Commentary on the Model Minority Stereotype

By. Dr. Nicholas D. Hartlep

Asian Americans are heralded as “model minorities.” What this means is that society views them positively and as American success stories. Educationally speaking Asian Americans also appear to be doing quite well. They score high on the SAT and gain admission to some of the most exclusive and prestigious colleges and universities. This perception, however, has been found to be faulty by empirical and social scientific research. In other words, Asian Americans struggle as much as other people of color. Don’t believe me, read Jaime Lew’s Asian Americans in Class: Charting the Achievement Gap among Korean American Youth.

But why is it that Asian Americans—immigrant and domestic born—appear to be doing so well? One reason may be that the popular press and news media publish and broadcast stories that selectivelyomit facts and perspectives that would delegitimize the sterling stereotype. Another reason Asian Americans appear to be doing so well is due to the fact that many successful Asian Americans perpetuate the myth themselves, profiting professionally and personally.

A textbook example of Asian American complicity can be seen in the writing of Amy Chua, a Chinese Yale Law Professor whose Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has sold many copies and has been reviewed by The New York Times. Another example is Harvard-educated author Jean Kwok, whose Girl in Translation was a national bestseller. And still another example, is Soo Kim Abboud and Jane Kim’s Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers–and How You Can Too. How do Battle Hymn, Girl in Translation, and Top of the Class perpetuate the model minority stereotype? Eachbook promotes (a) the idea that Asian Americans and Asian immigrants culturally superior to other minority cultural groups; (b) that Asian Americans parent in unique ways; and (c) that thrift and sacrificial effort leads to success in the United States, supporting the belief that America is a meritocracy.

For instance, Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn shares her reflections on how she raised two extremely successful daughters. Chua prohibited her daughters from the following:

・      attend a sleepover

・      have a playdate

・      be in a school play

・      complain about not being in a school play

・      watch TV or play computer games

・      choose their own extracurricular activities

・      get any grade less than an A

・      not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama

・      play any instrument other than the piano or violin

・      not play the piano or violin not getting anything lower than an A for a grade, sleepovers at friends houses, and not playing either the violin or piano.

Anecdotes are shared in the book about how one of her daughters played at Carnegie Hall at the tender age of 14, and how one time Chua was so angry with one of her daughters (age 3 at the time) that she made her stand outside in the freezing and snowy cold as a punishment for not practicing her instrument. Chua’s parenting strategy appears successful to the public—her teenage daughter Sophia gained admission to Yale and Harvard.

Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation shares a semi-autobiographical account of a young Chinese immigrant girl, Kimberly Chang, who works in a sweatshop in New York by night and attends school by day. Through extreme diligence to her studies and hard work in the sweatshop, Kimberly gains a scholarship into a preparatory high school and eventually does so well there that she gains a full-ride scholarship to Yale. Kimberly ends up getting pregnant her senior year of high school, and defers her scholarship to Yale in order to deliver her baby. By not electing to abort her son, and bydelaying her higher education, the narrative of Girl in Translation conforms to the myth that Asian Americans place the family at the center of life. Kimberly is a success story: she graduates from Yale, and then goes onto to study and graduate from Harvard Medical School.

Lastly, How to Raise A Successful Child is a parallel narrative to Battle Hymn; that is, it is a story about how Asian Americans parent in culturally-specific ways that lead to academic stardom and achievement. The two authors of Top of the Class are Dr. Soo Kim Abboud a board-certified surgeon and an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jane Kim, an attorney and immigration specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Dr. Abboud and Kim are sisters—their story is one of familial success.

Cumulatively, the three books previously mentioned, reinforce White Middle American values and popular perceptions and conceptions of Asian Americans and their occupations. Thesenarratives, all written by “successful” Asian American authors, distance the Asian American population from other less successful minority groups, such as Latin@s and African Americans. Some individuals reading my commentary will quip, “They are just stories. What is the big deal? Who cares?”

I am Korean and I care. The big deal is that their messages—that Asian Americans are universally successful—are incorrect and mask the struggles that many Asians in America experience. The Asian American authors that I have reviewed benefitfrom selling their stories, but what do their stories accomplish is problematic. Their stories treat Asian American success as the rule, not as the exception. What are the consequences of the model minority stereotype?

Much scholarly writing has documented the deleterious implications of the model minority stereotype. Currently I am conducting research for a book that examines how the model minority stereotype is associated with Asian American suicide. In addition to psychopathological (mental health) problems caused by intense pressure to live up to unrealistic standards setup by the model minority myth, Asian Americans languish in obscurity since educators, medical practitioners, and lawyers fail to recognize the many difficulties this heterogeneous and diverse population experience.

For instance, Asian Americans have been documented to be overrepresented in K-12 gifted and talented education programs and underrepresented in K-12 Special Education programs. They havealso been documented to face serious health issues, such as high rates of cancer, physical and domestic abuse, and gang membership. Moreover, Asian Americans have been found to be invisible in terms of the increasing number of anti-Asian hate crimes. A survey conducted by the Asian American Committee of 100, found that a majority of White Americans held extremely negative attitudes toward Asian Americans, illustrating that America is not “post-racial” due to the successful election and re-election of Barack Obama, a Black man. According to the Committee of 100 Survey, it seems far off that the United States will have an Asian American president since a significant proportion of Americans say they would be uncomfortable having an Asian American as President of the U.S. (23%).

What is the purpose of my short commentary? It is merely to raise awareness. In my current research for my forthcoming book The Model Minority Stereotype: Demystifying Asian American Success (Information Age Publishing) I have come across academic scholarship/research that is promoting the idea that the model minority stereotype is empirically defensible and that Asian Americans actually benefit from the stereotype. The most salient scholar promoting this idea is Jennifer Lee, a Russell Sage Foundation Fellow who has coined the term “model minority promise”—the idea that Asian Americans benefit from the positive stereotype. As a Korean adoptee, I find that this is a problematic story to be promoting: that the model minority stereotype is not a big deal. Research Lee’s should be interrogated intensely because Asian Americans have historically been treated as “pariahs,” not as “paragons” of success. The model minority stereotype is simply that, a myth and a stereotype.


Dr. Hartlep  is a former public school teacher, has taught in Minnesota and Wisconsin. His research includes the model minority stereotype and teaching for social justice. He currently is an Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations at Illinois State University.

Follow me on twitter @nhartlep