Perspectives on the Model Minority Myth
by Albert Ho and Maya Britto '23 for Silver Quest
Since their inception, Montgomery Blair High School's Magnet and similar programs have always struggled with reconciling two goals: educating gifted STEM students and ensuring student diversity. Though Magnet programs have raised a generation of exemplary researchers, scholars, and activists since their inception in the 80s, such programs have found it difficult to escape their initial raison d'etre as well-intentioned institutions to mitigate white flight. The perpetuation of the "model minority myth," the discredited belief that Asians' cultural focus on hard work alone allows them to overcome systemic barriers that other minorities cannot, exacerbates these difficulties.
How the Myth Hurts All Students
The myth describes all Asians as being excessively work-oriented and having particularly strict parents. This myth damages their mental health and self-esteem. Asian freshman Dhruva Sharma said, ''You might compare yourself to other Asians and think about how they're way better than you at academic[s], and then that might un-motivate you."
For Black and Latinx students, the myth downplays their intelligence and capacity for success in comparison to their Asian counterparts. Black senior Lydia Melkamu talks about how she's personally been affected by harassment in the magnet. "I've had constant comments on my intelligence, the general aura of the classroom is often hostile towards me, and teachers often single you out of the classroom. Students have said racist remarks and have gone unpunished," she says.
Black senior Kundai Jongwe explains the difficulty teachers can create for Black students. "When it comes to teachers, especially when you're Black, expectations can be pretty low," she explains. On the other hand, some teachers do not understand the circumstances that may make it more difficult for Black students to succeed, and have unreasonably high expectations.
Simultaneously, many students feel the program has eliminated harassment and ignorance of these issues. It is probably not malice that allows for this disparity in experience. It seems that traumatizing acts can often go easily ignored amidst the busy hum of a classroom at work. This could explain why issues that can be awfully impactful go unnoticed.
A Larger System of Inequality
Former Magnet alumnus and Blair's Diversity and Inclusion Instructional Coordinator Rahman Culver spoke to us on the origins of the model minority myth. He saw hyper-competitiveness and exclusionary behavior as stemming narratives that make students "feel like they are other." Minorities in America are often pitted against one another, and non-white members of American society can sometimes feel like they are perpetual foreigners. The notion that some of us are less American than others is what makes the model minority myth possible.
Peter Ostrander, Blair Magnet Coordinator, also describes the broader factors at play. 'What those in power are trying to say is, 'we will be accepting of this small group of people to prove a point to the rest of you that if anyone just worked hard, they would be fine,' when in reality, there's some systematic things in place that, that make that absolutely not true," he says. The model minority myth is clearly a systemic issue much larger than the program itself. However, that does not mean we cannot take small steps to combat it.
Students and Teachers Working Towards a Better Future
Mr. Schwartz, one of the program's math instructors, tried to kickstart a dialogue on race and equity in math within his classes with a statement he wrote last year: "Math itself is perfect, but the way that people engage in math is not." He was pleased to see his statement spark debate and reflection among his students, but admitted that sustaining the discussion was more difficult. His case was just one example in which Magnet teachers have attempted to navigate difficult and sensitive topics.
Ms. Duval, a Blair biology teacher who will be teaching the new Analysis of Equity and Identity in STEM class this year, discussed her own attempts to broach the topic of racial inequity in her own classroom, in regards to the recent hate crimes targeting Asian Americans. She says that "[she] wasn't sure how to bring something like that up in class. But [she] felt like ignoring it was ignoring some of [her] students who may or may not have related to that incident or felt similar fears in their life."
Many students offered their own solutions. How does one take the first step? Listen. Black junior Philip Daniel spoke to us about the importance of engaging as many people in discussion about issues regarding racial inequality as possible: "If only the people that want to listen are listening, it defeats the whole purpose. If people don't listen, they won't change." Many students also proposed an increase in structured conversations specifically addressing racial conflicts, which many felt are currently absent from both casual and teacher-led discussions.
Mr. Culver pointed out that in addition to short-term enthusiasm, "These investments and commitments take years and that means that they also need to be enduring beyond the political winds of any particular moment."
In this sense, the combination of student enthusiasm and institutional support from teachers like Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Duval promises the combination that may work toward finding lasting solutions to aforementioned problems in behavior and culture within the program.
While the Magnet program has inadvertently perpetuated inequities much greater than itself, it has also sought to candidly recognize these challenges as such and prepare to face them in the coming years. Despite continued need for structural reform, ongoing changes and discussions have also sparked optimism. Black junior Alannah Dennis spoke about a marked change in her peers after the pandemic, "I think it has gotten better, because of all of the things that happened during the pandemic with George Floyd. A lot of people seem to be more aware of things happening around them."
The MBHS magnet program's history is already set in stone, but its future is not. Each of us has a role to play in making sure voices do not go unheard and abuses do not go unchecked, whether that is through direct action or one-off dialogue with peers on solutions. There is no one answer, but our interviewees would likely agree with Mr. Culver when he explained the need for some kind of change. "We do it because what's the alternative? The alternative is to know that there's a problem, know that we're doing damage to children, know that we are engaging in a pro- cess in a system that is denying folks the fact that they're true and warranted," he says. The program's most ardent activists, teacher and student, seem to tacitly understand these dire consequences at stake. We would all do well to also keep them in mind as we move together toward the future of the program.