Published in the Spring 2008 issue of SSA Magazine

False Perceptions

27.9%: Vietnamese boys that smoke, according to a study in Massachusetts.

The damage done by stereotypes about Asian Americans' model behavior

Racial stereotypes and prejudices are tenacious in the general public and within academia. Asian Americans, for example, are often seen as the model minority, the group that has "made it in this land of opportunity" and is largely without vice. The reality of the needs, behaviors, and attitudes of Asian Americans is much more nuanced, however, and the blind eye society turns to that truth can impede needed interventions and policy attention, particularly to at-risk Asian youth.

To a large extent, the model minority stereotype is not true, according to my recent studies using the data from nationally representative samples of secondary school students from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (known as Add Health). In several measures, Asian youth did report fewer problem behaviors. They were doing better in school and were less likely to commit aggressive offenses than black and Hispanic youth and less likely to report having sex than black youth. Compared to white youth, Asian youth were less likely to ever smoke, to drink, to consume five or more drinks in a row, and to get drunk.

However, the results also showed that white youth were 17 percent less likely to engage in aggression and 19 percent less in nonaggressive offenses than Asian youth. Black youth were also 29 percent less likely to report nonaggressive offenses and had lower rates of various substance uses than Asian youth. Grade point averages of Asian youth were higher than that of black and Hispanic youth but not significantly different from those of white youth. No differences were found between Hispanic and Asian youth in nonaggressive delinquent offenses, substance use related behaviors, experience of sex, and exposure to sexually transmitted disease.

Mixed Results

These results are notable in part because empirical data and research findings on Asian Americans and their youth are seriously limited. They've also been inconsistent: Some of the few studies that have been conducted confirm positive and healthy outcomes, while others report serious problems of poor mental health, gang activities, and violence. Others suggest a bimodal distribution, where Asian-American youth have both notable successes such as good grades and problems such as membership in a gang. These inconsistencies might be due to severe methodological limitations in the studies, which have relied on regional, clinic-based, or convenience samples or on a subgroup to represent the entire Asian population.

The data from Add Health, however, failed to show any noteworthy differences in the distributions of behaviors across groups. The results also demonstrated significant Asian subgroup differences, putting to rest any idea that Asian Americans are a monolithic group. Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese American youth reported largely similar outcomes, but Filipino, "other" Asian, and multiethnic Asian- American groups reported other outcomes. It's worth noting that neither of these groups has distinctively better results, just different.

The Damage from Stereotypes

Stereotypes can have serious consequences. The most obvious is their use as an excuse to discriminate. The model minority stereotype also has been used by the dominant society to justify glossing over the structural barriers and adversities that Asian Americans struggle to overcome.

Stereotypes can also be internalized. A false self-image, even if positive, can be psychologically damaging for children who cannot live up to their own and to society's expectations. It has also falsely led Asian Americans to believe that they have reached socioeconomic parity in society (when they in fact have not), and other groups have reacted to the stereotype with hostility.

The stereotype may also stymie efforts to identify and address the needs of this growing group of Americans. For example, because teachers and school administrators perceive Asian students as problem-free, they are likely to overlook the difficulties encountered by these students. Because Asian Americans are stereotyped as successful and self-reliant, programs and services are lacking for this group. The mental health and social service needs of Asian youth are at least as great as those of their white counterparts, and the needs of Asian American youth increase with the length of their family's residence in the United States.

Numbers, when used properly and accurately, can help debunk racial stereotypes. It is critical that researchers look beyond the stereotype so as not to run the risk of perpetuating false perceptions in research and theory. We need to accrue more accurate estimates about Asian Americans. With better data we can determine social service needs, adequately allocate resources, shed light on disparity across groups, and initiate future studies to investigate why differences between groups are emerging. In the long run, better numbers can be a critical and fundamental component to developing effective interventions to prevent problems.

Yoonsun Choi is an assistant professor at SSA and a faculty associate at the Chapin Hall Center for Children.