Confessions of a ‘model minority’: How I’m learning to confront my own biases

Seeing more articles like this one by Joanna Chiu on the prejudices and racism of minorities for other minorities, a useful reminder that white/visible minority dichotomies are overly simplistic and do not capture the challenges in reducing racism, discrimination and bias:

Childhood for me was … busy.

My parents, who immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong, rarely took time off work and spent their weekends chauffeuring my brother and me to our lessons.

It was all they knew. In Asia’s cutthroat cities, many parents feel they have no choice but to spend a huge amount of their salaries to help their offspring stand out from the studious masses. We never went camping, or fishing, or whatever other Canadian families did for leisure.

Our Saturday mornings consisted of three hours of Cantonese school. If one of us got a perfect score on our vocabulary test, we would get McDonald’s for lunch as a treat.

After that, we’d head straight to two hours of piano lessons in a neighbouring Vancouver suburb. On Sunday mornings, we attended art class followed by tutoring in music theory, composition or music history. All those lessons were supposed to stimulate our growing brains.

I always felt connected to Hong Kong as my birthplace and embraced its stereotypical work ethic. I cried when my brother brought home a report card that contained mostly B’s and a C.

I didn’t see anything wrong with being a so-called model minority.

Sometimes strangers would say rude or mocking things to us, but racism was something to make peace with. Life would inevitably get better, after all, if we just kept working hard and didn’t complain.

Besides, I volunteered every week and started clubs at my school devoted to equality and human rights issues. That was part of the whole package of becoming an exemplary world citizen, I thought. It wouldn’t be long before there was an ethnic minority prime minister, if we all just kept working hard!

I was taught to brush off racism as a kind of flattery — that it stemmed from people being “jealous” of Asians’ high rate of university admission and higher-than-average salary level in North America.

Last year, I was working downtown and people would give me dirty looks or yell slurs at me on the street. Online, I was regularly getting a litany of abuse. My dad tried to comfort me by saying it was because I looked like “an executive” with my new job. It was a sign of success.

This wishful thinking made sense to me, but now I see why it’s illogical in the face of hate crimes happening around the world against people of Asian appearance.

In Vancouver, a man pushed a 92-year-old man with dementia to the ground outside a convenience store while yelling racist insults about COVID-19. In another incident, someone punched a woman of Asian descent near a bus stop downtown and walked away. Dakota Holmes, an Indigenous woman, was punched in the face and told to “go back to Asia” while she was walking her dog.

A recent Angus Reid Institute poll found that almost 30 per cent of Chinese Canadians surveyed said they had been physically attacked since the COVID-19 crisis began, while 43 per cent said they’ve been threatened or intimidated.

It’s a shock to the system for some of us — a reminder that racism can’t be outworked, outhustled, or out-run.

Rightly so, many people are speaking up to say that Asian communities shouldn’t stop at finally acknowledging that racism against Asians is a serious problem.

Around the world, people are also organizing under the “Asians for Black Lives” banner.

When police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, three other officers were present, including Tou Thao.

Thao’s participation in Floyd’s death has rightfully sparked calls for Asian communities to better address the ways in which anti-Blackness is embedded into many Asian cultures and societies.

Oftentimes, this doesn’t come in the form of overt acts of hate, but in our resounding silence on systemic issues affecting other minorities that cannot be solved by trying to play within the rules of white supremacy.

Steven Zhou argued in an op-ed piece in the Star last week that a sense of superiority based on work ethic is prevalent among Chinese Canadians, and can lead to prejudice.

In recent public discussions in Canada, we’ve mostly heard from Asian millennials referring to racism among our elders, and pledging to speak with our elders about their derision of people with darker skin.

Although our “aunties and uncles” are more likely to say racist things out loud, younger people surely have biases, too.

What can an Asian Canadian who has internalized the model minority myth do?

Personally, I feel like I’ve dug myself into a hole of work and volunteer commitments. My instinct is to sign up for more work on anti-Blackness and anti-Indigenous topics. As co-chair of a group that promotes the contributions of women and people of colour on China studies, I put together a resources list for China expert communities to fight anti-Black racism, and have been going through all the readings.

Perhaps, part of the solution is to stop the endless activity. I’m lucky to have multiple sources of income during the pandemic, but exhaustion skews judgement. Instead of writing this essay in a few hours, as I normally would, I asked my editor for more time to reflect on my complicity in social injustices.

It’s been long overdue.

My biases are rooted in not only racism, but also classism and able-ism, where despite having a disability myself (ADHD), I’ve assumed that most people in Canada have similar access to education and can overcome their challenges to pursue conventional success.

When we speak of racism, it’s easy to think it’s a problem that other people have. The uncomfortable truth is that we all have unconscious biases that can grow into hate if we don’t confront them within ourselves.


Racist stereotyping of Asians as good at math masks inequities and harms students

Some good analysis of the diversity within and between different Asian groups, as is the case with all groups and the risks of all stereotypes, along with the importance of socio-economic status:

Some people stereotype Asian students as the “model minority” in math achievement: they generalize attributes of a so-called “minority” (racialized) community in a way that just perpetuates racism disguised as a compliment.

It is clear, however, that not all students identified as Asian are good at math. The word “Asian” is a category used to represent human beings who are, in fact, diverse and their differences are lost by their inclusion in the term. “Asian” includes 50 or so ethnic groups in a huge diversity of linguistic, socio-economic, political and cultural settings. Making judgments based on categories often leads to faulty or erroneous implications.

Both scholars and cultural commentators have highlighted the problem that the “model minority” label is sometimes used politically to divide those who are held up as so-called “model” groups and those who are not. Reporter Kat Chow notes that some white people have talked about Asians in North America in ways that positions Asians’ so-called “success” as a “racial wedge” that separates Asians from Black people or other racialized groups. Such framing distracts from necessary conversations about racism and structural inequalities.

We are involved in a study launched in 2018, “Behind the Model Minority Mask,” that seeks to understand divergent literacy and academic trajectories of Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking children in Canada. We wanted to explore how early factors such as home and classroom environments and larger cultural myths surrounding “Asian academic achievement” may be affecting children’s academic results.

Our research has found that holding up a “model minority” stereotype leads to destructive emotional stress for students. The “model minority” myth both encourages blaming students for failure, obscures the socio-economic factors that influence student academic achievement and also imposes significant psychosocial pressure on high-achieving students.

Breaking down the meaning of ‘ESL’

Our research into Asian students in Vancouver schools also revealed that there are also problems with the generalized use of terms such as “English as a Second Language” (ESL) learners and “English Language Learners” (ELL).

For example, we learned through a series of studies of about 25,000 immigrant students aged six to 19 who were categorized as “ESL” that a small number were in fact non-ESL. They were raised in families where they learned another language in addition to English from birth.

Of the students who did learn English after another language, there was a wide range of English-language skills, from those who spoke only a little bit of English to those who were fluently bilingual. The group included immigrants and refugees and those who were from low to high socio-economic backgrounds, and included speakers of 150 first languages and dialects.

The “ESL” or “ELL” labels, like the “Asian” label, however, are sometimes also used in ways that can misrepresent achievement, influence or realities of individuals. Some right-wing media commentators use the “ESL” label, for example, to argue that ESL students are responsible for a “strain on the system,” and “lowering” education.

Such reprehensible commentary is facilitated by studies or news reports that rely on generalized categories and pay insufficient attention to variables.

Roots of achievement patterns

In part of our study, Lee Gunderson recorded science, math, English and social studies academic achievement of 5,000 randomly selected students from grades 8 to 12 in 18 Vancouver secondary schools including Asian students. ESL students scored significantly higher than native English speakers in all academic areas except English and social studies in Grade 12. Mandarin speakers’ academic achievement was also significantly higher than that of Cantonese, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese and other language groups.

While there were high achievers among this diverse group of Asians, many Asian students (even among the Chinese subgroups) also reported struggling academically and socio-emotionally in school.

Socio-economic status was also found to be an important variable: Mandarin-speaking immigrants were from more affluent families than the other ethno-linguistic groups. Mandarin-speaking families employed more tutors to bolster their children’s academic work than other groups. Indeed, among this group, some Mandarin-speaking university students worked as academic tutors.

The sample of native-English speaking students included a wide-range of families from a range of socio-economic backgrounds. By contrast, the Mandarin sample, as a result of immigration patterns, included more high economic status families than other groups.

When high economic status native English speakers were selected they scored significantly higher in all academic areas than Mandarin speakers at all grades. Socio-economic status is related to school success.

Early beginnings

With this same set of students, initial assessment results in the early grades revealed no significant differences in achievement between young Cantonese and Mandarin speakers. However, by Grade 12 there were differences with Mandarin speakers having significantly higher grades.

Mandarin-speaking girls were four times more like to be eligible for university than Cantonese-speaking boys. About two-thirds of the Cantonese boys did not have grades sufficient for admission to university. Cantonese boys were at-risk students. The other Asian groups scored lower than Mandarin speakers in all academic areas.

Understanding differences

The two largest groups of Asian immigrants, the Cantonese and Mandarin speakers, were from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. The language of instruction in their communities was not English, so we expected these children’s English skills would be nascent when they immigrated to Canada.

As researchers, we did not expect that these students’ achievement would differ at the end of their public school careers. We also didn’t expect to see gender differences in academic achievement when this difference wasn’t present when these children first entered Canada. Nor did we expect to see differences among the Cantonese and Mandarin speakers.

As our research continues, we predict the findings will provide critical knowledge that educators need to improve the learning of Cantonese-speaking boys or others who we find to be at risk academically or socio-emotionally in Canadian schools.

We also hope we will identify characteristics of supportive ESL environments and inform early intervention through effective ESL program design and teacher professional development. Our hope is to provide information that informs parents about how to effectively support their children in school and at home in their early years.