Some months ago, Yale law professor Amy Chua wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that set off a media and cultural firestorm. Titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” the piece’s outlandish assertions about Asian immigrant parenting hit the requisite rounds on the 24-hour news cycle. Though the media chatter was nonstop for weeks, what was not adequately addressed is Chua’s calculated exploitation of a pernicious stereotype that has had deep impact on youth—particularly youth of color—in our schools: the model minority stereotype of the superhuman Asian student.
The “model minority” stereotype promotes the idea that Asian youth will succeed academically under any circumstance because they have families at home that push them toward academic excellence, because Asians understand and support the U.S. system of education, because Asians have access to more resources than others, and because they are resilient and can withstand any manner of abuse. Asian students supposedly have parents who are a relentless and constant presence in their children’s lives, who demand academic excellence and support nonstop tutoring and music—even on vacations.
As Chua explains:
Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish, and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.
Chua boasts about the impact of her extreme parenting style—crackdowns, punishments, prohibitions, and verbal abuse. Whether intentionally or not, she plays to the “zero tolerance” and “race to the top” mentality that has driven much of the recent remaking of inner-city schools.
The model minority stereotype implies that Asian Americans are a docile group with a pull yourself up by the bootstraps culture—a group that doesn’t need services or much political or cultural attention and resources. It’s a message that creates and widens divisions between Asian Americans and other people of color. The model minority narrative reinforces “personal responsibility” and “culture of poverty” interpretations of low achievement that often blame African American and Latino students and their families for the impact of racism and poverty on learning and school climate. By implying that one set of students’ moral and cultural values can overcome any obstacle, it implicitly condemns other students of color for allegedly failing to have the moral and cultural resources to do the same.