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Challenging AAPI Discrimination in Higher Education and the Corrosive Effects of the ‘Model Minority’ Myth

By Andrew Wu, author of Asian American Educators and Microaggressions

Purdue University Northwest Chancellor Thomas Keon recently came under fire when he mocked Asian languages as he performed a racist caricature of made up languages during commencement ceremonies. The eventual template mea culpa for anyone offended by Keon and subsequent deflection by senior university staff only further demonstrates that Asian Americans (AA) are still facing racism at all levels of society, both verbal and physical, especially stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The casual racism demonstrated by Keon perpetuates the tragic legacy of anti-Asian racist historical blemishes and injustice such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry resurface in modern form, from the physical assaults of AAs in cities across the country to verbal assaults from a former president of the United States. This is especially concerning when such racist mockery happens in a place of higher learning, especially from the top administrative leadership.

Even with well-meaning colleagues, I recently experienced a conversation with a fellow professional who expressed surprise that Asian Americans (AA) faced discrimination. His experience with AAs while at a large state university was one that AAs were highly successful and did not face racism or unequal treatment. This perception of AAs as the model minority did not surprise me as long-standing stereotypes of AAs continue to be perpetuated in US society. Keon’s actions are evidence contrary to my colleague’s generalizations.

Due to the paucity of research on AAPI educator experiences, there is hope that AA authors will continue to bring forth the testimonies, research, and analysis that can help shed light on the racial microaggression and discrimination faced by AA faculty and help institutional decision makers, administrators, and faculty better understand the subtle and overt marginalization faced by AAs. And with this better understanding, strategic planning and actions to mitigate and ultimately eliminate structural and institutional racism faced by AAs. Apparently such training and education was very much needed at Purdue University Northwest’s commencement ceremony. 

In addition, future research findings have the potential to connect and strengthen the theoretical frameworks of the Model Minority Myth and Perpetual Foreigner Stereotype experienced by AA educators, and how microaggressions can affect their careers. The data collected on AA faculty members’ experiences at their institutions can also reveal the effects of the Model Minority Myth, perpetuating the narrative of monolithic AA success in academia and careers, yet not in the mold of leadership qualities. There is almost certainty that an AA chancellor would not make such statements.

Equally important to shatter is the Perpetual Foreigner Stereotype, as the xenophobic racism that certain underrepresented groups in the United States are considered non or less American. This stereotype played a role in marginalizing AAs during Purdue University Northwest’s commencement ceremony.  And finally, microaggressions are subtle discrimination against that affect AAs’ educator career experiences. Implications for future research will help higher education administrative leadership and stakeholders better support career experiences and opportunities for AA faculty members.

Diversity and racial equity in corporations and institutions of higher education have grown in importance during recent years, especially as contemporary research has been conducted on the experiences of AA faculty members. However, higher education research has excluded AAs, with little complex analysis on AAs’ experiences as a student or faculty. Most news regarding higher education and AAs usually is relegated to AAs as high achieving students and/or the debate on affirmative action in college admissions. Higher education needs to do better, especially at an institution such as Purdue University Northwest.

Andrew Wu holds a EdD in Higher Education Administration from the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University, USA. He received his BA and MA degrees from the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies at California State University, and has served as administrator and faculty in higher education.