Asian American Students and School Stereotypes

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 8, 2008; 11:57 AM

The surge in the number of Asian Americans the past four decades has affected many sectors of society, particularly public schools. On the whole, Asian American students tend to perform well on standardized tests and have a high rate of acceptance into some of the most selective high schools and colleges. The energy and ambition shown by many of these students has both improved our schools and fueled stereotypes. For example: All those hard-working Asian kids, some people say, are raising the grading curve and putting too much pressure on the rest of us.

I have often wondered what Asian American students think about this. Fortunately, one of them has just completed a very small but intriguing study that shines a surprising light on this often overlooked issue.

The study, " 'Too Many Asians at this School': Racialized Perceptions and Identity Formation," was written by Jenny Tsai as her senior college thesis for the social studies department at Harvard last year. If you e-mail Tsai at, she will send you a copy. What she describes is not a cabal of brainiacs trying to steal all the academic glory from their non-Asian competitors, but a collection of industrious and ambitious American teenagers trying to emulate their equally achievement-oriented white classmates, while society and government shove them into an artificial group called "Asians and Pacific Islanders" on the census forms.

As part of her research, Tsai, who is Chinese American, interviewed 27 Harvard undergraduates, including 15 Asian Americans and 12 whites, plus one Asian American student at Boston College. All but one had attended one of four very selective public high schools -- Boston Latin in Boston, Lowell in San Francisco and Hunter College and Stuyvesant in New York. She chose graduates of those schools because of their large Asian American contingents -- roughly 75 percent at Lowell, 50 percent at Hunter College and Stuyvesant and 25 percent at Boston Latin -- and because each of those schools had struggled with racial issues sparked by the fact that many students who want to attend can't get in.

Tsai, a Hunter College High School alumna herself, found many people thought Asian American students were getting more than their share of acceptance letters from these super magnets. Yet she saw little racial solidarity among the Asian Americans who did so well at those four schools that they got into Harvard. Instead, these students told her they were just trying to fit in with what they considered "white" American values, and often deferred to their white classmates when it came to extracurricular choices.

As Tsai put it, among the Asian American students she interviewed, "acting white" was a good thing.

I was surprised to read that Tsai's subjects at Harvard often embraced that term. They thought of it more as a lifestyle than an academic strategy. To them, Tsai found, it translated loosely as being cool.

Tsai wrote in her paper: "Among blacks, 'acting white' is socially stigmatized, but Asian students who 'act white' usually occupy the more socially prestigious positions. Because 'acting Asian' is equated with acting foreign or like a nerd, 'acting white' among Asian people becomes a source of pride, and is valued as the ability to assimilate into American society. While both performances are frequently practiced, the Asian students who 'acted white' are more likely to achieve extracurricular activity status within the school, which often led to admissions into more prestigious colleges."

Tsai told me: "One of the most alarming features of my research was how Asian students who went to Harvard were very aware of and often shied away from having too many Asian friends. They saw having only white friends as sort of a badge of honor."

Tsai examined Facebook groups at Harvard and found one that called itself "Twinkies." This group, with what would appear to be a racially insensitive name, had 34 Asian American members. They celebrated the practice of being -- again, as they defined themselves -- "yellow" on the outside but "white" on the inside. To this group, liking white women or wearing Ralph Lauren was a point of pride. Tsai emphasized to me that there was humor in these students' self-descriptions, and that their perspective was likely more prevalent among Asian Americans at Harvard than Asian American youth as a whole, but the group was not a hoax or a satire of the Twinkie label.

Many Asian American students at Harvard, Tsai said, were bothered by the stereotype of their group as a "model minority," which they associated with the fear expressed by some whites that Asian Americans were putting them at a disadvantage. To them, that stereotype carried with it "negative connotations of being competitive, lacking passion, and being calculating," she wrote in her paper.

This is where racism takes us, off on another tangent, leading even these bright young Americans to waste time and energy worrying about distinctions based on ill-examined assumptions.

Tsai said she got the idea for her thesis from her experience as a student at Hunter College High. She said some of the school's non-Asian American students felt "that the increasing percentage of Asian students at the school threatened the culture of the school. HCHS prided itself on being a school that fostered student leadership through a plethora of student clubs, sports teams and artistic groups. Students attested that the growing Asian student population had detracted from the creativity and independence that had defined HCHS's activity scene as the Asian students focused primarily on their academic studies. Those Asian students who were active in extracurricular activities were perceived to be disingenuous."

Such stereotypes make even more difficult the job of creating healthy and intelligent attitudes toward race -- something the best schools I know try to do. That is a shame since the magnet schools Tsai examined are educating some of our most talented young people. Tsai makes clear that as these schools try to increase their very small number of black and Hispanic students, they need to address all racial myths, including the one about grade-grubbing Asians crowding out everyone else, or their efforts to bring wisdom to some of our leaders of tomorrow will not be nearly as successful as they hope.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company