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The Model Minority Myth Continues

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In the July 2012 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education, Deborah Trytten, Susan Walden, and Anna Wong Lowe published an article titled ‘“Asians are Good at Math. What an Awful Stereotype”: The Model Minority Stereotype’s Impact on Asian American Engineering Students.’

As I read the article, I could not help but think that, even though some scholars and student affairs practitioners have been working to dispel the myth, it continues. It is helped along by the media, uninformed college staff, and even professors.

According to Trytten and her colleagues, Asian Americans continue to feel immense pressure to conform to the stereotype of the model minority myth, including high educational attainment and hard work. Because the myth assumes that Asians are uniformly intelligent and will always work hard, many Asian students are left behind when it comes to getting the social and academic support that they need to succeed in college.

Trytenn and her colleagues’ article demonstrates, through quantitative and qualitative data, that faculty members in some academic programs and especially science and engineering “generally lack the social science background to educate students on racial issues.” The researchers recommend that colleges and universities train faculty to recognize and address the stereotypes and to understand that even positive stereotypes can be harmful.

Their extensive study, which focuses on the four major racial and ethnic minority groups, found that Asian students feel overt pressure to work hard and receive messages from faculty member that reinforce this pressure. Those students interviewed for the study said that they feel that there is an assumption that all Asians are smart. Although many admitted that this assumption can have benefits, they also claimed that they miss out on extra help because the assumptions are so wide spread. Those interviewed also mentioned that they are often treated as foreigners in the classroom even when they were born in the United States. This stereotype often leads professors to leave Asian students out of classroom conversations as they are assumed to be shy and quiet.

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Trytten and her colleagues’ study complements and pushes forward the literature on the model minority myth. In addition, it provides helpful recommendations for both scholars and practitioners. Specifically, the researchers recommend the following:

Academic advisers should remind faculty members that just because someone is not an under-represented minority (Asians in the sciences) does not mean that he or she does not experience discrimination. Faculty and support staff should be on the lookout for the potential discrimination and micro aggressions experienced by Asian students.

  • Colleges and universities should provide Asian American students with parallel opportunities for academic support.
  • Academic advisers and student affairs practitioners should formally educate faculty on the model minority myth. I would add that having a fellow faculty member conduct the training or lead a conversation among peers might work best as faculty are famously resistant to “trainings.”
  • Student affairs practitioners should also educate students on the model minority myth because it is often internalized, which can be harmful.

These efforts and others like them will help break down the model minority myth—a myth that not only hurts Asian American students but also pits minorities against each other.

A professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Marybeth Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).

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