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APAHM 2014: Dismantling the Model Minority Stereotype

Though this year's Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month is coming to a close, it is an opportunity to reflect on how we can advance Asian-Pacific Americans in STEM and education during the rest of the year as well. One important issue in this arena is that of dismantling the "model minority" myth.

The idea of the "model minority" was coined in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and was created to pit Black Americans (who were still seen as a "problem" minority group) against Asian Americans. Though Asians and Asian Americans had endured centuries of discrimination in the United States, by the 1960s this had changed somewhat: Asian Americans started to be stereotyped as hardworking, intelligent, and dependable. Hence the idea of the model minority—a racial minority that found success through its own hard work, which other minorities should seek to emulate.

The model minority stereotype for Asian Americans persists to this day, especially in terms of academic success. Even the youngest of Asian American students can face expectations from their teachers or peers that they be naturally talented at science and math, based on nothing but the fact that they are Asian American. People who believe this stereotype might back up their position with statistics like the relative overrepresentation of Asian people at so-called "elite" universities in the United States or the higher average SAT scores of Asian students.

But these statistics do not tell the whole story—they generally ignore the enormous diversity of cultural, political, and social backgrounds under the Asian American-Pacific Islander umbrella. Furthermore, Asians (who have moved to the United States recently for their education) and Asian Americans are often left undifferentiated, which can further convolute the data.

Looking at the available statistics with the above caveats, several facts become clear: Asian-Pacific American enrollment in higher education overall has increased at the same rate as other minorities', albeit concentrated in a small handful of universities; Asian-Pacific American students pursue study in a wide range of fields (similar to the overall distribution) at the undergraduate level, hardly just STEM subjects; and Asian-Pacific American students' SAT scores vary according to family income level, parents' educational levels, and English competency, similar to every other ethnic group's SAT scores. Furthermore, educational attainment among Asian-Pacific Americans, when broken down by ethnicity, varies wildly; it becomes clear that creating an average statistic for any aspect of this incredibly diverse group would be fruitless.

Even if the model minority myth for Asian Americans is based on relatively positive attributes, it does not mean that it isn't harmful. This is because the model minority myth is just that—a myth, perpetuated by incomplete statistics and racist attitudes. Being aware of this harmful stereotype and its origins is the first step in combating it in education.

To learn more about Asian-Pacific Americans in education and the model minority myth, take a look at "Facts, Not Fiction: Setting the Record Straight" from New York University, the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education, and the College Board. 

Read our other APAHM 2014 blog posts: The Building of the Transcontinental Railroad and Asian American Astronauts 

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