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1.09.2008

asian american students and school stereotypes

Check out this piece by education columnist Jay Mathews in the Washington Post, examining a study by a student at Harvard on academics, ambition and Asian American identity formation: Asian American Students and School Stereotypes:
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 jenny.tsai@post.harvard.edu, 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.
Though the study sounds a bit limited—Tsai only interviewed 27 Harvard undergraduates—the results reveal some interesting dynamics. She found that many people thought Asian American students were having no problem getting into these super selective magnet schools at a high rate.

However, she apparently observed very little racial solidarity among Asian Americans at these schools, instead noting an effort to fit in with what they considered "white" American values. Basically, among the Asian American students Tsai interviewed, "acting white" was a good thing.

Twinkies. Bananas. Not really terms I like to use, but I'm sure many of us are familiar with this phenomenon. For these Asian American students, because "acting Asian" is equated with acting foreign or like nerd, "acting white" becomes sound kind of source of pride, and is valued as the ability to assimilate into American society.

A lot of this stems from the perception among non-Asian students that the increasing percentage of Asian American students poses some kind of threat to the culture of their school. Basically, some Asian American students find themselves rejecting their cultural identity to counteract this negative perception. Needless to say, that's pretty sad.

For a lot of us, this isn't really news. I didn't need a Washington Post column to inform me that such perceptions about Asian American students exist. Hell, a lot of these feelings extend into higher education and the workplace. Still, every now and then, it's interesting to see these cultural conflicts being studied and acknowledged in a mainstream paper like the Post.