Mitchell J. Chang is a professor of education and Asian American studies. His op-ed appeared originally in the Sacramento Bee's Jan. 26, 2011 edition. To read another viewpoint on Amy Chua's parenting methods, see an op-ed by C. Cindy Fan, associate dean of social sciences and professor of geography and Asian American studies.
The Wall Street Journal published an essay this month by Yale University law professor Amy Chua titled, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," bringing national attention to the methods by which Asian American parents raise high-achieving children. Within a week, the essay received more than 6,500 comments on the newspaper's website, catapulting her previously unnoticed book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," up the New York Times' list of best-sellers.
Chua's essay is considered controversial largely because it stresses a rigid parenting style based on tough love — the "Tiger Mother" — that goes against what she considers more typical "Western" styles that emphasize self-esteem and self-discovery. Parenting strategies aside, what has been overlooked is how this essay unintentionally undermines Asian American college applicants by perpetuating an erroneous stereotype.
High-achieving Asian Americans have been struggling against an "Asian tax" in college as well as graduate school admissions for over three decades. In the late '80s, the federal government investigated charges that Asian American college applicants faced a higher admissions bar than other groups. They concluded in 1990 that Harvard admitted Asian American applicants at a lower rate than white students despite the fact that Asian American applicants had slightly stronger test scores and grades.
The federal government also inspected other elite universities, including some UC campuses where Asian American enrollment dropped despite increased numbers of highly qualified applicants. Federal investigators found that admissions staff at these elite universities had stereotyped Asian American applicants in characterizing them as quiet, shy and not "well rounded."
In October 2006, Inside Higher Ed reported that at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, admissions officers and high school counselors readily admitted that bias against Asian Americans continues to be a real problem — so much so that some even recommended that Asian Americans should not identify their race in their applications. Admissions officers reportedly complained on a regular basis that they didn't "want another boring Asian."
Meeting participants also reacted to a November 2005 Wall Street Journal article, which reported that white families were leaving top public schools as districts became "too Asian," apparently referring to a shift in the emphasis of after-school programs away from a sports focus and toward an academic one.
Now comes Chua's characterization of the "Tiger Mother," adding to what it means to be "too Asian." This image contributes to an already problematic stereotype by suggesting not only that most Asian Americans are high-achieving, but also that their achievements are due to overbearing parents.
Her characterization can further tax Asian American college applicants by reducing the chances that they will be viewed as self-starters, risk-takers and independent thinkers — attributes that are often favored by admissions officers but rarely associated with Asian American applicants. If the "Tiger Mother" image leaves a lasting impression and is applied broadly beyond Chua's own experiences, this characterization can advance a one-dimensional view of Asian Americans that minimizes their achievements and overlooks their diversity.
With any luck, those involved with admissions in higher education fully recognize the shortcomings of Chua's essay and understand that the story of high achievement for Asian Americans is as varied as the number of college applicants. If they don't and the "Asian tax" rises instead, we will hopefully be reading about the determination of Asian American parents to eliminate discriminatory admissions practices, rather than essays about an obsession with raising hyper-achieving kids. Ideally, the public will be just as concerned about the former as they have been with the latter.