Breaking the grip of the “model minority” caricature to see students as individuals
Since the 1960s, a popular myth has depicted Asian Americans as the “model minority” in the United States, painting Asian American students as high-achieving, diligent, intelligent, and generally agreeable to adults.
But unsurprisingly, even a “good” stereotype can have a negative impact, says counselor and educator Josephine Kim. Although the Asian American population as a whole is more academically and economically successful than the U.S. population as a whole, millions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders live below the poverty line, feel incompetent at school, or struggle with peer and family relationships. And the model minority stereotype entirely disregards the experiences of recent immigrants who fail to graduate from high school as they falter in an unfamiliar country.
“Stereotypes are driven many times off of some piece of truth that we see,” says Kim, a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who specializes in developmental and mental health issues of Asian American youth. “But stereotypes share an oppressive origin, and they are never the whole truth.”
For teachers, supporting Asian American students means recognizing the nuggets of truth within the model minority stereotype, while simultaneously working against generalizations and getting to know each student and family on an individual level — as they should with all immigrant and first-generation students.
Deconstructing the Model Minority
In a class with immigrant and first-generation Asian American students, educators need to have a broad sense of the difficulties that these children might be facing.
“It’s important to think about why and how the students’ parents came to the U.S.,” says Kim. “Ultimately, it’s in pursuit of what we call the American Dream. These parents want something for their kids that they never had, so they make superhuman sacrifices for their children. With that, of course, comes expectation.”
For most of these parents, says Kim, the expectation is that their children will excel in school — “the only perceived way to climb that social ladder.” But such a focus can lead to several difficulties for students.
- A singular emphasis on education can put huge amounts of stress on students to achieve good grades and attend top colleges.
- If parents are unfamiliar with western education, they might not fully grasp why schools expect students to join sports teams and clubs that appear to take time away from formal studying.
- Along the same lines, parents may also be confused by the critical thinking, creativity, and independence encouraged in western schools, when eastern education traditionally relies more on rote memorization and respecting authority.
It’s easy to see elements of the model minority stereotype within this range of experiences. But Kim cautions against grouping all Asian American families into the same category. These students’ families could have immigrated last year or earlier; their families could be refugees or have immigrated by choice; and their financial situations and familiarity with western education can range hugely. Even the term “Asian” in itself is a western expression that most Asian Americans are not raised to identify with.
And the model minority stereotype can be harmful, as well as just reductive. Asian American students may feel that they can’t ask for help when they’re struggling, or that they need to work incessantly to achieve perfect grades, because they fear being deemed “not Asian enough,” says Kim. The stereotype can also be used to pit Asian Americans against other racial minorities, leading to verbal and physical harassment by non-Asian American peers or a distorted portrait of other ethnic groups as lazy or disruptive.
Minority Students and Stereotype: Best Practices
To break the grip of stereotype, Kim offers the following suggestions for teachers of Asian American students, which can be extended to teachers of all recent-immigrant and first-generation students as well:
- Remain aware of discrimination or teasing happening from peers in the classroom, hallways, or cafeteria.
- Make a conscious effort to get to know each student individually, remembering to constantly check their own automatic biases about each student.
- Familiarize themselves with the ethnic culture of each student and what makes that culture unique. “I would especially want to know what kinds of assets they’re bringing,” says Kim, who stresses that asking students to assimilate to an American way of life can mean losing valuable aspects of their cultures that can benefit the whole classroom.
- Teach children how to codeswitch between home and school. Amid a burden of expectations and mixed messaging, it’s easy for children to grow confused and frustrated with their parents or their teachers. They may have to learn that it’s okay “to literally adjust your words and behaviors to fit the cultural context they’re in.”
- Reach out to families and talk openly with them about expectations. Offer flexible meeting times, so working parents have the chance to attend. Explain how students will be encouraged to think and speak, and ask parents how that behavior coincides with their cultural values.
- If communication is difficult for language or cultural reasons, find a liaison — either another staff member, or even a parent — who can help close that gap. Don’t let a language barrier create distance between the school and families.
In one way or another, says Kim, “It’s important to lay out on the table, what does success of your child mean for you? And what does it mean for us as a school? And how can we work together to achieve a mutual goal?”
Get Usable Knowledge — Delivered
Our free monthly newsletter sends you tips, tools, and ideas from research and practice leaders at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Sign up now.