Thoughts on being a "model minority"

Today I was the MC at the Asian Pacific Islander Faculty and Staff Association (APIFSA) Professional Development Luncheon, which is one of my favorite events of the year. The APIFSA was formed by a small group of professionals who at one time or another had all attended a leadership institute for Asians in Higher Education. I attended the leadership institute in 2007. I was skeptical because although my mom is Chinese and she was born and raised in Thailand, I myself am only half Asian and often don’t feel like I fit the API stereotype in terms of appearance. However, at the institute I realized that my mom’s influence had a profound impact on the way I see the world. My values, personality, and daily interactions have been shaped by her strong cultural influences.

Ever heard of a Tiger Mom? Well that was my mom. I played the piano and violin. I was expected to practice every day. In my mom’s book, “A” was for Average. And I wasn’t just expected to receive A’s – I was expected to be number 1 in the class. There was no questioning whether or not I was smart enough or capable of being number 1, if I wasn’t number 1 it was either because I wasn’t putting in the effort or my teacher had made a mistake. In 7th grade when I transitioned to middle school, my mom found out I was placed in regular math instead of pre-algebra and she demanded that I be retested. And my favorite story is when I graduated from my Master’s program my mom gave me a graduation card with the pamphlet to a PhD program inserted inside.

Not all Asian moms are Tiger Moms. That’s because the Tiger Mom is a stereotype, just like the “model minority” is a stereotype. The model minority myth leads mainstream America to believe that as a group we have overcome racism and discrimination and achieved success, and we no longer struggle to access education or financial security. Sure…some APIs have achieved financial stability, and there are many Asians earning advanced degrees. But the model minority stereotype can be misleading and dangerous.

Even after being acknowledged as the “model minority,” Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been accused of being enemies, aliens, spies, and terrorists, and subjected to special reporting requirements, incarceration, and deportation. While there are varied and historical reasons for lumping APIs into one category, the individuals who comprise this group represent the full socio-economic spectrum, from the poor and underprivileged to the affluent and highly skilled.

API is a broad term that is typically applied to any person having origins in the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent, or Hawaii or other Pacific Islands – which includes over 40 different ethnic groups, such as Hmong, Laotian, Vietnamese, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Japanese, and peoples of Hawaii, Guam, and Samoa.
As an aggregate group, APIs are well represented in higher education. Asian American and Pacific Islander students make up 16 percent of the CSU student populations. In 2010, the CSU conferred more than 11,000 degrees to Asian students and 3,400 to Filipino and Pacific Islander students. These CSU graduates are helping to drive California’s aerospace, healthcare, entertainment, information technology, biomedical, international trade, education, and multimedia industries.

This should be a source of pride for our community, yet there is a myth that APIs are “taking over” higher education. The data shows that the increase in APIs in higher education has mirrored the increases found among other underrepresented populations during the same time period. This perception is created because APIs tend to be more concentrated in a small number of schools. There are over 4000 universities in the United States, yet 2/3 of all APIs are concentrated in just 200 institutions with nearly half of all APIs attending college in either California, New York, or Texas.

APIs are the fastest growing minority population in the United States. According to the 2010 Census, the Asian American population in the United States grew 46 percent between 2000 and 2010, faster than any other major race group in the country, including Hispanics. The Census Bureau’s latest population projections estimate APIs to reach 41 million by 2050. APIs represent about 6% of the US population and 6.9% of management and professional occupations.
However, while the API population is growing and becoming more educated…we still face challenges, and continue to consistently be underrepresented in leadership positions. While there are many API students doing well at the top of the academic curve, there are just as many struggling at the bottom of the curve who are being overlooked. There are significant differences in degree attainment between these 40+ sub-groups.

There are significant numbers of API students who struggle with poverty, who are English-language learners increasingly likely to leave school with rudimentary language skills, who are at risk of dropping out, who are subject to violence and discrimination on account of race, class, gender, ethnicity, or language. Yet the “model minority” myth continues and often shrouds the real needs of APIs.

Research also shows that APIs aspire to leadership at lower rates than other race groups. APIs continue to be under represented on the Board of Directors of Fortune 500 companies. In 2012, APIs held only 144 out of over 5,500 total board seats, which is only 2.6% of the total Fortune 500 board seats. In the nonprofit sector, only 47 of the top 100 nonprofits have any API representation on their boards. And APIs hold less than 3% of the total board seats in the top 100 nonprofits.

Why is this important? Let me go back to my Tiger mom. My mom may be highly critical and have high expectations, but she also came to this country as a teenager with little to her name other than her student scholarship. My mom was a first generation college student, and she built a successful business while taking care of our family and our extended family. My mom would haggle over the price of a pair of socks, but she is also the most generous woman I know. She came to the US alone to attend high school, and she worked hard and sacrificed to be where she is now.

Whether you had a tiger mom or not, I guarantee that you are where you are today because someone (a teacher, an aunt or uncle, a friend, or maybe someone you’ve never met) has stepped up and maybe even sacrificed for you. This is why today is one of my favorite days of the year. Each year an accomplished leader in higher education comes to our campus to offer mentorship, share inspirational words, and remind us of our responsibility. We have a responsibility to be that person to someone else. Be a leader, a mentor, a role model. Find opportunities to take risks and practice your leadership skills. Volunteer in your community. Whether you’re passionate about advocating for APIs or another cause, I urge you to put your education and position of influence to use to improve the lives of others.

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