“Battle Hymn of the Model Minority Myth” by Mitchell James Chang

This week, we’re continuing our online collaboration with Hyphen Magazine’s “Across the Desk” blog, cross-posting essays from our Amerasia Forum on “The Year of the Tiger Mom.”  Please click over to “Across the Desk” to read OiYan Poon’s piece, “Ching Chongs and Tiger Moms: The ‘Asian Invasion’ in U.S. Higher Education.” Below is Mitchell James Chang’s essay, “Battle Hymn of the Model Minority Myth.”

“War stories matter,” declared Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, because they are not just passive accounts of conflict but have the power to “send men into battle and to shape the wars they fight.”  According to Faust in her Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities delivered in May 2011, war stories “are not just modeled from war; they become models for war.”  Despite their societal significance, she added, those narratives all suffer from a “fundamental untellability and unintelligibility,” leading them to distort our understanding of each successive war.

Similar issues are shared with grand narratives about Asian Americans.  Analogous to the problems that Faust described in her lecture concerning war stories, the collective experiences of Asian Americans are also “untellable” in large part because the label intended to capture this quickly evolving and exceedingly diverse population is itself “unintelligible.”  Curiously, despite the many serious flaws with grand narratives about Asian Americans, the general public is drawn to them, which makes those stories even more effective in distorting understanding of Asian Americans.  One story that has continued to work in those problematic ways is what has been commonly referred to as the “model minority myth.”  This story shares the same simpleminded appeal as those written over a hundred years ago by Horatio Alger, but in this case, it portrays individuals of a racial minority group as having overcome related disadvantages to achieve success through hard work and determination.  Just like Faust’s description of war stories, the inexorable model minority myth has likewise contributed to how Asian Americans are misunderstood in U.S. society, and subsequently, how we are stereotyped and wrongly treated.

In this essay, I discuss how Yale Law Professor Amy Chua retold this model minority myth, which has attracted astonishing media attention and inspired numerous related stories.  My discussion will focus mainly on the educational propositions that emerged from this unexpected media circus, particularly what was said concerning higher education since the model minority myth has had an extraordinarily strong grip within this context.  I will also focus my discussion on a short five-month period between January to May 2011, during which a number of unusual activities rejuvenated this myth and placed it more prominently in national discourse. (Editor’s Note: Please see essays by Professor Chang on Asian Americans and higher education in the Huffington Post, Hyphen online, and the Sacramento Bee.)

When the Wall Street Journal published Amy Chua’s essay, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” on January 8, 2011, it brought a number of issues to the forefront of national attention.  Aside from her controversial parenting methods, she reinvigorated the old and tiresome model minority myth. Chua’s characterization of “Chinese Mothers” breathed new life into an already problematic stereotype by suggesting not only that most Asian Americans are overachieving, but also that their high achievements are due to overbearing parents.  “A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. . .Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it,” Chua claimed.  “Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting.”

Since her essay was published, Chua has made it clear that her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, from which the Wall Street Journal piece was excerpted, is only intended to convey the lessons she learned while raising her two daughters and that she does not think that Chinese parents are superior as the title of her essay implied.  Even so, the damage had already been done as she not only effectively retold the model minority myth through her essay, but packaged it in a fashion that brought her international attention.  Moreover, her retelling of this retrograde story in the Wall Street Journal enriched the myth by adding new tantalizing details to it, including an overbearing Asian mother who is now widely portrayed by the media as the secret weapon behind the overachieving Asian American student.  (See, for example, the segment of the ABC News program What Would You Do? titled “Tiger Mother rips into kid for A-minus” by Robert Zepeda that aired on May 11, 2011.)

Chua’s retelling of the model minority narrative inspired others to revisit related yet wearisome stories that focus on higher education.  For example, Jon Marcus reported in a Boston Globe story that “high-achieving Asian-American students are being shut out of top schools around the country.”  Marcus capitalized on Chua’s momentum and recognized her for “all the attention given to the stereotype that Asian-American parents put enormous pressure on their children to succeed.”  Rather than address the problems with this stereotype, he proceeded to ground his story in it, adding that “even if Asian-American students work hard, the doors of top schools were still being slammed shut in many faces. . .”  According to him, Asian American applicants must have stronger high school records and test scores than applicants from other groups in order to gain admissions to elite colleges like Harvard.

Read more of “Battle Hymn of the Model Minority Myth,” after the jump…

The problems that Marcus addressed in his story are recurring ones, as the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the mid-1980s investigated charges that a number of our nation’s most selective colleges were surreptitiously manipulating admissions practices to cap Asian American enrollment.  That college admissions practices are shaped more by socio-political forces than by meritocratic principles has been well documented, and, likewise, there has been a longstanding political and ideological struggle over how applicants are evaluated for admission.  (See Daniel Golden, The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—And Who Gets Left Outside the Gates [2006]; Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton [2005])  By grounding this admissions problem in the model minority myth, however, Marcus and others who retell such stories subsequently ignore and shift attention away from more pressing educational issues that directly affect a greater number of Asian Americans.  Those issues include high school drop-out, access to financial aid, community college transfer, and remedial education.  (Several of my previous research projects consistently point this out.  See for example, Chang, et al., eds., Beyond Myths: The Growth and Diversity of Asian American College Freshmen, 1971-2005 [2011]; Chang and Peter N. Kiang, eds., Special Issue on Higher Education of AAPI Nexus 7:2 [2009])  While we should not overlook discrimination in college admissions, we should also keep in mind that a majority of Asian Americans face an array of other educational challenges that are incompatible with the overachieving student stereotype; see for example a recent story by Jennifer Oldham for The Hechinger Report, which received far less media attention.  After all, community colleges serve approximately 40 percent of all Asian American undergraduates enrolled in U.S. higher education.  Even if we doubled the enrollment of Asian Americans on each of the eight Ivy League campuses, for example, they would still only serve a small fraction of the over 200,000 Asian Americans enrolled in community colleges in California alone.

Another recent story inspired by Chua’s “Chinese Mother” essay also has considerable implications for higher education.  For the May 2011 issue, the New York Magazine ran a cover with the caption “Asian Like Me.” In this issue’s lead story, titled “Paper Tigers,” Wesley Yang asked, “What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?”  Unlike Marcus, Yang was not interested in whether or not those “overachievers” got into elite colleges, but questioned whether “Asian-Americans are dominating in the real world.”  According to Yang, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother incited a collective airing out of many varieties of race-based hysteria” about whether Asian-Americans were in fact taking over this country.”

While Yang concluded that Asians are NOT taking over, he did very little to demystify the Asian American success story.  Similar to Marcus, Yang’s story was also grounded in Chua’s model minority premise and spotlighted overachieving Asian American students. For example, Yang began by confirming Asian American success, stating that “Asian parents have raised a generation of children” based on “Asian values,” which supposedly positioned them to become “doctors, lawyers, accountants, and engineers.”  Rather than challenge that stereotype, his critique instead targeted those “Asian values,” concluding that obeying one’s Asian parents will not guarantee success in U.S. society, but may even hinder it. He further urged Asian Americans to “stop doggedly pursuing official paper emblems attesting to their worthiness, to stop thinking those scraps of paper will secure anyone’s happiness, and to dare to be interesting.”  Thus, the central problem for Yang is not that Asian Americans are wrongly stereotyped as academic overachievers but that they develop dubious values and habits that are consistent with being a model minority.  Because Yang believes that those values and habits are widely shared among Asian Americans, he fails in the end to disrupt the model minority myth.

Even though Marcus and Yang grounded their stories in Chua’s model minority premise, they, unlike Chua, both raised concerns about “Asian panic”—a problem that is becoming increasingly more prevalent in U.S. higher education.  Certainly the confluence of overrepresentation at elite universities, China’s ascendency as a global power, the poor economic conditions in the U.S., all contribute to this panic, which surfaces in different ways. In March 2011, it surfaced on YouTube: In a notorious clip, Alexandra Wallace, a third-year political science student at UCLA, made a number of racist comments about “Asian people.”  Among them, she claimed, “The problem is these hordes of Asian people that UCLA accepts into our school every single year. . . .If you’re going to come to UCLA then, use American manners.”  She not only disparaged her Asian American classmates but also charged that other parts of her life were being invaded by those students’ parents, siblings, and other relatives, “You will always see old Asian people running around this apartment complex every weekend. That’s what they do [laundry, groceries, cook for them]. They don’t teach their kids to fend for themselves.”  That Wallace was emboldened to broadcast her remarks worldwide suggests that her opinions were not just abruptly contrived by a single student gone wild, but actually emerged from a broader educational context, even one as diverse as the UCLA community, whereby Asians are negatively racialized.

Given this panic, I fully appreciate why Wesley Yang applauded Amy Chua in his story for her “proud defiance,” to “make some noise” and “be unbowed” despite the intense criticism she has received. Without such defiance, Yang fears that Asian Americans will be viewed as “products of a timid culture, easily pushed around by more assertive people, and thus basically invisible.”

Indeed, Asian Americans cannot afford to be timid and feeble if this panic intensifies.  At the same time, we must recognize that the stories we share may well further fuel this panic.  Although unintended, perhaps Chua’s Wall Street Journal article created such a firestorm precisely because it elevated our nation’s sense of panic.  Not only has it incited the Asian panic discussed earlier, but it has also roused the panic of career-minded parent types concerning whether they are spending enough time with their children to help them succeed in an increasingly competitive world where three hours a day of violin practice is fast becoming the new normal.  Chua’s retelling may also have intensified class-related panic, in this case, the panic associated with whether one can provide one’s children with vital resources such as access to music lessons, world travel, and a first-rate education that only those like Chua in privileged positions can readily do for their children.

That Chua’s retelling of the model minority story can exact greater public panic should serve as a warning that such stories are not just inconsequential Horatio Alger embellishments.  If those stories actually incite deeper, broader, and more sustained panic and fear, they may be maliciously retold like war stories are.  With a couple of minor yet ugly twists, as Wallace had done in her YouTube clip, the model minority narrative can be readily turned into a Yellow Peril one that supports rather than refutes the dangerous claim that Asians are dominating the real world.  If the general public embraces those manufactured stories, it will share similar qualities with a good war story.  That is, according to Drew Faust, it will have the power to send some into battle—in this case by elevating resentment, antipathy, and racial animus.  While Chua may not have had this type of “Battle Hymn” in mind when choosing the title for her book, it will hopefully not be the battle hymn that she ultimately inspires by advancing the model minority myth.

Mitchell J. Chang is Professor of Higher Education and Organizational Change at the University of California, Los Angeles and also holds a joint appointment in the Asian American Studies Department.  His research focuses on the educational efficacy of diversity-related initiatives on college campuses and how to apply those best practices toward advancing student learning and democratizing institutions.

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