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Opinion: It’s about the model minority myth, not affirmative action

Her Campus American journalists are free to express opinions. The opinions in this article are not representative of Her Campus American’s opinions as an organization.

Asians are smart. They’re good at math. They have “tiger parents.” They don’t even have to try to get good grades. All of them play the piano. Or the flute. 

These are all beliefs I heard growing up, from middle school all the way to college. As an Asian American myself, almost none of these notions were true for me. I wasn’t amazing at math, I studied hours a night to get good grades and I played the clarinet for two years. Then I quit — and my parents were fine with it. 

These are examples of the model minority myth, a narrative that Asians are able to achieve a higher level of success than other minorities because of natural intelligence, politeness and a willingness to keep their heads down. Not only does this put pressure on Asian Americans to be perfect, but it drives a wedge between minority racial groups, who have been led to believe that one is more worthy than the other. This myth is fueling recent debates surrounding affirmative action, an issue that has made its way to the Supreme Court. 

Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) filed suits against Harvard College and the University of North Carolina claiming that the racial classifications used in affirmative action are unconstitutional. SFFA claims that Asian American applicants are held to a higher standard than their white counterparts in admissions to elite schools like Harvard, so colleges should not be allowed to know the race of applicants, let alone use affirmative action. That doesn’t meant they represent most of us. 

Anay Badlani, a South Asian American freshman at the Georgia Institute of Technology believes that affirmative action is necessary. “The people it helps are initially beneath the power curve, not because they aren’t smart, but because they can’t prioritize their education because they have other problems to focus on like money,” Badlani said. 

Affirmative action does not typically help Asian Americans. The group is underrepresented in selective universities relative to the application pool, according to Jeannie Suk Gersen for the New Yorker. The proportion of Asian American students who attend Harvard has remained stable since the 1990s, while the percentage of Asian Americans in the US population has doubled, according to the same article.

To have the same chance as white applicants, Asian Americans must score 140 points higher on the SAT than the average white applicant according to a 2009 study from Princeton University. 

“We should be treated as neutral, or the standard should be lowered because it’s significantly higher than it is for other races. I think the reason Asians perform better on average is the cultural expectations placed on the kids and I don’t think that should be used as a determinant in the process,” Badlani said of his experience in the college application process. 

If applicants don’t break out of the characteristics of the “model minority,” they have a lower chance of getting in, although they may be equally or more qualified than a white applicant. Asian Americans are already expected to be intelligent and well-rounded, so they have to go above and beyond that. 

How do we break out of what we have been conditioned to do for our whole lives? How do we do even more, and even better? Even if we do, admissions doesn’t know what we are really like. It seems impossible. 

Still, 69% of Asian American registered voters favor affirmative action “designed to help Black people, women, and other minorities gain better access to higher education,” according to the Asian American Voter Survey. Contrary to popular belief that is dividing racial groups, Asian Americans want affirmative action, and they want equitable opportunities for historically oppressed groups. They just don’t want it to hurt them. 

Affirmative action should be used to account for systemic oppression among groups like Black and Latino people. But It shouldn’t hurt Asian Americans as it does now. It shouldn’t help us either– we should be considered on an equal playing field with white counterparts. 

The issue here isn’t affirmative action. It’s the model minority myth. The notion of “good” minorities and “bad” minorities helps nobody, and hurts everybody. 

Sana Mamtaney (she/her) is a third-year student at American University studying journalism and political science. She loves writing about social justice issues and how they affect our daily lives. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, watching reality TV, and listening to Hozier and One Direction.