When Steven Zhao ’19 left his English class holding a graded essay, his friend took a quick look at the “B+” scrawled on a margin, cracked a smile and said, “you dishonor your family.”
Zhao pretended to laugh along, though he didn’t really find the comment funny, he said. For Zhao, who is a first generation Chinese-American, such remarks about his grades from his peers are frequent occurrences, he said.
As opposed to such comments being reflective of himself as an individual, he said he attributes them to the fact that “so many people consider Asians to be so academically focused.”
The existence of such a stereotype surrounding Asian-American students may have older social and political origins, as suggested by the model minority myth, according to the Los Angeles Times.
According to Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, the term “model minority,” coined by sociologist William Petersen in 1966, claims that Asian-Americans have achieved greater success socially, politically and economically when compared to other racial minority groups. It suggests that Asian-Americans are able to attain their socioeconomic status because of inherent characteristics, such as hard work, intelligence and obedience.
In the 1960s, politicians capitalized on the idea of Asian-Americans and their success as the model minority to discredit the demands of the Civil Rights Movement.
The American Community Survey states, however, that only 20.4 percent of Indians did not attend college, while 65.8 percent of Cambodians did not. Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Irvine, said the idea of a model minority fails to acknowledge the disparities, such as this one in college education, within the Asian-American community.
“There are Asian-Americans who are coming in as political refugees or undocumented to here,” Wu said. “There are high numbers of high school dropouts among some groups, high rates of poverty, high rates of incarceration; there are all sorts of social issues that get masked by the model minority representation.”
As a Korean-American, Erin Lee ’18 said there still are stereotypes of being Asian-American, which she defines as being studious, belonging to predominantly Asian social circles and being asocial. These one-dimensional categorizations of her ethnicity affect her self-perception, she said.
“There’s a lot of pressure when people try to put me in a box even though there are so many things going on other than my race,” Lee said. “Also, if I had a really bad day at school, I am extra hard on myself because I feel like I’m always expected to excel.”
William Park ’17, a second-generation Korean-American, first learned about the model minority myth during a debate tournament, he said. Since then, he said he has become more aware of how his race influences his daily interactions.
“I try to be ‘white’ in some scenarios,” Park said. “I try harder to have my voice heard and to seem knowledgeable, especially in the humanities. I realize that the idea of a model minority puts me in a weird middle ground because I don’t feel like a minority, but I will also never be treated as completely American.”
Some students said they feel the need to prove themselves by dispelling stereotypes, sometimes affecting their relationships with their peers.
“It’s definitely subconscious, but when I’m hanging out with my teammates and they talk about academics, I won’t participate and also talk about how much I studied for a test,” Lee said. “I don’t want to have the stigma of being a studious Asian.”
Park also said he feels compelled to spend more time at school with non-Asian students.
“I have a lot of Asian friends outside of school, but at school, I hang out with more white people because I don’t want to fit into the stereotype that Asians clump together in social circles,” Park said. “It deters me from hanging out with the people that maybe I should be hanging out with.”
Park said he has also experienced racial microaggressions, often presented in the form of seemingly innocent racial comments or racist jokes. Although the perpetrators may be unaware of their doing, he said that microaggressions can have the same effect as outright discrimination.
“I found myself being called Chinese many times, with people often making jokes about how I eat dog,” Park wrote in a personal journal entry for his Assimilation and Differences class. “It feels even worse when white people assume that calling all Asian-Americans smart is a compliment, even adding the accent as if it were some sort of compensation.”
The outwardly positive nature of such discrimination may make it more difficult for students to speak out, Upper School Dean Beth Slattery said.
“Microaggressions affect Asian-American students in particular because people say things that they perceive as compliments,” Slattery said. “I think people probably don’t think that Asian-American students don’t have a problem as other students of color do. In fact, I would guess that most people don’t even identify Asian-Americans as students of color.”
Ravi Durairaj ’17, an Indian-American, said that how his peers view him conforms to certain aspects of a stereotypical Asian-American student: smart, good at science and math, parents who work in the sciences. However, this perception is more largely influenced by his personality than being Indian-American, he said.
“It doesn’t really bother me that much,” Durairaj said. “I don’t see being perceived as smart as a negative so much, and I usually am pretty timid until I get to know someone.”
On the other hand, some non-Asian students said that while the stereotypes exist, they don’t affect the student body’s perceptions of Asian-American students.
“One stereotype is the image of the tiger parents and a hardworking student that usually plays the violin or something,” Jonty Nobbs ’18 said. “This view doesn’t manifest itself in Harvard-Westlake because everyone is being pushed hard and is driven academically, and the Asian students don’t necessarily stand out in that regard.”
Peter* ’18, who chose to stay anonymous because he was afraid of sounding racist, said that, as a non-Asian student, he agrees that a commonly-held view of Asian-American students is that they are “very focused academically and generally seen as more one-dimensional than the average student.” Such stereotypes originate from the general trend of having high numbers of Asian-American students in high-level courses, he said.
“Stereotypes are unjust and confining, but there are some truth in them,” Peter said. “If you were to look at Harvard-Westlake, which is in Los Angeles and generally has a large Asian population, there are more Asian students relative to the entire student body in the majority of advanced classes.”
He said that the trend that he perceives does not have any implications for the students’ social lives.
“Every student at Harvard-Westlake has some extent of a social life,” Peter said. “The definition of social life does not have to be limited to going out to parties and does not have to be associated with alcohol and liveliness. From what I’ve observed, Asian-American students have a social life of some sort, as do all students at Harvard-Westlake.”
*Names have been changed.