Breaking the Model Minority Myth

This month’s post comes from a student of Dr. Castro-Gill’s American Ethnic Studies course at the University of Washington. It is written by Sophia Mai.

By taking AES 340 – Race, Ethnicity, and Education, I have learned about how systems of oppression, especially racism and classism (which are intrinsically linked due to the historical and systemic oppression of Black Indigenous people of color) affects our education. Learning about many of these concepts challenged my thinking and made me reflect on and question many of my past experiences and presumptions. More specifically, learning about the importance of teaching critical race theory and the negative impacts of valuing schools and communities based on standardized testing has also made me think about how these issues are reflected in our society on a larger scale – not just in education. This class has taught me a lot about the world around me, but more specifically how to reflect critically on my own experiences as a person of color that has grown up in America and been taught, especially history, from a very Eurocentric point of view.

In history classes, I was taught about historical events in a way that praised the actions of White people and excluded the narratives of people of color. My first experience of learning about people of color was in my second-grade class the week of Thanksgiving. We sat obediently at our tiny wooden desks, the sounds of crayons and colored pencils scraping against the cornucopia coloring sheets droning in the background as our teacher told us about how the great Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas in 1492. She described him in a reverent way and made it seem like his actions were something to aspire to.

Asian Representation in American Schools

In our class of around twenty-seven students, there were only five Asian students, and in all the books, lessons, etc., I never once saw myself being represented in any way. Even outside of the classroom, kids would make jokes about Asian eyes or accents, but I always figured that it was supposed to be funny, so I laughed with them without realizing that they were laughing at me. During 3rd grade, I moved to an Asian-majority school. Despite this, I still rarely saw myself being represented in lessons. Growing up, I was never consciously aware of the impact it had on me back then, because the erasure of people of color was the only thing I had ever known in my education, and I assumed it was normal.

In class, I often felt disengaged from what we were learning about, because I could not relate to it and assumed that because of our lack of representation, people of color had not made significant enough contributions to this country to be mentioned or taught about. Through this class, I learned about how the experiences of people of color, specifically Asian Americans, affect the portrayal of them in history textbooks, and, therefore, why it is important for children to be taught critical race theory, which includes teaching history from marginalized perspectives.

When I read the article Disrupting Curriculum of Violence on Asian Americans by Sohyun An, I learned that this lack of representation was something nearly all Asian Americans experience if they are educated in the United States, and that this erasure makes students feel like they have no worth or value to their country, which is exactly how I felt when I was younger. In this article, An clearly explains many of the thoughts I have had about these topics, which was very impactful. For example, when she discusses how the “model minority” stereotype is detrimental to Asian Americans because it, “lumps diverse Asian Americans into a monolithic category and…dismisses the diversity and complexity of struggles within the Asian American community shaped by class, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, and the like” (An 7). Through this article, I also learned about how the historical treatment of Asians in America, like the restriction of Asian immigration and naturalization and the exploitation of Asian labor for the Transcontinental Railroad, was connected to us being portrayed as perpetual “foreigners” or the “model minority” and how those stereotypes provided “justification” for us to be excluded from history textbooks. By reading this article, I was able to connect my knowledge of history about the treatment of Asian Americans to why we are portrayed the way we are now and better understand the importance of teaching children about the experiences of marginalized people, because, otherwise, they will feel the same isolation and disengagement I felt when I was younger.

Chinese immigrants provided much of the labor required to build the Transcontinental Railroad which was deadly work.

Through this class, I also learned about how the purposeful omission or downplay of contributions of people of color is used by those in power or those who benefit most from our society to maintain control and continue perpetuating systems of oppression. Before this class, I vaguely understood the concept that education was taught in a way to make marginalized people seem less important than the white, straight, cis, rich men that we frequently saw in textbooks, but did not fully grasp how education is used to continue the operation of oppressive systems. I learned that by keeping marginalized people out of history and other subjects, we are more likely to believe the narratives we are told from a Eurocentric perspective because we do not have other information telling us that those perspectives are not the whole truth, making it is easier to keep these systems of oppression in place, and thus the people in power will continue benefiting from them. Having grown up in a lower-income area with mostly white people and middle-class neighborhoods with significant Asian populations for most of my life, I never saw the struggles of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities, and by being ignorant, I was more susceptible to racist stereotypes and assumptions. This applies to other communities as well: without exposure to the struggles of others, we are less likely to question things such as the model minority stereotype, which lumps diverse Asian Americans into one category and ignores the struggles and experiences that result from intersecting identities. 

The Model Minority Myth has been perpetuated by various institutions, including mass media since the advent of racial categories.

After reading about this in An’s work, I reflected on my experiences and noticed that those who have a closer proximity to those at the top of our society, or people that benefit most from systems of oppression (white, cis, wealthy, Christian, able-bodied men) often succumb to these myths about race, class, etc. Because these people do not have intersecting marginalized identities, it is harder for them to understand the struggles of others, and are thus more likely to perpetuate these systems of oppression on other marginalized groups. Specifically in the Asian American community, I have noticed that because we are deemed more “intellectually competent” by White people and “allowed” to benefit from some systems of oppression, many will unknowingly buy into oppressive ideologies.

The theory of Racial Triangulation explains how the Model Minority Myth is used specifically to further oppress Black Americans.

Standardized Testing, Meritocracy, and the Model Minority

My parents and grandparents (and a significant portion of the Asian American community) believe that standardized testing is an equitable way to “measure intelligence” and evaluate students. Because of this, growing up, my parents placed significant value on education. Throughout middle and high school, I spent my Saturdays going to supplementary classes to improve my math and eventually standardized testing skills. Prior to taking this class, I felt that standardized tests were more objective than other measures because I did not know better and did not understand that test scores are used to sustain oppressive systems under the guise of “progress” and “equality” through presumptive objectivity. By using lower test scores to devalue students, lower-income schools with less resources will continue to have less resources than their wealthier counterparts because there is seemingly no reason to invest in those schools if they are performing “badly”, further exacerbating the issue of education inequality.

After reflecting back after reading those articles and the lessons in class, I realize that I was only able to do well on standardized tests because of the test prep classes I had taken, my parent’s ability to pay for those prep classes, and going to a very good public school that had a rigorous curriculum as well as mock exams. Because public schools are funded by property taxes, students in low-income communities will not have the same access to resources, teachers, etc. that wealthier areas do, and because of this, their test scores are lower. Meritocracy 2.0: High-Stakes, Standardized Testing as a Racial Project of Neoliberal Multiculturalism by Wayne Au explains that by legitimizing standardized testing, we create markets related to education, (ie. those prep classes I took) and identify low-scoring schools as “failures”, leading to their closure. By pushing a narrative of presumptive objectivity about standardized testing, people begin to believe in the idea of meritocracy, which asserts that everyone has equal chances of success, and ignore the struggles that marginalized people face in order to obtain that success.

Upon reading this article, I reflected on my community of middle-class Asian Americans and noticed that many believe that if someone works hard, they can be successful because that was the story of many Asian immigrants – my family included. However, because many Asian Americans were allowed to benefit from society in order to be placed on a pedestal in order to compare us to other people of color, we see this myth of meritocracy as truth because we have not faced the obstacles others have faced ourselves. By learning about these concepts in this class, I intend to deepen my understanding and further my knowledge by doing my own research on these topics to learn more. I also intend on listening more to BIPOC experiences, especially with people whose experiences differ from mine in order to learn from them. I also hope to take this information and teach my peers, family, and community members in order to spread awareness of many aspects of how our modern education system today is deeply rooted in systemic oppression (like standardized testing) and how implementing things like teaching critical race theory will allow students to have a more diverse and complete education.

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