A Sociologist Watches TV: Glee and the “Asian F”

We all know Asian Americans get A’s and are awesome at science. Or do we? In this post, Bridget Welch explores the model minority myth and the effect it has on Asian Americans and the rest of society.

Mike got an A- on a chemistry exam (which is an “Asian F”) and his dad told him that he had to leave the Glee club… and his girlfriend Tina. Tensions between the football team and the glee club explode, resulting in a whole bunch of dancing zombies. Mercedes and Sam share some “Summer Loving.” Santana sings “I Kissed a Girl” while flirting with Brittany, and that’s what you missed on Glee!

There is so much sociology in that one paragraph I hardly know where to start. So let’s start at the start. With the “Asian F”.

Every semester I ask students to turn in a joke for extra credit (any joke that they want). One that frequently shows is:

The “Asian Grading System”:

  • 99.5-100: A+
  • 99.3-99.4: A
  • 99.0-99.2: A-
  • 98.9: B+
  • 98.5-98.8: B
  • 98.0-98.4: B-
  • <98.0: F

None of this is likely to you surprise you; it may offend you, but it probably won’t surprise. We all know the stereotypes that say “Asians are super smart math whizzes who are great a computers, and possibly Kung Fu”.

Census Bureau statistics from 2009 show that there is some basis for these ideas (besides the Kung Fu one).

  • 50% of Asian Americans over 25 years-old had a bachelor’s degree or above (compared to 28% of all Americans of this age)
  • 20% of Asian Americans 25 and older who had a graduate or professional degree (compared to 10% of all Americans of this age)

Asian Americans only make up around 5% of the US population, but are estimated to represent 20% of all students enrolled in Ivy League schools. They have an average SAT score of 1623 (out of 2400) compared to 1581 for Whites, 1364 for Hispanics, and 1276 for African Americans. I created the following chart from data on median weekly earnings for full-time wage and salary workers in 2011.

As you can see, on average Asian Americans out earn all three other racial ethnic groups. The only time that another race surpasses Asian Americans is if you compare White males to Asian females. It certainly appears that the “over achieving “Asian American image is based on a kernel of truth.

Data like this is what contributes to what sociologist refer to as the model minority myth. This is a stereotype of Asians that largely categorizes them in a positive way — but that is ultimately harmful, limiting, and condescending.

Asian (or Asian and Pacific Islander for Census purposes) is what is called a pan-ethnic term (much like Hispanic or Latino/a). It captures a wide variety of people (over 50% of the world’s population) with over 50 different cultural backgrounds and lumps them all together. I wish I had an easy answer for you in terms of who exactly is Asian — but I don’t.[1] As this Psychology Today article points out:

  • “Racial concepts are folk concepts and change with changing conditions. Asian in the US has traditionally meant East Asian, especially Chinese and Japanese. With increased immigration from many countries, the expanded category also includes Southeast Asians. In contrast, as the Iranian example indicates, Southwest Asians seem to be excluded from our Asian folk concept, and are often thought of as Arabs–though this is inaccurate geographically, linguistically, and culturally.”

Being forced in a box, and having others hold you to those expectations, is problematic for how others see us and can affect how we think of ourselves.

This pan-ethnic term hides the fact that many “Asians” actually face many social issues. Instead, the media tends to focus on the gains of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean individuals and ignores the struggles of groups such as the Hmong.

Case and point? The poverty rate. Asian Americans have a poverty rate of 12.5% in 2009. This is compared to 9.4% for non-Hispanic whites, 25.8% for Blacks, and 25.3 for Hispanics. You will note that the poverty rate is lower for non-Hispanic whites. But if they make more than Whites do (as the above table shows), why is there more poverty? The reason is the grouping together of all of the different groups into one.

In 2000, the Census found that 22.5% of Cambodian, Hmong, or Laotians lived in poverty compared to 6.9 for Filipinos and 8.6 for Japanese. Cambodian, Hmong, and Laotians Americans are less likely to have a high school education than any other racial group — including whites, Hispanics, and Blacks (with Japanese being the most likely). They are also least likely to have a college degree or an advanced degree (with Asian Indians being the highest — 64.4% and 12.5% respectively). Meanwhile, Americans of Asian Indian decent have the highest socioeconomic achievement, highest median personal income (tied with Japanese) and highest median family income.

It should be clear now that one problem with the model minority myth is the fact that it ignores the problems that many Asian-Americans face. It may also minimize reactions to the fact when comparing groups with the same level of education, Asian Americans are paid less than their white counterparts. They are also more likely to report discrimination in employment than any other racial group.

This is not the only problem, however. Mike Chang, on Glee, wanted to dance. Yet, even though he is mad talented (see here), his father refused to accept his son’s choices (at first) and this caused great personal stress for Mike and stress in his family.  Being held to these standards can have disastrous affects. According to research, Asian-American women ages 15-24 have the highest suicide rate of any racial or ethnic group. Depression can affect girls as young as fifth grade.

There is stress involved with being held to this stereotype, but there is also the very nature of stereotype – it does not explain, capture, or anyway truly reflect the experiences of real individuals. Yes, some Asian Americans become engineers or doctors. But others may live in poverty, or become artists, or become bloggers who make this point better than I, and the list goes on. Being forced in a box, and having others hold you to those expectations, is problematic for how others see us and can affect how we think of ourselves.

Lastly (at least in terms of this discussion), the model minority myth serves a negative social function in terms of ethnic and racial relations. The myth started with two articles published in 1966 — one in the New York Times Magazine and one in US News & World Report. During the 1960s, America was in upheaval — particularly our racial hierarchy. These articles used the example of Asians to draw attention to the fact that minorities CAN achieve in the United States, contrary to the claims of some people (like Martin Luther King, Jr.). U.S. News wrote: “At a time when Americans worry over the plight of racial minorities — one minority, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese-Americans, is winning wealth and respect by dint of its own hard work.” These minorities were good minorities who believed in “their own efforts — not a welfare check” to achieve the American Dream. NYT Magazine discussed how even after concentration camps Japanese were able to get ahead because of “their own almost unaided effort. Every attempt to hamper their progress resulted only in enhancing their determination to succeed.”

What does this say about the minority groups (such as African Americans and Hispanics) who were fighting for civil rights, equality, and improved living conditions? Further, despite this happy boot-strap story, Asian-Americans of all backgrounds did (and still do) face discrimination. What does the portrayal of Asian Americans as so much better than other racial groups do to the chances of these groups working together to affect social change?

How do we challenge a stereotype that most people take for granted? Luckily for us, shows like Glee allow a conversation about this stereotype — which appears positive — to be explored and discussed. Mike Chang gives us another cultural representation of an Asian person that challenges this myth (albeit imperfectly).

Dig Deeper

1. What is the model minority myth? What is the evidence that supports the myth? What evidence makes this myth problematic?

2. What do you think about the model minority myth? Is this a stereotype that you have about Asians or have seen others judge Asians this way? How harmful do you think this stereotype is? What other stereotypes do we have about Asians.

3. As discussed, the model minority myth is utilized to separate the “good minorities” from the “bad minorities.” What negative effects could this have on other racial and ethnic groups? What affects do you think it has on Asians in terms of working to end the discrimination they face?

4. Watch this video. What impacts do these students experience from being held to this myth? Anything surprise you? Not surprise you? Why?

[1] From the US Equal Opportunity Commission, API include: “Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, South Asians (Indians, Pakistani, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, and Burmese), Pacific Islanders Southeast Asians (Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodians, Laotians, Hmong, Mien) as well as Indonesians and Malaysians. The diversity of cultural groups within the API population makes a full description of some groups very difficult.” The cultural groups who are included also shift and change over time.