02/02/2012 09:43 am ET Updated Apr 03, 2012

The Dangers of Being a Model Minority

I will be the first to tell you that math and science are not my strong points. Generally, I get a few laughs from whomever I'm telling this to, but it is not a joke. In fifth grade, I would have failed my math class if it were not almost impossible to fail an elementary school class. Somehow, my math teacher managed to ignore the fact that I was consistently failing nearly every assessment issued to the class. In a class of 20 students, how does this happen? It turns out there were two major factors. The first was that the same teacher had taught my older brother two years before I was in her class. He essentially taught himself algebra while she continued building on multiplication and division with the other students. The second factor, and the reason people have a hard time believing I could ever fail a math test, is that I am an Asian American.

American culture is filled with endless racial stereotypes: blacks are athletic but they are unintelligent and belligerent; Latinos are illegal immigrants here to steal our jobs; Asians are quiet, hardworking, and studious. Of those stereotypes, which might you perceive as damaging? The average person would view the first two stereotypes as harmful, yet a stereotype such as "Asians are smart, quiet and demure" is still negative, despite sounding like a positive stereotype. These stereotypes severely limit Asian Americans to social and economic positions, regardless of the individual's true ability.

Just like any other racial stereotype, these "positive attributes" reinforce subtle racism; believing all Asians are intelligent and meek is in fact racist, as these blanket statements cause one to ignore the skills of an individual instead of seeing their real merit. Even those who do excel in intellectual fields are expected to give credit to their ethnic background for their success. Asian students may stay silent in a class not because they are actually quiet and bored of the material, but rather because they do not understand the concepts and are too ashamed to ask for help due to feeling inadequate under the pressure to succeed. An Asian-American employee may not celebrate a colleague's promotion not out of being shy, but rather angered by being passed over for said promotion. The stereotypical Asian American is not just smart and hardworking though -- we are quiet and unassuming. We are the Model Minority.

Although Asian Americans rival Caucasian Americans in terms of education, Asian Americans hold very little political or economic power. One must also remember that many Asian Americans still live under the poverty line, despite the stereotype that Asian Americans hold high-paying jobs such as doctors and lawyers. In fact, there have only been five United States senators of Asian/Pacific Islander heritage and very few large American industries have Asian-American CEOs. Just like any other cultural group, Asian American students achieve SAT scores that are directly proportional to their parent's income level and poorer Asian Americans are just as at-risk as other minority students. However, American schools and the American media will do very little to combat the invisibility that plagues the Asian American community. For the Asian American students who do seek educational aid, it is rarely available. Certainly, the stereotypes of the "Asian F" and intense Tiger Mothers have merely hidden the struggles of Asian American students further into the woodwork.

For many Asian American students, the message we receive is quite simple: you are not a real minority. When we discuss the racial achievement gap, we are almost always denoting a difference between black and white students, ignoring the number of first generation Asian-American students who cannot necessarily depend on a parent to advocate for them in matters of education. Teachers are given sensitivity training, and is it not their job to see a struggling student and guide them to success? Educators are one of the best tools to prepare the American youth for the future and yet students who are not perceived as needing aid are often glossed over and eventually fall into the cracks of the nation's public education system. This is not the fault of one person, but of an entire system that is overloaded with students, some who are disruptive and others who try their best to stay out of sight. However, when the initial system of education fails, minority groups such as Asian Americans should not go unnoticed to the point of invisibility. The responsibility of increasing visibility of Asian Americans falls upon all of us, as does the responsibility of eliminating the platitude of the model minority.

While under the label of the model minority, Asian Americans can never reach their full potential. When we are taught about oppression, we learn of the plight of black Americans and American women, even though much of the Western mines and railroads were built and worked by Chinese and Japanese immigrants. When we are taught about crime, we are told about the Bloods, the Latin Kings and the war on drugs, but never the Triad Societies or the Sarzana, despite the fact that the majority of victims in human trafficking cases within the United States are of Asian heritage. While most schools celebrate Black History month, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is practically unknown by non-Asian Americans. Unlike Black Americans, Asian Americans did not have a Malcolm X or an NAACP to give a voice to our community. Instead we stayed silent for years, unknowingly becoming more and more of a model minority. It is time for us to break free of the chains of invisibility, to cast off the title of the model. Without the label of model minority, Asian Americans are free to pursue careers in any field, not just those involving mathematics or hard sciences. We will not be limited to the quiet unassuming role of the bystander; we accept our positives with our negatives. When we escape the model minority, we will finally be judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character.