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

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Recently, 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 has been seemingly non-stop, what has not been 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. They have parents who are a relentless and constant presence in their children’s lives, who demand academic excellence and support non-stop 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.”

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. Whether intentional or not, the model minority narrative reinforces the idea of “personal responsibility” and “culture of poverty” interpretations about low achievement.

It’s a story where Asians are cast as a super-privileged class, who ought to evoke fear and competition from American educators. It’s curious how the media hype around Chua’s essay coincides with fears 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 youth in schools. Chua’s excerpt boasts about the impact of her extreme parenting style – crackdowns, punishments, prohibitions, and verbal abuse. Whether intentional or not, she plays to the “zero tolerance” and “race to the top” mentality which has governed much of the recent theory about remaking inner city schools.

For Asian immigrant and Asian American students, the impact is just as damaging. This stereotype is often at the heart of a denial of a host of educational services from language services to lack of testing for special education, counseling services, or multiracial ethnic studies in schools.

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 hard-fought battles 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. Consider:

  • Mental health counseling services are notoriously lacking for Asian communities. After all, why provide such services when Asians are so successful in school?
  • 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?

Stereotypes like this have triggered informal quotas in higher education and the neglect of racial harassment and violence in schools.

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 programs 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 ridiculous to make the assumption that Chua, a second generation Yale law professor with wealth and privilege, represents 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 essay says more about a hypercompetitive, wealthy elitist mom seeking to one-up everyone else than it does about raising children to live in a complicated world. And for educators who buy into that line, it’s our students who will likely live with the consequences.