The “Model Minority” and Some Implications for Teaching

Two weeks ago, we were given an assignment for MHST 537 (Teaching Music History) class: Find a reading outside the syllabus that is connected to prejudice in the classroom, and introduce that reading to the class.

The reading I chose—Strangers From A Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (Ronald Takaki)—is one that was part of the syllabus for a course (“Asian Americans and Education”) I took while at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. That course, the reason I took it, and what I got out of it are posts for perhaps another time. I remembered this Takaki reading because of one particular section titled “The Myth of the ‘Model Minority'” that resonated with post-grad school experiences I’d had. Takaki writes:

Today Asian Americans are celebrated as America’s “model minority.” In 1986, NBC Nightly News and the McNeil/Lehrer Report aired special news segments on Asian Americans and their success, and a year later, CBS’s 60 Minutes presented a glowing report on their stunning achievements in the academy. “Why are Asian Americans doing so exceptionally well in school?” Mike Wallace asked, and quickly added, “They must be doing something right. Let’s bottle it.

[A] Pattern of Asian absence from the higher levels of administration is characterized as “a glass ceiling”—a barrier through which top management positions can only be seen, but not reached, by Asian Americans. . . . Asian Americans complain that they are often stereotyped as passive and told they lack the aggressiveness required in administration. . . . Asian American ‘success’ has emerged as the new stereotype for this ethnic minority. While this image has led many teachers and employers to view Asians as intelligent and hardworking and has opened some opportunities, it has also been harmful. (Takaki, 474-477).

I grew up in a society predominantly Asian and Polynesian, so I was largely insulated from the “model minority” views that Takaki relays. However, while studying for an additional degree beyond my Harvard one, I did encounter some of the reverse racism that Takaki might suggest would come about as a result: That because Asian Americans are perceived as success stories, it becomes acceptable by others to taunt, berate, and bring up Asian ethnicity as a means of “leveling the playing field” for those of other racial or ethnic backgrounds.

Here are a few short anecdotes that I feel relay my experiences:

  • At one point, when I was taking a historical survey course (and was doing rather well in it, because of a lot of effort I’d put into studying the material), the instructor insinuated that my success was ethnically based rather than on my skill set.
  • Another teacher commonly made analogies that somehow connected musical scores with Chinese menus and Oriental massage.
  • I also had new acquaintances remark, “You’re the first Asian friend I’ve had—the others are so nerdy” and “Why are you damn Asians so good at everything?”

Though I wanted to take those experiences and remarks in good faith, I found it increasingly difficult to tolerate and stomach them. While the easiest way to interpret some of these experiences may be as harassment (racial and sexual), I see them as being related to the “Model Minority” syndrome. At no time during these occurrences did I observe members of other minorities or ethnic/racial groups receive similar treatment.

Significantly, Asian-American “success” has been accompanied by the rise of a new wave of anti-Asian sentiment. On college campuses, racial slurs have surfaced in conversations on the quad: ‘Look out forthe Asian Invasion.’ ‘M.I.T. means made in Taiwan.’ ‘U.C.L.A. stands for University of Caucasians Living Among Asians’. ‘Stop the Chinese before they flunk you out.’ (Takaki, 479).

Implications for Classroom Teaching

Clearly, one lesson that I can draw from reflecting on my own experiences is that teachers must strive to be pro-active and conscientious individuals who value objectivity equal to their own interpretation and analysis. Another is that we must always consider what misunderstandings could result from the ambiguities of language and metaphor. I would also argue that organizing coursework and work products in a way that students’ learning processes are most evident can help to counteract any perceived obstacles for students that will come from a variety of cultural, ethnic, racial backgrounds.

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