The Model Minority Myth

Winter 2011

By Giselle W. Chow

From a distance, Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) students appear to be our great success story in education. As a population, they are overrepresented among winners of National Merit Scholarships, U.S. Presidential Scholarships, and are undergraduates at the country’s most prestigious universities. They make up three to five times their proportionate share of architects, engineers, physicians, and college professors. They score higher on the SAT and ACT than any other racial group, particularly in math. According to published school report cards mandated by NCLB, they are often grouped with whites in terms of academic achievement. Sometimes they are found to be achieving at rates above that of white students. If we believe that achievement scores are valid measurements of student success, then the AAPI community has nothing to worry about. As a result, AAPI students are often held up in the public eye as the model minority, worthy of respect, praise, and emulation.

So what’s the problem?

Upon closer scrutiny, the AAPI story changes, becoming cloudier. First, the academic, social, and emotional experiences of AAPI students are far more varied and nuanced than most of us think. More importantly, the model minority stereotype, rather than being helpful for the AAPI community, tends to silence and render invisible the complexity of the AAPI community. Because of the subtext of the stereotype — if one minority group is an exemplary model, what’s wrong with the other groups? — it also isolates the AAPI community from other communities of color. And in schools, it tends to lead many educators to make broad assumptions about all AAPI students and, thus, to overlook the actual needs of individual students. 

The truth matters here. Although people of AAPI descent in the U.S. comprise more than 50 different and distinct ethnic groups, if aggregated as a single racial group, usually under the label “Asian American,” they comprise merely 4.5 percent of the overall population, lagging behind both African Americans and Latinos, at about 13 percent and 15 percent, respectively. As a result, AAPIs are often viewed as a monolithic group with generalized experiences. This tendency is compounded by the fact that the majority of research and the stories we hear in the media mostly focus on only those of the largest, and most established and successful AAPI ethnic groups — namely Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, whose larger numbers can relegate other AAPI ethnic groups to statistical insignificance. 

Among other things, this tendency to generalize skews our perceptions of the needs of specific AAPI communities, and influences the decisions schools make about the kinds of programs they provide, and for whom. It also affects how teachers and peers view individual AAPI students. Sometimes the pervasive quality of the model minority stereotype can even limit the way these students are able to see themselves.


One need only look back a few decades to see that what many people assume is true of most AAPI students today is the result of a relatively recent stereotype. In the 1960s, the media broadly applied the label of the model minority to newly arrived Asian immigrants, who were upheld as models of racialized success in the U.S. Before this time, from about 1850 to the post WWII decade, Asians in the U.S. were, as educator and researcher Jean Yonemura Wing puts it, “dehumanized as an unsavory foreign contaminant — portrayed as uncivilized, sinister, heathen, filthy yellow hordes that threatened to invade the U.S and ‘mongrelize’ the white race.” Today, it is easy to forget that 30 years of deeply ugly anti-Asian sentiment in California led to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the first major law in U.S. history to bar immigration from a specific ethnic group. It is also easy to forget that this law was extended several times, and only repealed in 1943, when China had become a strong U.S. ally against Japan. 

However, in the 1960s, the Japanese and Chinese in the U.S. became the somewhat unlikely subjects of “success literature,” in which they were touted in the national press as singular examples of the American Dream achieved. For those in power, the development of this model minority myth was a useful counterpoint amid the growing social unrest in the 1960s in the wake of the Watts riots and from the emergent Black Power Movement. Here was a racial group that could seemingly do it all, without complaint and without government aid. This story struck a deep chord with much of the American public as it offered an alternative perspective to those who claimed that the struggles of minority groups were due to racist policies and behavior in the nation. In this regard, the model minority stereotype created the context for the AAPI community to be used as a racial wedge between whites, on the one hand, and blacks and Latinos, on the other. The very presence of a model minority narrative, in which one racial group is held above others for being successful, regardless of the conditions placed upon them, implies that racial groups that have not done the same are somehow at fault for their own position in society. 


The AAPI community is far from monolithic. It comprises people from a region that includes Far East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, and the Pacific Islands, with over 100 languages and dialects represented. Given the vast geographic range, there are large differences in religion, cultural beliefs, and practices. In the U.S., the AAPI community differs in all these ways in addition to socioeconomic status, competence in speaking, reading, and writing English, the generational distance from the immigrant experience, as well as the contexts in which various groups have immigrated to the U.S. 

In actuality, AAPI students represent both ends of the achievement spectrum. They are at once our nation’s highest achievers and those most in need. In the national conversations regarding the achievement gap, AAPI students are often given small mention or little regard. But particularly vulnerable are Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander students — such as the Vietnamese, Laotian, Hmong, Tongans, and Native Hawaiians — whose dropout rates are among the highest of any group. These groups are also less likely to receive the language support they need as students and come from families that are highly likely to live in poverty. Regarding gender equity, according to our last census, about 10 percent of AAPI women in the U.S. have less than a ninth grade education, more than twice that of white women. These facts help us know that the proliferation of the stereotype of the impossibly nerdy and bookish Asian is a woefully limited and partial view of the real experiences of this diverse racial group. There is no single or singular AAPI story. 

Additionally, AAPI students do not perform uniformly equally well in all subjects. AAPI college students who attend four-year universities earn disproportionately fewer bachelor’s degrees in the humanities than any other racial group. With 66 percent of the current AAPI population in the U.S. speaking a language other than English at home, many more students than acknowledged often need developmental work in reading and writing English in both high school and college. 

Recently, some researchers have questioned the notion that excelling in school is an inherently “Asian” family value. They suggest instead that the AAPI students that have excelled have done so because of the lack of opportunities and limits placed upon them in other areas of life. Upward mobility through academic achievement becomes the most viable option, as a wider variety of opportunities for success have not traditionally been available. Historian Liang Du writes, “Facing the open or hidden racism and discrimination, there were not many choices left other than the ‘hard way’ of striving for academic achievements. It was one of the few options that were left open through which they could possibly make it.” 

While AAPI students are overrepresented in some colleges and universities, they also suffer from the lowest acceptance rates of any group. In many cases, it has been found that non-AAPI candidates with similar academic credentials have gained admission to certain universities over AAPI candidates. The more stringent criteria for AAPI candidates clearly points to a double standard, or a two-tiered system to college admissions that is institutionally racist. It is also crucial to remember that not all AAPI students attend four-year colleges. In California and Nevada, for instance, over half of college age AAPI students attend community colleges.

AAPI students are also not “trouble-free,” as compared to other students. In the context of schools in the U.S. that are predominantly white in terms of both faculty makeup and governance, as well as the culture of the school itself, AAPI students who may seem meek or mild are often ignored and less scrutinized than other students. Teacher beliefs about their achievements and high capacities for learning are sometimes assumed and unfounded. One study found that, in a kindergarten classroom, teachers spent up to five times the amount of time with students who were either deemed by the teachers to be “difficult” or with students who were high achievers than with other students. When interviewed, the teachers in these classrooms grouped AAPI students with the high achieving group, but in reality spent a fraction of their classroom time with these students, notably not aware when an AAPI student was found to be completing the same puzzle over and over again, or that another was found to be sitting silently by a window, staring outside for the duration of the morning work time. 

Because AAPI families sometimes subscribe to the belief that the school is the ultimate authority regarding their children’s education, and because some parents and schools struggle with language barriers, AAPI parents are not always advocating for their children as other parents might, and are less connected to their children’s experiences in school. 


For those working in schools, the nature of the model minority myth creates a significant barrier to understanding and noticing the depth of discrimination against Asian Americans. It also makes it difficult to believe that AAPI adults do not earn as much as their white counterparts with the same education, are often the victims of hate crimes, or have relatively few culturally relevant social programs. In schools, the myth obscures the need for culturally relevant educational support.

The myth also serves to divide the AAPI community from the struggles of other people of color. In this way, the “gift” of the model minority label ultimately upholds systems of inequity by pitting people of color and various groups against each other. Frank Wu, an Asian American law professor and author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, explains how a racial hierarchy is created, “that denies the reality of Asian American oppression, while accepting that of other racial minorities and poor whites. Model minority is a poisonous prize, because the stereotype will only be wielded in defense of the racial status quo.” In this context, researchers Miranda Oshige McGowan and James Lindgren point out how “whites will remain on top, African Americans on the bottom, with Asian Americans sandwiched in between.” We see this played out most prominently in California where affirmative action opponents, as well as proponents, have both used the AAPI community against the interests of blacks and Latinos.

In 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, AAPI women aged 15 to 24, as well as AAPI women over 65, had the highest rates of suicide among all women across all ethnic and racial groups in the nation. Additionally, one of every two of these women would have encountered obstacles in obtaining care because of language differences. Since 1996, over half of Cornell University’s student suicides were committed by students of AAPI descent. As a group, AAPIs are less likely to seek mental health services or self refer because of deep cultural stigmas. While there are efforts to provide culturally relevant services in certain areas of the country, the lack of AAPIs that pursue health care, education, and social services as career paths themselves contributes to keeping certain subgroups within the AAPI community culturally and linguistically isolated. 


It is significant that, while the AAPI community constitutes a scant percentage of the overall U.S. population, AAPI students make up the largest racial group of students of color in NAIS-member schools, and have for at least 30 years. Given this trend, it behooves all of us working in our schools to consider how we can ensure that AAPI students receive the support they need. Given what we know about the AAPI community at the national level, how do we apply this knowledge to serve and engage students and families well in our schools? 

Who Are You Serving?

The best place to start is by taking a closer look at the AAPI students in our student population. Who are they? Are they predominantly affluent Korean boarding students whose families do not reside in the U.S? Are they immigrant Chinese students with strong connections to language and family and whose parents do not speak English and therefore do not come to school events? Are they the children of Cambodian refugees? Are they transracially adopted Asian children? What if you serve multiple groups of AAPI students? How do you begin to treat each student as an individual with a singular story? 

Knowing your students well is a key to educating them well. To this end, it’s essential that we recognize the great variance in their life experiences. 

Realize We Are Making Value Judgments

As teachers, we need to recognize that we see and value certain behaviors in our classrooms from our particular vantage points as agents in schools with deeply held cultural beliefs that are largely invisible to us. When we do this, we can start to ask important questions. To what extent, for instance, do we unconsciously reward AAPI students for being docile or quiet? As one AAPI student has noted, “They (white teachers) like us because we’re not black.” While this is the sort of comment that takes us aback, it’s also worth asking to what extent we, in fact, reward AAPI students for not behaving like students from other racial groups. 

Independent schools are still places that are affluent and predominantly white in numbers and culture — even schools that express an interest in diversity and actively seek out students of color. Because not all students fit this affluent/white profile, it’s always important to examine the reasons for seeking out and admitting students of color. With AAPI students in particular, we need to examine our expectations of them, the behaviors we value in them. Do we expect that AAPI students will need minimal support? Do we assume that they will be academically successful and then not worry about them in class? 

The reality is that students may be quiet and docile in class without understanding what we are trying to teach. A student may keep meticulous notes in class without truly understanding key concepts. Students may appear to have it all together, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel intense pressure on a number of levels, including pressure to live up to the model minority stereotype. Too often, doing so is the only way some AAPI students feel they can be known and seen in school. 

Ultimately, in the name of quality education, we need to surface and dismiss all the cultural assumptions we carry about AAPI students and start to take them at face value. 

Debunk the Model Minority Myth

If we know that the model minority myth is ingrained and pervasive in the culture at large — and that it is not only damaging to AAPI students, but also to the broader school community — what are we doing to educate ourselves and the rest of the school community about stemming the power of this myth? 

In particular, educators can take an honest look at how the myth plays out in their classrooms and in schools. Does the high achievement of some AAPI students make us feel justified in our pedagogy for all students? To what extent do we believe that, if the Asians can do it, everyone else can as well? Do we steer AAPI students toward certain courses, but not others? Do we make assumptions about the colleges they should attend and the majors they should pursue? What are the messages, intended and unintended, that are conveyed to AAPI students when we act this way? What are the messages we send to the rest of our students? How is this damaging all around? 

If the stereotype exists widely in the culture, then it will also exist within your school. If assumptions arising from the stereotype are not proactively addressed, they will persist. 

Find Bridges and Connections

The challenges and struggles of AAPI students should be seen as part of a broader context that includes the struggles of all students of color. Examine the diversity efforts at your school. From an institutional perspective, are AAPI students included in those efforts? Does your school offer a beginning-of- the-school-year picnic to welcome African-American families to the school, and not one for AAPI students and families? Do you provide translators for Spanish speakers at school events, but have not investigated which AAPI families might need this same service? What messages, intended or not, do these decisions send? 

Listen to the Students

Listen to the voices in your AAPI student groups or clubs. If your school doesn’t have such a group, consider calling together a focus group of students so that they can speak candidly about their experiences in your school. While this should not take the place of the important work of adults (we certainly don’t want to place students in the positions of doing the work around issues of equity that adults need to do for themselves), we need to spend time paying attention to the stories and experiences of AAPI students — both inside and outside of school. It is important to acknowledge, for instance, what a student feels when teachers get him mixed up with the other Asian student in his class for his entire four years of high school, or when a student feels as if she is the spokesperson for her race when the class is studying the Vietnam War. We need to listen when AAPI students speak of the higher standards they feel are placed upon them compared to other students, or the expectation placed on them to outperform others, as well as the derision they feel from classmates because of this. We also need to listen when they tell us that they don’t get equal playing time on the field, and they suspect it is because of race, or when they are not seen as “appropriate” for the lead in the school play. 

These stories are everywhere. We just need to ask and listen, and accept their reality and their truth — and not rationalize or explain it away. 

Keep Asking Yourself, What Are We Not Seeing?

Finally, it is important to continually ask ourselves what we are not able to observe. If we pay attention, issues we thought didn’t exist in our schools will start to surface. As all independent schools become more diverse — in all its definitions and forms — teaching faculty and staff need to get beyond mere cultural competence. We need to learn to see everyone — students and adults — in terms of their unique perspectives, informed by racial heritage, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, religion, age, life experience, and so on. It is only then that we can see both the benefits that each of our perspectives lends and the limitations of each perspective. 

Staying vigilant in this way will allow us to see our AAPI students and families more clearly. And if we see them more clearly, we can provide the sort of support and guidance they need to thrive in our schools.
Giselle W. Chow

Giselle W. Chow is dean of equity and instruction at Lick-Wilmerding High School (California).