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The Model Minority Stereotype: Demystifying Asian American Success

reviewed by Meghan Chidsey - July 17, 2014

coverTitle: The Model Minority Stereotype: Demystifying Asian American Success
Author(s): Nicholas Daniel Hartlep
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1623963583, Pages: 326, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com

In the imagined “American classroom” where meritocracy reigns, rewarding those who work hard and buy-in with success, the academically gifted, well-behaved, and comparably quiet “Asian” is a well-known student. S/he is on television winning the annual spelling bee, earning ribbons at the science fair, serving as school valedictorian describing a diligent work ethic and an Ivy League aspiration, and in books espousing disciplined parenting styles and Asian “Tiger Moms.” As the contemporary “model minority,” Asian students in the United States have served as proof to policy makers that their education system is working, that it is racially unbiased, and that if you fail, it’s on you. While “[t]he model minority stereotype characterizes Asians in the United States as achieving the American Dream through hard work, perseverance, and extreme levels of individual effort and sacrifice” (p. xvi), Nicholas D. Hartlep’s The Model Minority Stereotype: Demystifying Asian American Success problematizes and historicizes these arguments through a comprehensive and critical examination of works on the topic.

An annotated sourcebook covering both classical and critical “model minority” publications, The Model Minority Stereotype serves as a much-needed resource for pre- and in-service classroom teachers, administrators, and education policy makers, as well as for academics teaching related courses and students interested in American schooling, (in)equality, and critical race issues. As a Korean American himself, Hartlep makes clear his refutation of the stereotype, stating that the model minority stereotype is “false, hegemonic, and self-empowering for Whites” (p. xvii). While he admits that cases and statistics exist which support aspects of the model minority stereotype, such as Asian American students often scoring higher on standardized math and science exams, Chapter One examines how these studies commonly suffer from aggregated data, lumping all Asian Americans into one group, disregarding the diversity, hybridity, and heterogeneity within the population—a problematic approach being that there are at least 40 different ethnicities comprising Asian America (Pang, Kiang, & Pak, 2003).

This racial framing of success categorizes Asian Americans in a place of otherness. By reducing Asian Americans to one homogenized group, the model minority conceals in-group differences and disparities while de-historicizing an individual group’s “American experience.” In this vein, Hartlep’s second chapter rightly asks, “Who are Asian Americans?” The authors in this chapter critically analyze the histories of various Asian American groups in relation to changes in U.S. political, economic, and social priorities. While restrictions on citizenship (1790 Naturalization Act), exclusion laws (1882 Chinese Exclusion Act), and the treatment of specific Asian nationalities during times of international conflict (e.g. the Japanese during World War II) exemplified early periods of fear or “yellow peril” within American history, the 1960s saw Chinese and Japanese Americans being praised by policy makers as the “model minority,” as successful immigrants not in need of governmental support or civil rights legislation in order to get ahead. Even today, the success of many Asian Americans in higher education has caused some to claim that Asian Americans represent a new threat by making it harder for non-Asians to earn college admission.

Frequently, the model minority stereotype associates Asian American academic achievement and testing success to “culture,” that is, Asian American deference to family, dedication and devotion to academic studies, and outright parental discipline (Hartlep, 2013, p. 1). However, these cultural explanations not only over-generalize a homogenized ethnic/racial “group’s” culture, but also inadequately account for important structural forces such as race, gender, and class which impact student performance (Lew, 2011).

Furthermore, by reifying success to cultural causes such as Asian American work ethic and focus, the stereotype upholds the ideals of the “American dream” by legitimating meritocratic reasoning. Hartlep and others argue that this reasoning uses Asian Americans as “mascots” for the abolishment of affirmative action and the closing of the achievement gap. It creates a discourse that blames other “non-model minority” groups such as African Americans and Hispanics for their own academic shortcomings. It reasons that if one minority group can achieve within the American schooling system, then all can, blaming certain ethnic/racial group “cultures” for failing to instill within its members values such as hard work, dedication, and respect for elders and established rules. By supporting a culture of poverty model and blaming the victim,

…the image of Asians as a ‘model minority’ has helped American society justify its structural inequality and reaffirm the underlying structure by shifting minority problems to individuals and communities rather than allowing for an examination of the unequal power structure of the society (Chae, 2008, p. 26).

Like many of the authors cited in this book, Hartlep goes on to argue that the stereotype works as an instrument of White supremacy, conquering and dividing minority groups by creating a hierarchy wherein Whites remain at the top; Asian Americans become pigeonholed as middlemen, model citizens yet perpetual foreigners; and African Americans, Hispanics, and all other non-Asian minorities are left at the bottom responsible for their own lack of mobility.

Though the attributed identity of “model minority” may seem empowering in comparison to those given to other minority populations in America, as outlined in Chapters Three and Four, the model minority stereotype masks issues faced by many Asian American students both in and outside the classroom. Academic failure, bullying, poverty, mental and physical health problems, alcohol and drug use, English language learning difficulties, heightened external expectations of success and behavior, and occupational glass ceilings are problems faced by many Asian Americans. While other non-Asian minority students may be offered help or services by the U.S. government or their schools (e.g., extra attention from their teachers, testing, counseling, affirmative action policies, minority scholarships, etc.), the model minority stereotype contributes to Asian American student self-silencing, punishes underachieving Asian students for not conforming to the stereotype, and has social and academic consequences on their choices and identities (Park & Lee, 2010).

As Chapter Seven points out, the media continues to play a sizable role in the construction, normalization, and perpetuation of the model minority stereotype, especially in terms of Asian American success in schools. Television, movies, newspapers, and even comic strips frequently portray Asian students as “aliens” and “yellow perils,” outperforming non-Asian youth in the classroom. Yet nationality, ethnic group, tribe, language skills, socio-economic status and parental employment/occupation, religion, immigrant status and history, gender, housing, and so forth all add to a family’s resources and an individual student’s capital and capabilities (and let’s not forget the importance of classroom resources themselves on student success—i.e., class size and diversity, ESL support, counseling, etc.).

Hartlep’s most important contribution to the discussed literature is perhaps his suggestions for further research and methods/strategies to be used. To readers of this annotated sourcebook, it becomes rather evident that scholarship on the “model minority” stereotype has over time become derivative and redundant. Recommended new approaches including a Garfinkel-inspired ethnomethodology, an interrogation of elitist foundational arguments, finite mixture modeling, and a shift in focus from the theoretical to the practical offer researchers a way forward in fighting the conception that Asian Americans constitute a model minority (Hartlep, 2013, pp. 262–4). This annotated sourcebook therefore serves as an invaluable resource to those who strive to provide a more equitable educational experience to all students in American classrooms.


Chae, Y. (2008). Cultural economics of model minority creation. In Y. Chae, Politicizing Asian American literature: Towards a critical multiculturalism (pp. 19–30). New York, NY: Routledge.

Lew, J. (2011). Keeping the American dream alive: Model minority discourse of Asian American children. In S. Tozer (Ed.), Handbook of research in the social foundations of education (pp. 614–620). New York, NY: Routledge.

Pang, V., Kiang, P., & Pak, Y. K. (2003). Asian Pacific American students: Challenging a biased education system. In J. A. Banks & C. A. Banks (Eds.), Handbook of research on multicultural education (2nd ed., pp. 542–565). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Park, G. C., & Lee, S. J. (2010). The model minority myth stereotype and the underachiever: Academic and social struggles of underachieving Korean immigrant high school students. In R. Saran & R. Diaz (Eds.), Beyond stereotypes: Minority children of immigrants in urban schools (pp. 13–27). Boston, MA: Sense Publishers.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 17, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17611, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 9:08:45 PM

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About the Author
  • Meghan Chidsey
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    MEGHAN CHIDSEY is a Ph.D candidate in Anthropology & Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is currently working on her dissertation examining the cultivation of privilege at elite all-girls’ boarding schools in North India. As a former Fulbright scholar to India and Ethiopia, Meghan has published articles on the learned coping mechanisms of army widows in Rajasthan, India, as well as curriculum guides, lesson plans, and teacher resources on how to better integrate African Studies into secondary science and math classrooms in the U.S. She has her Masters in Education from the University of Pennsylvania and is a former Philadelphia classroom teacher.
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