for example, involve turbans, blackface or feathered headdresses.

Days before the first campus protests at the University of Missouri, a columnist at The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof, raised the ire of Asian students, educators and others with statements he made in a column titled “The Asian Advantage.” In it, Kristof explores some of the reasons why he thinks Asian students generally tend to do better in school than other groups of racial and ethnic minorities. He asks the question: Does the success of Asian-Americans suggest that the age of discrimination is behind us? His piece prompted an immediate response from an attorney and a journalism professor, who sharply criticized Kristof in a column they co-wrote for Salon magazine. They said he “naively reinforces the tired and long debunked noxious notion of the model minority.”

The “model minority” stereotype has long plagued Asian communities in the United States. To mark the 50th anniversary of the term in 2016, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center launched a social media campaign to call attention to the ways it hurts Asian Americans and limits how others see and understand them. The phrase “model minority” is believed to have been first used by sociologist William Petersen in a Jan. 9, 1966 New York Times Magazine article, “Success story: Japanese American style.” In the article, Petersen praised Japanese Americans for the “generally affluent and, for the most part, highly Americanized” lives he said they were leading two decades after their World War II evacuation to internment camps. Contemporary scholars and others stress that while Asian Americans tend to be portrayed as highly educated with successful careers, some groups within the Asian community face serious problems in the U.S. For example, a 2015 White House report indicates that 1 out of 3 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders has limited English proficiency. While 30 percent of Asians aged 25 and older have bachelor’s degrees, only 10 percent of Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders do. One statistic that might be surprising to many people is that nearly half of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders – a group that often is categorized together and referred to by the acronym AAPI — do not go to highly selective four-year universities. In fact, 47.3 percent attend community colleges.

A 2015 study published in the Review of Educational Research offers a review of the research that exists on AAPIs in higher education, with a focus on how the model minority stereotype is addressed in academic scholarship. Eight researchers from Loyola University Chicago and the University of California, Los Angeles analyzed 112 academic articles and other works published between 2000 and 2013.

Some of the findings outlined in their study, titled “A Critical Review of the Model Minority Myth in Selected Literature on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Higher Education,” include:

  • Most of the reviewed texts – more than 63 percent – make at least some reference to the model minority myth. But much of this scholarship fails to offer a complete definition of the phrase or discuss the racist implications of the concept.
  • About one-quarter of the texts make no mention of the model minority myth.
  • About 10 percent of the texts discuss the stereotype in terms of its “historical, White supremacist purpose.” Publications in this category examine the term as a tool to perpetuate white supremacy and create divisions among minority groups.
  • The texts vary considerably in how they define “model minority myth.” For example, one study simply describes it as “the notion that Asian Americans achieve universal and unparalleled academic and occupational success.” Other studies offer a range of descriptors related to broad concepts such as work ethic, family values, social introversion, studiousness, seriousness, submissive obedience and adaptiveness. Some of the scholarship uses model minority myth as a catch-all term representing practically all racial or cultural stereotypes about AAPIs.
  • Texts that discuss the stereotype tend to also raise concerns about how it has caused higher education administrators to neglect the educational needs and interests of this particular student group. These students are overlooked because they are seen, as one research study put it, as “’problem-free’ high achievers.”

The authors conclude that the research on AAPIs in higher education is anemic and that the lack of research on Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders specifically is “appalling.” They suggest that future researchers make efforts to look at the lived experiences of the individual groups who fall under the umbrella term “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.” Scholars also should be more intentional in their use of panethnic terms and labels. The authors of this study stress the need for more research that does not include a discussion of the model minority stereotype simply because it is common. “For more than 30 years, the dominant narrative in AAPI higher education research has focused on demonstrating how AAPIs are not a model minority — a task of arguing who AAPIs are not,” the authors state. “We challenge the next era of scholarship on Asian American and Pacific Islanders in higher education to confidently illustrate who these diverse peoples and communities are.”

Related Research: A 2015 study published in Social Psychology Quarterly, “Exceptional Outgroup Stereotypes and White Racial Inequity Attitudes toward Asian Americans,” examines the perception of Asian Americans as superior to other minority groups. A 2014 study published in The Journal of Higher Education, “Interest Convergence or Divergence?: A Critical Race Analysis of Asian Americans, Meritocracy, and Critical Mass in the Affirmative Action Debate,” explores the issue of Asian Americans and affirmative action policy.


Keywords: racism, race, model minority, Asian, Pacific Islanders, higher education, racial stereotype

    Writer: | Last updated: February 10, 2016

    Citation: Poon, OiYan; Squire, Dian; Kodama, Corinne; Byrd, Ajani. “A Critical Review of the Model Minority Myth in Selected Literature on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Higher Education,” Review of Educational Research, October 2015. doi: 10.3102/0034654315612205.

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