How to Fight Asian Stereotypes: Disaggregate Data on Asians

Thursday, March 24, 2016

This year’s Academy Awards telecast was a perfect opportunity to show how people of color have nuanced, fascinating stories to share with mainstream America.

Instead, Oscars host Chris Rock trotted Asian kids on stageposing as stingy accountants, and actor Sacha Baron Cohen made a cringe-inducing reference to “very hardworking, little yellow people with tiny” private parts.

Thanks, Hollywood. As if we needed more reminders that the powers that be in pop culture remain largely interested in portraying Asians as super nerds and small people content with working hard and staying silent as the world laughs at us.

So long as this model-minority myth lives on, the complexity and diversity of the Asian and Pacific Islander experience in the U.S. will be overlooked when real policy and funding decisions are made. Our health, education and general livelihoods are at stake.

One of the challenges to fighting inaccurate stereotypes is the government’s practice of aggregating data on 48 Asian ethnic subgroups that speak 300 different languages.

Combining statistics for all Asians hides disparities that exist in, say, the classroom between a fourth-generation Japanese-American child whose parent is an engineer and a Burmese refugee from a poor family who’s never gone to school.

The solution to this problem? More disaggregated data.

In 2015, the national organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice did a deep-dive analysis of private and U.S. Census numbers in the Seattle metropolitan area. This important report found major disparities in income, education attainment and health outcomes within the Asian-American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities.

  • More than half of the Asian population was born in a foreign country. Many of these people represent a newer wave of immigrants who arrived after decades of exclusionary policies ended in 1965 and wars in Southeast Asia concluded in 1975. Within this group, graduation rates, income and English language proficiency vary.
  • Among Asians in the Seattle area, only 65 percent of Laotians, 68 percent of Cambodians and 71 percent of Vietnamese adults have a high-school degree, compared to 86 percent of Thai and Chinese people. There are certainly individual success stories, but most people without a basic education will struggle with upward mobility.

Limited disaggregated data shows significant opportunity gaps in Washington between certain Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander student groups in the third, fourth and fifth grades compared to other Asian groups. This is an indicator they are struggling with access to early childhood programs and wraparound supports.

Things don’t necessarily get better as these disadvantaged kids get older.

In 2013, the University of Washington eliminated a part-time but highly valued Southeast Asian student recruitment and outreach position, citing data that showed Asians had reached parity with white students. Asian-American advocates fought hard against the change and won.

More recently, community leaders representing primarily students of color in South Seattle and South King County were shocked to see how data on Asian kids were used in an annual report from the well-regarded Road Map Project.

The Road Map Project is an umbrella effort to close the “unacceptable opportunity and achievement gap for low-income students and children of color” in seven school districts covering nearly half of students in King County. Yet under the “race/ethnicity opportunity gap” portion of the organization’s 2015 results report, Asian students were lumped in with white students. On paper, those two groups together appeared to outperform all other students of color.

But the report repeats a false narrative.

“Funders might see this and think Asian students are doing great,” says James Hong, executive director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association, which works closely with immigrant and refugee families. “Reporting bad data is really harmful to communities.”

That certainly was not the intent, according to Road Map Project Executive Director Mary Jean Ryan. She says the organization bases its measurements on numbers from the state, whichstill has a tendency to report out combined data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

I believe her, which is why something has to change.

Until data disaggregation is the norm, Asian Counseling and Referral ServiceExecutive Director Diane Narasaki warns even the most well-meaning efforts to create greater equity are “perpetuating racist stereotypes and institutionalizing racism against Asians.”

Ryan says the criticism is not lost on her, which is why she and many others support Fourth Substitute House Bill 1541, a measure that directs the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and school districts to collect and report disaggregated data for subgroups including students of Asian-American, Pacific Islander, African and European backgrounds.

The legislation, championed over the last few years by state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, has finally reached Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk. He should sign it.

Here’s the big lesson: Communities of color must continue to speak up and demand resources where good data suggest they are most needed.

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