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Unraveling the "Model Minority" Stereotypes: Listening to Asian American Youth

reviewed by John Lee - 1998

coverTitle: Unraveling the "Model Minority" Stereotypes: Listening to Asian American Youth
Author(s): Stacey J. Lee
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807735094, Pages: , Year: 1996
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Unraveling the “Model Minority” Stereotype examines how students of Asian descent at Academic High (AH), a magnet public school in a large East Coast city, viewed themselves and others, and, how they felt about being stereotyped as model minorities. Lee begins with a discussion of how Asian Americans are stereotyped as model minorities who achieve academic and economic success through hard work and talent. She effectively criticizes the stereotype for suggesting that all people of Asian heritage experience success, thereby denying the poverty and lack of opportunities that many endure. Furthermore, she argues that the stereotype implies that equal opportunity exists for all people and, that it blames those who fail to achieve for not working hard enough, thus diverting attention away from the inequitable power structures in our society. By combining the voices of students with the writings of scholars fighting racism, Lee begins to unravel the stereotype that many assume to be positive.

From her six months observing and talking to 82 of the 356 students of Asian descent (of the total 2,050 students) at AH, Lee found four distinct cliques to which the students of Asian heritage belonged-Asian, Asian American, Korean, and new wave. The majority of the students of Asian descent identified themselves as Asians; they were recent (less than five years) immigrants from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan or refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, and were diverse in their English proficiency, academic achievement, and socioeconomic status. Lee characterizes Asian-identified students as most like the model-minority students described by the media-quiet, obedient, and hardworking. Despite their cultural and linguistic differences, Asian-identified students felt a common bond as immigrants and rarely interacted with black and the majority white students outside class.

Asian-American-identified students were the only ones to define themselves as American as well as Asian. Lee describes Asian-American students as a small group of academically able and politically active students who came to the United States when they were young children from countries such as China, Korea, and Vietnam. Unlike other students of Asian heritage, Asian-American students were critical of the model-minority stereotype and worked toward forging closer relations with other students of color. As Lee admits, her own identity lies closest to the Asian-American group and her portrayal at times reflects this bias.

Lee describes Korean-identified students as elitist, homogenous, and the only ones who avoided interacting with students of non-Korean descent. Rather than join the Asian Student Association, for example, they formed a Korean Student Association. The majority of the Korean students had come to the United States when they were in elementary or middle school and resided in a well-to-do area of the city, home to a large Korean immigrant community. Like the Asian-identified students, Korean students spoke of the sense of responsibility and guilt stemming from their parents’ sacrifices and about their desire to develop dual identities by “learning American ways” to succeed in America while simultaneously maintaining ties to their traditions and people.

The final group, new wavers (so labeled for their fondness for black clothes and new wave music), consisted of ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian refugees. Most were from poor and working-class families and were viewed by the Asian- and Korean-identified students as “welfare sponges ” who gave Asians a bad image. In contrast to the stereotype, new wavers held attitudes often attributed to caste minorities, did the minimal amount of schoolwork to “get by,” and avoided engaging in any behavior that was associated with promoting the image of Asians as nerds.

Lee’s findings support previous studies that show that people of Asian heritage are diverse and that their achievements “cannot be understood from within the immigrant versus involuntary minority dichotomy” (p. 120). Furthermore, by including students’ voices, Lee provides us with rare insight into how Asian students think about themselves in relation to others, about being typecast as model minorities, and how they struggle with the fact that most non-Asians are unable to differentiate among Asians.

I would have liked to see even more data and discussion on how individual students’ and their parents’ backgrounds affected their academic achievement, identity development, and interethnic and interracial relations. Although Lee reports that she followed students into their communities, she provided very little information on the students’ out-of-school lives. Without such data-for example, students’ babysitting and work responsibilities-many poor and working-class students (of Asian and non-Asian heritage) are stereotyped as less academically able and/or less determined to succeed. More detailed case histories of individual students might have revealed the new wavers’ (as well as the working-class Italian Americans’) anti-academic stance and low achievement to be related to their out-of-school responsibilities. When the structural advantages afforded socioeconomically privileged students of Asian and non-Asian descent are not addressed, the poor and working-class students who are underrepresented in upper-track classes are implicitly blamed for their academic performance. To further unravel stereotypes that deny the complexity and fluidity of individual identities that are shaped by the ever-changing social contexts in which they evolve, more detailed profiles that document diverse individuals’ backgrounds and experiences prior to and since coming to the United States are necessary.1 Nonetheless, Lee’s interesting and thought-provoking work is an important contribution to the field of education. It is sure to stimulate further research in this area and will be of interest to teachers, teacher educators, researchers, and students alike.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 99 Number 4, 1998, p. 785-787
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10291, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:25:01 AM

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  • John Lee
    Queens College, C.U.N.Y.

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