Tiger Moms, the model minority stereotype and the impact on Asian youth in schools

Earlier this month, 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. From Time to Stephen Colbert, media pundits wondered: Are Asians superior in education? What should Westerners do about it? What the mainstream media has not adequately addressed is Chua’s calculated exploitation of two pernicious stereotypes about Asian America every educator needs to consider – the first being the model minority stereotype and the second the threat of a “rising” China.

Chua’s Journal excerpt essentially asserted that Asian immigrant parents are a relentless and constant presence in their children’s lives, one that demands academic excellence and supports non-stop tutoring and music – even on vacations. The media focused on the controversy over whether her authoritarian methods allowed for verbal and psychological abuse and looked down upon other cultures and forms of learning and education.

“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.”

It certainly didn’t hurt that Chua’s Journal piece served as a promotion for her novel, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a memoir that by all accounts is not as sensationalistic as the Journal piece that catapulted her book to the top of the charts and made her the subject of talk shows across the country.

While Chua has reportedly backed off some of the assertions in her Journal piece – she claims she didn’t pick the headline for example – there’s no doubt that what made Chua’s essay register on the national media consciousness had less to do with her extreme parenting style than the racialization of the discourse around parenting. Let’s face it: another parenting how-to manual? Snooze. But a parenting manual that plays off the Asian model minority stereotype and the U.S.’s growing fears of an unstoppable China? A marketing and media bonanza.

In particular, Chua’s essay exploits the “model minority” stereotype that has done great harm to Asian American youth in schools. This 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. 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 leads to the notion that Asians are far from a minority, they’re a super privileged class who evoke fear and competition from American educators. As such, it’s a stereotype that also creates and widens divisions between Asian Americans and other people of color.

The media hype around Chua’s essay also exploits vulnerabilities within the Western psyche about a rising China, fears that gain even more traction when the U.S. struggles economically. We saw this type of Asian xenophobia with Japan in the 1980s. Today it’s China, where the political ads from the November election reflect a calculated attempt to sell voters on candidates who won’t allow the U.S. to fall behind.

These are stereotypes and images that haunt many of our Asian youth in schools, resulting often in the denial of a host of educational services from language services to lack of testing for special ed, counseling services, or multiracial ethnic studies in schools. These stereotypes have led to informal quotas in higher education and the neglect of racial harassment and violence in schools. Consider these challenges:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court case supporting bilingual education Lau vs. Nichols (1972) and Philadelphia’s own 1985 suit, Y.S. vs. School District of Philadelphia which established ESL services throughout the School District were both hard-fought by Asian community advocates. Both challenged arguments against offering English language and bilingual services based on biased assumptions that Asian youth can learn English quickly and readily and probably beat your SAT score while they’re at it.
  • Mental health counseling services are notoriously lacking for Asian communities. After all, why provide such services when Asians are so successful in schools?
  • Curricula? Why bother to teach Asian American history when Asians assimilate so well?

At South Philadelphia High School, school officials ignored repeated attacks against Asian immigrant students forcing a Dept. of Justice lawsuit against the School District for “unlawful discrimination” and civil rights violations against Asian youth. In numerous instances, District officials implied that language services for Asian youth were special privileges. The school’s principal called advocacy around stopping racial violence an “Asian agenda.” In public testimony, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman equated non-English speaking recent immigrant youth at the school to Asian youth at an elite magnet high school, implying that the immigrant youth didn’t need specialized services as much as they needed to “integrate” and blend in with their classmates.

As a parent, Amy Chua has every right to her memoirs and her child-rearing style. The problem is that the mainstream media – with Chua’s complicity – has seized upon and sensationalized a racialization of Chua’s life. It’s the assumption that Chua’s life (as a second generation Yale law professor with wealth and privilege) reflects the lives of all Asian immigrant parents; meanwhile, the complex lived realities of Asian immigrants in the U.S. are ignored.

There’s nothing in the dialogue around the Tiger Mom debate that talks about an immigrant parent’s 12+ hour workdays or children left home alone to look after themselves. There’s nothing about racial alienation and cultural dissonance, about extreme poverty or the mental health and social problems – domestic violence, addiction, and depression – within many recent immigrant families. There's no mention of the vast differences in academic achievement and educational experience of ethnic subgroups within Asian America. Asian American women ages 15-24 have the highest suicide rate of women in any race or ethnic group in that age group; suicide is the second leading cause of death for Asian American women in that age range.

These are sobering statistics for all educators to consider.

At the end of the day Chua’s book is not about Chinese immigrant parenting. It’s about a hypercompetitive, wealthy elitist mom seeking to one-up everyone else. That’s not an issue for Asian America. That’s an issue for Chua and perhaps her therapist. Unfortunately, it’s our students who will likely live with the consequences as well.


are vicious things. Thanks, Helen, for helping us fight some of those that can creep into anyone's heart without even being noticed until they do terrible damage.

isn't it possible that you perhaps read too much into

this article? my only thought when reading it was if american parents parented their kids with about 50% of the intensity of chua then maybe educational performance would increase. only an idiot could take that article and think that all asians are smart and therefore spending money on them in public schools is not needed. its tough to blame the writer if someone is that stupid to believe that.
also ,i think, there is not much difference between holding something up as admirable and to be emulated or holding something up and saying "if we don't do this too, china will kick america's ass economically." typically competition among companies or countries has always been the big driver of the u.s. economy.
i agree with you 100% that asians have suffered from unofficial quotas in highly competitive universities , however this started over 40 years ago when competitive colleges put into place unofficial quotas for all racial groups . when an applicant applies to a school he/she is only competing with applicants in their own racial group. this is unlikely to be changed because for some reason progressives are unwilling to support affirmative action programs at colleges based on economic background and not on race.
lastly ,just from my own experience i would have thought that this was a pretty accurate example of upper class chinese parenting . over the last 20 years i have been closely involved with between 15 and 20 upper class chinese, japanese and korean families, all of which raised their kids either a bit more intensely ( using physical abuse) or a bit less ( the koreans never verbablly abused their kids but did everything else) than what chua describes. i always thought , even years before this article came out ,that this method of parenting was the norm among upper class chinese japanese and korean parents.is this an inaccurate assumption?

Making individual experiences your norms for cultural behavior

Yeah, I would say I would be careful about what you assume about families based on limited experience.

So . . did you catch the part that Amy Chua is a second generation, published Yale law professor (she wrote a book on globalization that is highly regarded) with a barrage of services and privileges? From the outside, seeing her children go to some of the best schools in the country and then playing at Carnegie Hall may seem aspirational for some people. But really, does it make sense to racialize it to all Asians? You'd have to be pretty blissfully ignorant to think her life reflects much more than uber-competitiveness among a narrow class of individuals.

I did, and thus...

I took her as a weirdo with pseudo-cultural excuses for an appalling parenting style (one which, apparently, she even repents in the course of the book, although probably too late for her kids to ever feel get over their neuroses), one eccentric among many in the privileged classes who like to preach to everybody else. I agree that some of the sensationalism around her work was derived from the phrase "tiger mom" and how it plays into cultural stereotypes (or American performance anxiety), but it lit a huge brushfire because it stomped right into ongoing "mommy wars" with a kind of retro authoritarianism that goes against almost every theory now popular among parents who have choices.

and, you know, Wall Street Journal, always good for some reactionary cultural contributions! :)

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
— Margaret Mead

well i was trying to generalize only about parenting in

upper class chinese japanese and korean families, not about the whole asian socio economic spectrum, as i thought my sample ( 15 -20 upper class chinese japanese and korean familes from different geographical areas) was a pretty good scientific one as far as upper class families go and 100% of those raised their kids like chua did, give or take 20% intensity.( ie some took it beyond chua by hitting their kids for losing tennis matches etc while some were a bit less than chua by having the same practises without the verbal abuse.

Your conclusions are not based on a scientific sample

of anything. They're from your anecdotal reporting of conversations with, or observations of, people you happen to be acquainted with to some or less extent.

well it may not be a 100% scientific sample but i'd say its

close as none of these families know each other , some randomly sought me out , others i met in a random manner and they come from 3 different states. obviously they don't come from all 50 states and i didn't use a random no generator to pick random phone nos but i would say its still a pretty good sample.

I quite agree with ca. One

I quite agree with ca. One must be careful on this subject. This is perhaps not very sensible to generalize to all Asian!

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