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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?
- Tutoring assistance? Special ed placement? College advisory? Aren’t Asians “overrepresented” in colleges?
- 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.