The Model Minority?

Winter 2011

By Patrick F. Bassett

The perception of Asian Americans as “the model minority” — exceedingly hard-working, family-centered, successful, and prosperous — has a deep foothold in the American culture at large. Indeed, one can find it at just about any turn, past or present.

Years ago, I heard a presentation by Harry Wong, the famous public school teacher/lecture-circuit regular from San Francisco, telling a story of how high academic expectations are passed down generationally in his family. He said that, in his community, the extended family would always assemble on Sundays to eat at the grandmother’s house. One of the rituals during those gatherings was to ask the youngest child, before the entire extended family, not “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but rather, “What kind of doctor do you want to be when you grow up?”

More recently, the model minority concept found its way into Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book Outliers1 in which he proffers the somewhat wacky theory that the work ethic of Asians in general (and, by inference, Asian Americans) is built into the cultural DNA through centuries of cultivating rice. The growing of rice has always required a great deal of constant work — on average, about 3,000 hours per year. European farmers in the Middle Ages, by contrast, needed to invest only about 1,000 hours of work per year. Therefore, Gladwell’s theory posits, Asian rice farmers learned the value of persistence and patience — a quality passed down from generation to generation, even to those descendants today who no longer toil away in the rice paddies. (Embedded in this theory, one supposes, is that Europeans taught future generations to work a third of the time and spend the remaining 2,000 hours lying around, drinking mead, and preparing for fraternity life in the 21st century.)

Closer to home, I’ve heard the story of an Ivy League university leader who once told an independent school crowd, “off the record,” that if academic merit were the only consideration (i.e., SAT scores, grades, and class rank), the university’s entire freshman class would be made up of Asian Americans from one or two zip codes in the Los Angeles area.

Of course, there’s a countervailing stereotype to the model minority myth, which portrays Asian Americans as a threat — a “yellow peril” — to the dominant white culture. This view led to decades of anti-Chinese immigration laws in this country and no doubt buoys the modern-day criticism of those who worry about Asian Americans “dominating” Ivy League admissions. It also undercuts the experiences of more recent Asian-American immigrant communities. One such view was popularized by the award-wining 2008 Clint Eastwood film Gran Torino. The film tells the story of Walt Kowalski, an ornery, antisocial, and bigoted auto worker and Korean War vet who is disturbed by the invasion by the Hmong community into his formerly Polish Highland Park, Michigan, neighborhood after the collapse of the pro-American regime during the Vietnam War propelled many Hmong families to escape to the U.S. 

The film traces Kowalski’s unexpected “adoption” of a young, diffident, socially awkward neighborhood Hmong boy, Thao, and his feisty sister, Sue, to the point when Kowalski’s paternal instincts kick in to protect them from the Hmong gangs overtaking the streets. In the end, Kowalski makes the ultimate sacrifice to create a path to normalcy for the boy and his sister. 

Since this is Eastwood’s film, we mostly focus on his character’s transformation from deep racist to caring human being. While this is a moving portrait of transformation, the film unfortunately portrays the Hmong characters as either passive and weak (thus the need for a hero to step in) or thuggish and threatening to the social order. In other words, racial stereotypes. The memorable mythic line of the film comes from Thao’s sister Sue: “Hmong girls all go to college, and the boys all go to jail.” Models and threats.

The Problem of the Model Minority Myth

According to Wikipedia, “While some Asian Americans hold pride in the model minority image [of success], the consensus in academia and the field of Asian-American studies is that the model minority myth is detrimental to the Asian Pacific American (APA) community, used to justify the exclusion of needy APA communities in the distribution of assistance programs, public and private, and understate or slight the achievements of APA individuals.” 

The interplay of myth and stereotypes with reality has a way of creating confusion, at best, and bias and discrimination at worst. Existing stereotypes about the Asian-American community are not only misinformed, but also pernicious, rooted in long-held assumptions that inaccurately represent the range of abilities and outcomes within a group, and that have nothing to do with race or ethnicity. As a result, these assumptions insidiously contribute to the majority culture’s tendency to ignore discrimination against Asian Americans and to dismiss the community’s real issues and concerns. When it comes to Asian Americans in schools, these myths and stereotypes ultimately undermine the experiences of Asian-American students and, more generally, undermine a school’s ability to develop healthy cultures and climates.

The Realities for Educators

The evidence for a cultural wake-up call on this topic is substantial.

An excerpt from a recently published book by Joie Jager-Hyman, Fat Envelope Frenzy2, captures one element of the consequences of the myth: fear and alienation among high-performing Asian-American students: 

On the surface, it might seem that Felix is a shoo-in for admission to Harvard. However, as an Asian American, Felix is also a member of a group that is overrepresented in the Harvard applicant pool, which could be a disadvantage in the admissions process. In the past two decades, selective colleges have been repeatedly accused of a bias against Asian Americans, and several students have gone so far as to file official complaints with the federal government at the Office for Civil Rights. No university has ever been convicted of discrimination, but an investigation into the admissions process at Harvard in the early 1990s uncovered a number of offensive remarks written by the staff in regard to Asian American candidates, including glib descriptions such as “he’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor.” A more recent study published in Social Science Quarterly, which analyzed data from 124,374 applicants to three highly selective colleges, found that qualified Asian American students had lower admission rates at these top schools than any other group of students. In addition to being overrepresented in the applicant pool, Asian Americans also tend to be excluded from many of the institutional priorities that guide the selective college admissions process. As immigrants or children of immigrants, they may be less likely to have a parent who attended a selective American college and may not benefit from the advantages of legacy in college admissions. They also do not qualify for most affirmative action programs and are a rarity on athletic teams. In fact, the only category in which Asian American students are likely to be given a boost in the admissions process is for high SAT scores, which is still a key variable in admissions decisions. Even so, the researchers projected that eliminating preferences based on legacy, race, and athletics would increase Asian American acceptances by approximately 30 percent at the three highly selective schools they studied.

We find from another recently released study that, if Felix makes it into Harvard, he is likely to see fewer leaders as role models than students from the majority culture, there and thereafter. According to Robert T. Teranishi, a professor at New York University and author of Asians in the Ivory Tower: Dilemmas of Racial Inequality in American Higher Education3: 

[T]he prevailing assumption that AAPIs (Asian American Pacific Islanders) are a model minority is inaccurate, misleading, and damaging for the population.… Generalizations about the AAPI population miss incidences where they are experiencing high secondary school drop-out rates, low rates of college participation, and low college completion rates.… [Moreover, at] about 1 percent, AAPIs have very low representation among our nation’s college presidents. This is a trend that can be found across many employment sectors: AAPIs comprise less than 1 percent of public school principals, about 2 percent of senior executives in the federal government, and only 1.5 percent of all board seats of Fortune 500 Companies.… I think what these data point to is the need for the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to identify, acknowledge, and be responsive to the lack of AAPIs in leadership and decision-making positions. 

NAIS data on school heads reveals that a meager 0.6 percent are Asian American, a proportion that represents one-eighth of the heads of color (itself a small fraction, at 4.8 percent, of all heads of school). Put it another way, among the NAIS-member schools that reported their statistics for the past academic year, there are seven Asian-American heads (out of 56 heads of color) compared with 1,049 white heads of school.

Separating Fact from Fiction — Higher Ed and Asian Americans

Of course, examination of the data is useful in countering stereotypes, and the data on Asian Americans in higher education has been recently collected and distributed by the College Board in a publication4 that clearly distinguishes between fact and fiction: 

Fiction 1: Asian-American students are “taking over” U.S. higher education.

Fact: The increasing presence of Asian-American students parallels similar increases that other student populations have experienced. Because Asian Americans tend to have a high concentration in a small percentage of institutions, it gives the false impression of high enrollment in higher education overall. 

Fiction 2: Asian-American students are concentrated only in selective four-year universities.

Fact: Asian-American students are evenly distributed in two-year and four-year institutions, with the majority attending public institutions. They have a wide range of scores on standardized tests, results that afford different levels of eligibility and competitiveness in selective admissions. They also enroll in public two-year community colleges in an increasingly faster rate than their enrollment in four-year colleges. 

Fiction 3: Asian-American students are interested only in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Fact: Asian-American students populate a wide range of academic interests including the social sciences, humanities, and education.

Fiction 4: Asian Americans are a homogenous racial group with uniformity in educational and financial attainment, culture, religion, and histories.

Fact: Asian Americans are an ethnically diverse population, encompassing many different languages and dialects. They have varied immigration histories and greatly varying economic, social, and cultural capital.

The Asian-American Experience in Independent Schools

Asian Americans outnumber any other minority group within independent schools. Indeed, there are almost twice the proportion of Asian-American students in NAIS-member schools (about 7.1 percent) as in the school-age population in general (about 4 percent).

The good news here is that a significant number of Asian-American families are seeking out independent schools, and that schools are happy to enroll a high percentage of Asian-American students (and Asian students in boarding schools). Yet, as the articles in this issue of Independent School — coming, essentially, from the front lines in our schools — so vividly and poignantly portray, the uninformed “model minority” assumptions of our own independent school community do a disservice not only to the Asian-American communities in our schools, but to all the students and families in our schools.

It’s not surprising that the stereotypes and myths that exist in the larger American culture also exist in some form within independent schools. We are all susceptible to stereotypes because, by definition, they are unexamined beliefs. In NAIS-member schools, the small percentages of Asian-American students combined with their general academic success makes it easy for educators to take Asian-American students for granted, to look past their actual experiences in our schools — indeed, to quietly think of Asian-American students as the model minority. Yet, we do so at our own expense… and theirs.

We can and must do better. 


1. Interviews about the book also underscored this myth. See YouTube’s “Eye to Eye Outliers” Katie Couric piece:

2. From a March 14, 2008, Wall Street Journal book excerpt of Joie Jager-Hyman’s Fat Envelope Frenzy,

3. Robert T. Teranishi, “Asians in the Ivory Tower,” Inside Higher Education, October 8, 2010,

4. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders: Facts, Not Fiction: Setting the Record Straight, The College Board, June 2008,
Patrick F. Bassett

Patrick F. Bassett is president of NAIS. After 12 years at the helm, he is retiring as of June 30, 2013. This is his 48th column for Independent School.