The term “model minority” was first used by white sociologists in the 1960s to describe Asian-Americans because of the group’s perceived higher income, often educated background and higher living standards relative to those of black and Latino populations in the United States. While many believe that the idea of Asian-Americans as the “model minority” promotes “positive stereotypes,” like associating Asian-Americans with high intellect, it in fact inflicts a damaging double standard, especially for Asian and Asian-American students.
For many Asians and Asian-Americans, ordinary becomes unacceptable, and extraordinary becomes expected. When an Asian or Asian-American student does produce outstanding academic work, the student is not celebrated, and his or her effort is mostly disregarded. Inflated standards encourage many Asians and Asian-Americans to chase grades rather than quality learning; they worship the A+ because it means acceptance.
When I was in seventh grade, my math teacher once announced to my class while passing back tests, “Guess who didn’t get a 100 percent this time?” Everybody immediately knew. My classmates gathered around my desk, comparing test scores. Some even walked away exclaiming, “I beat an Asian!” At the end of the day, I felt humiliated by my A/A+. Although I finished seventh grade with a 105 percent average in both my math and science classes, I was not so much proud as I was relieved.
The college process only perpetuates the ridiculous standards and academic pressures that Asians and Asian-Americans face. Applicant pools are filled with Asian and Asian-American students who have perfect test scores and perfect GPAs. The fear of an Asian quota, compounded by the often large number of Asian applicants at many schools, can lead Asians and Asian-Americans to see college admission as a battle for seats.
As a result of this unique combination of pressures, many Asian and Asian-American students are dissociating themselves from Asian stereotypes by choosing not to specify their race on college applications, according to a 2011 “USA Today” article. Afraid of unfair comparisons to other Asian applicants or, worse, to the Asian stereotype, they believe that they must break away from their race and heritage in order to have a chance in the college admissions process.
These competitive comparisons are further underscored by familial pressures common (though not necessarily unique) to Asians. My parents often compare me with my peers, commenting on their academic genius, athletic talents or mature social skills. “Why can’t you be like that?” they ask.
Despite good intentions, my stomach twists into a knot because no matter how hard I work, I will never be good enough. Do I have the best test scores? The most leadership positions? The highest class rank?
Faced with such incredible expectations, Asians and Asian-Americans in pressured, competitive environments are often dissatisfied with themselves no matter how hard they try, unless they are “the best.” Barraged with these comparisons, they are forced to stomach the shame of coming in second, crippling their self-esteem and fueling the pressure to be number one.
The unreachable standards inherent to the “model minority” status only engender stress and shame. Seeking out help is stigmatized in the Asian community. Personally, I would only ask for a peer tutor as a last resort. In anonymous health surveys of Cornell University students, Asians and Asian-Americans were more likely to have difficulties with stress, sleep and feelings of hopelessness than white students, but were less likely to seek counseling.
The idea of the “model minority” is a myth that generalizes about the population of 18 million individual Asian-Americans in the United States. The above-average stratum awarded to the group ignores the fact that many of us are struggling. Asians and Asian-Americans with learning disabilities, as well as low-income, non-English speaking or first-generation Asians, are often overlooked because of the “positive stereotypes” associated with the entire racial group. We must no longer believe in the idea that stereotypes surrounding Asian success and intelligence are beneficial to the minority group as a whole because they are, in fact, extremely harmful.