Why Model Minorities are Superior

This recent wrap-up of some of the controversy surrounding the WSJ’s “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” has been on my mind these last couple of days. I think both the Racialicious commentary and the source article itself are fascinating– partly because (guess what?!) I have a Chinese mother, broadly defined…

I’m using the term “Chinese mother” loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise. I’m also using the term “Western parents” loosely. Western parents come in all varieties.

…In fact, Chua names her  (and my) specific ethnicity as part of the umbrella category of ethnic immigrants her article cites.

Here are my thoughts. Personally, I DO think “Chinese mothers”–widely defined, as above– are probably better. Or, as much “better” as I can judge from my obvious bias point. However, Chua pinpoints the “you’re not so special” mentality of these parents as significant, and I find it important, too. This is me speaking as a non-parent, but the rhetoric of childhood in the US emphasizes individuals’ exceptionalism and perfection. I do think the pedestal that many American children are placed on at birth leads to a lot of over-privileged mindsets.
Along these lines, I like Chua’s end quote:

Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

In a lot of ways, I think that’s what my parents have done for me, and I’m grateful for that. When I didn’t learn my times tables in third grade, I was told that I couldn’t come on a family vacation unless they were memorized by the next weekend. I made it, but only barely– and they were dead serious about leaving me at home with an aunt. My mom didn’t let my sister watch TV for six months for getting a B in a class she “forgot” to study for. Yeah, it sucked, but was it harmful? No. And did she ever slack off in French class again? Definitely not.
While these measures were harsh, of course, they’re also not mean. I think calling your children garbage– as one of the sources she cites says she was– is just hurtful and unnecessary, even in the parenting paradigm Chua is presenting as an ideal.
Apart from my personal reception, though, I think the issues that make me uncomfortable about this piece are arising because of audience and publication. Because the WSJ is supposed to be this middlebrow middle ground, there’s so much room for misinterpretation, essentializing, and condemnation– which is dually why there has been so much buzz about this piece (over 2000 comments), and also, I would argue, so much ignorant backlash. Despite the anecdotal evidence Chua, I, or any other source can provide, what the author is portraying is largely based in stereotype. While that stereotype is also an in-joke that she’s trying to quantify and legitimize, putting the in-joke of strict ethnic parents out there opens it to a lot of misinterpretation from people who take it as absolute, broadly applicable, black-and-white truth.
Her opening is also problematic, I think:

They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it.

This invoking of the model minority status presents serious difficulties, especially because she does so little to frame it (I’m also highly disturbed by the suicide stats that are quoted in Racialicious’ blog) as such. An article like this could helpfully contribute to a discussion about WHY minorites, particularly, feel the need to have thier children be the best by any means possible. Clearly, these models of success are not just in place because they’re inherently Chinese or “ethnic”– but because they’re inscribed in an American model of racism that automatically assumes second class citizenship for immigrants and people of color who, in order to succeed, need to “make up” for being different.
Unfortunately, Chua doesn’t go there– I hope another WSJ writer can some time soon.

3 thoughts on “Why Model Minorities are Superior

  1. Great piece. I hadn’t heard about this at all and found it terribly fascinating. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it….

    But, wow. I’m impressed by Chua. She made her daughter play that really hard piano piece. They both accomplished something! (See, I can be tongue-in-cheek, too.) But, psychology, I think, would argue that a totally different outcome could have been just as likely for her daughter—Racialicious cites how one other individual (with agency, something Chua cannot seem to comprehend) flew from such a household and how many others commit suicide. I bet that was great for family dynamics. What Chua describes is not really just about self-esteem but what a single individual can take psychologically before reaching a breaking point, even leading to suicide.

    You hit it on the nose when you discuss the article as “the parenting paradigm Chua is presenting as an ideal.”Also, for being a Yale Law professor, the piece is annoyingly written/structured. Racialicious puts it nicely, too, when it writes that some of her passages “push Chua’s tongue-in-cheek explanation of cultural differences in parenting too far.” Chua essentially give a laundry list (even when not actually making a list as she does early on, trying to be cute), extorting on why “Chinese mothers” are far and away superior and then adds little quips such as, “All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.” Yet, she doesn’t really believe those statements. Her ability to use anecdote as evidence to prove her point is astounding.

    One part that really bugged me as well was her portrayal of grades: while it is commendable to desire and work very hard for only an A, it is ultimately unrealistic all of the time (or even most of the time) for most of the population. Thus, she doesn’t interrogate how this parenting outlook reinforces structural hierarchies—if you’re child isn’t at the top of the class, both you, as a parent, and your child are “garbage.” That’s just great for everyone…. Your example seem a lot more reasonable than Chua’s which I think shows that there is some level of wiggle room here which Chua gives some lip-service to, but doesn’t really get across that she believes.

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