- Unraveling the “Model Minority” Stereotype: Listening to Asian American Youth
Few would argue that negative stereotypes are costly to those being judged, but what about positive ones? Do they also “cost” their recipients? These are some of the issues Stacey Lee forcefully tackles in her new book, Unraveling the “Model Minority” Stereotype: Listening to Asian American Youth. As the title suggests, [End Page 198] Lee engages in a critical examination of a stereotype currently applied to Asian Americans by uncovering what life is like beneath the veneer. She effectively shows that even seemingly positive stereotypes come with significant costs. She does so by talking with young people directly affected by it, students of Asian ancestry at Academic High, a selective, racially diverse public high school in Philadelphia. Drawing on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork, Lee skillfully explores what the stereotype means to these students, how it informs their self-identities and experiences at school, and its effects on their relations with faculty and peers, Asian and non-Asian.
According to the stereotype, Asian Americans are model minorities because they are all getting ahead in this society without complaining about mistreatment or expecting governmental assistance. As with any stereotype, however, one size does not fit all. At Academic, for instance, not all Asians are “whiz kids” who succeed in school or want to live up to the glowing images portrayed in Newsweek and Time magazine.
Furthermore, there is not one unified Asian American group but, rather, four self-defined groups. Each has its own distinct worldview, strategy for success (however defined), attitudes towards schooling and its effectiveness for achieving goals, willingness to challenge white racism, degree of academic success, and reaction to being seen as a model minority. While Korean- and Asian-identified students appreciate and seek to live up to the stereotype, New Waver- and Asian American-identified students both have strong negative reactions to the stereotype and in their own ways seek to create oppositional identities. Lee provides a nuanced account for this intra-Asian variance and convincingly shows how identities and attitudes towards schooling are more than just the product of historical relations as John Ogbu’s theoretical model suggests—ethnicity, social class, generational status, political status (i.e., refugee), and the unique conditions of each student’s life are equally important factors.
Clearly, blanket descriptors such as “model minority” mask significant differences among these students, rendering invisible those who deviate from the label. But there are other costs as well. Race relations at Academic and beyond suffer because of the implicit comparisons made. As in the case of sibling comparisons, the purpose of championing one child as “good” is to shame the others into submission or silence. And so it is in the case of having a “model” minority—less-than model ones are chastised and blamed for not being as good as those being praised. We need look only to our own families to recall what the interpersonal consequences are from setting up such a dynamic—resentment, misdirected blame, and lots of hostility. Lee does an excellent job describing [End Page 199] how this dynamic operates at Academic. A situation of academic “insiders and outsiders” based on intense, achievement-oriented competition virtually ensures dysfunctional race relations among black, white, and Asian students. All the while the “parent”—in this case the white authority structure that determines what is good or bad behavior—is never questioned, its criteria left unexamined. Attention is thereby diverted from examining deeply entrenched structural inequities, thus freeing the system from any responsibility for racial inequality.
Then there is the issue of the co-dependent relationship established between the students and white authority structure. With the exception of the Asian American-identified group, students Lee spoke with revealed an almost obsessive concern with what whites thought of them. In their efforts to gain white acceptance, Korean-identified students looked down on other Asian groups as being less “white-like,” while the Asian New Wavers resisted becoming engaged in school in order to distance themselves from the “nerd” stereotype, an offshoot...