Learning about “Model Minorities”

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A few days ago, I had an opportunity to sit in on a panel discussion called “Masochists and Other Model Minorities,” sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies and featuring presentations by erin Khuê Ninh (UC Santa Barbara) and Takeo Rivera (Boston U). Both of these scholars have new books out: Ninh’s Passing for Perfect: College Impostors and Other Model Minorities (Temple UP, 2021) and Rivera’s Model Minority Masochism: Performing the Cultural Politics of Asian American Masculinity (Oxford UP, 2022).

Both scholars spoke of the effects of the “model minority” myth, demonstrating the power that this stereotype continues to have over many lives. Rivera focused on versions of masculinity, including an analysis of Andrew Yang, whose rhetorical choices and strategies provide an example of “model minority masochism” at work. Ninh’s book takes a deep dive into what happens to Asian American students who “pass for perfect” by pretending to enroll in college—or who enroll and then drop out but continue as if they were still students, in order to fulfill obligations to their parents. In this presentation, she described the forces that lead second-generation Asian American students to try to embody the criteria set for them—to get straight As, to attend a top elite school, and to get an advanced degree—through pretenses that she identifies as “desperate racial performances.”

Both presentations were riveting, and I have ordered the books in order to read and study them thoroughly. But these presentations have already given me a chance to think more carefully and deeply about the Asian American students I am privileged to work with, and they have deepened my empathy for the struggles of so very many of the young people who sit in our classrooms, displaying what students at many schools call the “duck syndrome”: looking calm, serene, and just fine above the water, but paddling furiously and desperately underneath. In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I recommend all teachers of writing check out the work of Ninh and Rivera so that we can learn how to better support our Asian American students all year round.

Image Credit: "Tattoo Fest Trophies" by GollyGforce, used under a CC BY 2.0 license

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About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.