The Yellow Peril. Remember that?

It was when the surge of Asian immigrants arrived in America and white counterparts felt threatened: Chinese were apparently taking over the labor force, the Japanese were promoting military expansion and Filipino men were attracting white women. Yellow Peril first emerged in the nineteenth century and continued to be a phrase that illuminated fear when the belief of Asian dominance threatened white wages and standards of living.

Now, fast forward to the present. Asian American youth are now confined to the model minority myth and are perceived as obedient children that bring home perfect report cards. Has this model minority myth developed a new fear of Asians “taking over” the education system? Statistics show Asian American students excelling in higher education, but statistics neglect the various ethnic groups within the Asian community that have different educational needs and socioeconomic backgrounds.

When all Asian ethnic groups are lumped together as one “successful” population, another phrase and assumption is coined, accusing APIs of “acting white”. In a recent report by the Washington Post, the idea of “acting white” among Asian American youth is perceived as a positive trait—therefore, reaching academic success is only one part of matching the cultural norm or lifestyle of their white counterparts.

Perhaps Asians “acting white” or assimilating, mean that the hard work initiated by early Asian immigrants has “paid off”. Forget the exclusion acts, the bigotry laws and the discrimination that existed, because today, Asians are succeeding academically. To be labeled as “acting white” can dissipate the tensions fueled in the past. Though the phrase can seem like a compliment to Westerners, it essentially denies the rich cultural identity and history of Asian Pacific Islander Americans.

In an article called “How the Asians Became White” by Professor Eugene Volokh at UCLA Law School, “Acting white” gives the credit back to whites and ignores the very fact that Asian students worked hard for their academic achievement. In the end, Asians are still deemed as “acting” and haven’t fully reached the level of whites.

In the report by the Washington Post, a senior from Harvard University wrote her thesis analyzing how “acting white” is perceived among Asian students. The interview subjects were Asian students from Harvard and the majority felt the phrase as “being cool.” While blacks can perceive “acting white” as a social stigma, Asian students at Harvard believed the label gave them a more prestigious position. If students at Harvard were seen being more Asian, it translated to being foreign or like a nerd. “Acting white” is valued—leading to more social status at school. In the thesis, the Asian students interviewed were very aware of what being “too Asian” meant and often made extra effort to shy away from making other Asian friends.

While the thesis can examine Asian Harvard students and other students from elite schools that the notion of “acting white” is positive, it is only confined to a particular social group. Often the model minority myth makes the society forget that many are living in poverty, have low-education attainment and are not meeting the educational standards that so many dub to be true. For example, many Asian and Pacific Islander American students grew up in urban schools—in a neighborhood with immigrants and other people of color. If the thesis was conducted among Asian students in an urban school and not in an elite university, perhaps “acting white” is also seen as a stigmatization as African Americans do.

Although “acting white” or assimilation into American culture seems to be the reason why Asian Americans reached socio-economic success, society needs to realize the various factors that contribute to the ‘success’ instead of using a phrase to coin their identity. Based on the National Center for Education Statistics, several factors contribute to the high educational performance rate of some Asian American students:

  • Parental Involvement: While other minority students had very little to no parental involvement in their schooling process, Asian Americans experienced greater parental involvement. When a survey was given to students from kindergarten through 12th grade of how often their parents took them to the public library, Asian American students ranked the highest.
  • Time Spent on Task: Time spent can include reading a book, doing extra-curricular activities like sports or watching television and playing with the computer. For Asian American students, they spend the majority of their task time on school assignments or studying.
  • Study Habits: For Asian Americans, the cultural upbringing of togetherness can perpetuate group studies. In the study for example, Chinese students can study up to 14 hours a week—reserving four hours to study with other peers and double checking answers.

“Acting white” is an excuse to deny the success of Asians by means of indicating they are only trying to measure up to white counterparts as in the case of the students at Harvard. Dubbing Asians “acting white” in the academic arena whether accepted by the student population or not, is nothing new. It has become a phrase that ignores the real cultural identity and complexity of each Asian student—just as it had in the past.

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