A new book -- The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism (Paradigm Publishers) -- challenges the idea that most Asian Americans are relatively untouched by racism or focused on issues related to equity. Based on field interviews nationwide, the book describes the Asian American experience in schools, colleges, the workplace and public discourse. In the section on college, examples include students who have been the victim of ethnic profiling (as Muslims) and the barrage of allegedly harmless jokes (such as UCLA as the acronym for "University of Caucasians Lost among Asians") that students experience. The authors of the book are Rosalind S. Chou, a doctoral student in sociology at Texas A&M University, and Joe R. Feagin, a professor of sociology at Texas A&M. Chou recently responded to e-mail questions about the book's findings about college students.
Q: Why do you think some college students, many of them self-professed liberals who might not tolerate racist jokes about some groups, not only tolerate but engage in jokes about Asian Americans?
A: There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, as we note in the book, there is a pervasive stereotype that Asian Americans are docile. The history of Asian American resistance to racism is largely left out of the history books and the news media. There is activism, especially concentrated on the West Coast and Northeast, but it’s forgotten or ignored. Secondly, many of our respondents talked how they received either explicit or implicit messages to “let things go” or to “not rock the boat,” further reinforcing that Asian Americans will tolerate racist teasing, whereas other minority groups have been unfairly stereotyped as violent or dangerous. The more visible activism of these other racial minority groups may deter a person from poking fun so publicly. Thirdly, Asian Americans appear to have “made it.” This illusion of being “model minorities” can make it seem “less offensive” to poke fun at a group that is seemingly free of racial oppression.
Q: The book's section on college opens with examples related to California universities with large Asian populations. Does the treatment of Asian students differ significantly at institutions where they make up smaller shares of the student body?
A: Our respondents shared that they faced racial discrimination regardless of their geographic location. However, those students who attended schools with large Asian/ Asian American populations found that they had access to support. The Asian American students groups were very active on campus; this did not save them from mistreatment but they had a community to surround them. The students attending schools with a smaller population of Asian American students did not have those resources so readily available. They still dealt with “model minority” stereotyping and, at times, very violent hate crimes, but the experiences were very similar.
Q: What do you see as key similarities and differences in the treatment of Asian American students with black and Latino students?
A: The similarities start with the shared history of racial oppression and labor exploitation. Early Asian immigrants were brought to this country for their cheap labor, just as African slaves and Mexican Braceros were. They were also lynched just as the African American and Latino American. Today, these students still live in a society that is racially stratified. Unfortunately, many students do not know about this shared history and then do not apply this knowledge to our current racial hierarchy.
The major differences in the treatment of these students are how they are stereotyped. Asian Americans are associated with academic excellence and overachievement. Whereas black and Latino students are negatively stereotyped in academia. Either way, these stereotypes are externally imposed and can have a great affect on individual students internally, but also may impact other students, their teachers, professors, and administrators. Stereotyping, whether positive or negative, can be damaging.
Q: Your book features interviews with students from East Asian and South Asian backgrounds -- do you think those students have similar college experiences?
A: I think where we are in worrisome political moment after September 11th, South Asian Americans are dealing with additional stereotyping that challenges their patriotism and religious affiliation. Our South Asian respondents have had to deal with very violent attacks rooted to the misconception that they might be “terrorists.” They still deal with “model minority” stereotyping but they have an extra burden right now. Those South Asian respondents that are very dark skinned are confused for African Americans at times and are then stripped of the “model minority” status and are hit with a different set of prejudices.
Q: Many Asian American high school students feel that competitive colleges hold them to a higher standard than they do white students, and some view this as an impact of affirmative action. What are your thoughts?
A: I, Rosalind, have a personal story that relates to this question. When I was applying to colleges when I was a junior in high school, I bought one of those college guides you get at the bookstore. They had a quiz in the first few pages of the book that would give you a score at the end determining how competitive you would be for colleges. The higher the score, the more lucrative you were as an applicant. You would get two extra points for being in the top 5 percent of your class, two points for playing sports, two points for volunteering, 2 points for being Black or Latino etc. If you were white you neither had to add or subtract points, BUT you were to deduct 3 points if you were Asian American. This was a reputable college guide that I had purchased brand new, it was 1993, and it was so blatant and obvious to me that there was a different standard for Asian Americans compared to any other group.
Nowadays, I think it is something that is cloaked, but the issue is so complex. The educational playing field is not even and the circumstances for each racial group are greatly varied. I do not buy into the cultural argument that some racial groups value education more than others. Asian Americans are used as a marker by whites to accuse blacks and Latinos of being educationally deficient. This issue is much more complex than these sweeping generalizations of racial groups. We cite a documentary in our book that shows that Japanese Americans living on the West Coast that were interned actually pushed their children to perform well academically as a response to the horrific racist experience of internment camps in hopes that it would be a protective measure from future discrimination. When that generation of Japanese Americans started to perform well in school, the media blew up the story and the ideology of Asian Americans as great students emerged. I do believe we should still affirmatively act to level the playing field.