Tiger Moms and the Model Minority Myth

By Helen Gym

Illustrator: Jordan Isip

Illustration: Jordan Isip

Some months ago, 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 was nonstop for weeks, what was not 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. Asian students supposedly have parents who are a relentless and constant presence in their children’s lives, who demand academic excellence and support nonstop 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.

Chua boasts about the impact of her extreme parenting style—crackdowns, punishments, prohibitions, and verbal abuse. Whether intentionally or not, she plays to the “zero tolerance” and “race to the top” mentality that has driven much of the recent remaking of inner-city schools.

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. The model minority narrative reinforces “personal responsibility” and “culture of poverty” interpretations of low achievement that often blame African American and Latino students and their families for the impact of racism and poverty on learning and school climate. By implying that one set of students’ moral and cultural values can overcome any obstacle, it implicitly condemns other students of color for allegedly failing to have the moral and cultural resources to do the same.

For Asian students, the impact is just as damaging. This stereotype is often at the heart of the denial of a host of educational services from language services to lack of testing for special education, counseling services, and multiracial ethnic studies in schools. The U.S. Supreme Court case supporting bilingual education, Lau vs. Nichols (1972), was a hard-fought battle by Asian community advocates contesting arguments against offering English language and bilingual services based on biased assumptions that Asian youth can learn English quickly.Consider these challenges:

  • 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 of Asians as the model minority have triggered informal quotas in higher education and the neglect of racial harassment and violence in schools. For example, at South Philadelphia High School, school officials ignored repeated attacks against Asian immigrant students, forcing a U.S. Department 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, Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman equated non-English-speaking, recently arrived 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 on 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 United States are ignored.

There’s nothing in the dialogue around the Tiger Mom debate that talks about an immigrant parent’s 12-plus-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 the broad category of Asian America. Among women ages 15 to 24 in the United States, Asian Americans have the highest suicide rate of any race or ethnic 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.

Helen Gym is a parent activist and board member of Asian Americans United, where she works on education and immigration issues. She is also a board member of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, where this article first appeared, and an editorial associate of Rethinking Schools.