Time and time again, we see Asian-American students quietly but surely rise above their peers with their quiet, studious, and high tests scores. What is it about these students that separates them from their peers? Keith Osajima, a professor of race ethnic studies at the University of Redlands, dives deeper into this topic in “Internalized Oppression and the Culture of Silence: Rethinking the Stereotype of the Quiet Asian-American Student.”
In this article, Keith Osajima looks into the reason why so many Asian-American students avoid participating in class, which he also calls situational non-assertiveness. He has three theories as to why students are so quiet—the first is what he calls traditional Asian cultural values, the second is just that English is not an Asian student’s native language, and the third is called “internalized oppression”, which is the focus of this article. In a nutshell, internalized oppression is when an oppressed group comes to accept stereotypes about themselves and eventually mirrors the identity given to them by the dominant group.
For example, take the stereotype that Asians are good at math. In America, this is both a stereotype and an identity given to the oppressed group (Asians) by the dominant group (Whites). An Asian student will respond to this stereotype by working to live up to it as to not disappoint everyone else because he or she believes that being good at math is an integral part of his or her identity. Even though this stereotypes is related to the Asian-American student being good at something, many of these students that are simply average at math are looked upon as less proficient simply because of this stereotype. This is a perfect example of internalized oppression because no one is pushing the student to reinforce these stereotypes except himself/herself.
With the previous example, we can see how the behaviors of Asian-American students often are manifestations of internalized oppression as students and as racial minorities. As students, Asians have to participate in an education system that is structured in an oppressive manner. This system is also known as the “’banking system’ of instruction” (Osajima, 154). Teachers are seen as knowledge distributers and students are simply passive receptors of this knowledge. With this, a student doesn’t need to think critically or ask questions, they just need to sit and absorb whatever knowledge the teacher provides. In this system, “a ‘good student’ is quiet, obedient, unquestioning, prompt, and attentive. They do well on tests designed by the teacher. They can give the ‘right’ answer” (Osajima, 154). For many Asian students wanting to do well in school, this message becomes a “natural, internalized indicator of our self-worth” and it “creates a tremendous pull to adhere to the image of a ‘good’ student” (Osajima, 154). By adhering to this image of a good student, Asian students simply perpetuate the stereotype that they are quiet, studious, and score high.
The way Asians as a minority combated racial oppression is very similar to how they approached school. As a minority, Asians stayed silent and conformed to drawing attention to themselves and worked hard to gain social and economic mobility so that they could leave their racist environments and gain status. As time went on, many others noticed this path that many Asian-Americans followed and portrayed it as another stereotype of their minority.
The strategies that Asians, as a racial minority, use to deal with oppression have reinforced how they should act in school. Asian students realize this and “come to believe that their identity and self-image hinge upon being the successful quiet student” (Osajima, 154). Since they believe that the successful quiet student is their identity, it is almost impossible to break this pattern and have them participate more in class. In the end, Keith Osajima claims that it is the nature of the educational system that keeps students quiet and reserved. He believes that with changes to teaching style, “the educational process can do more than reproduce a compliant work force, but can be a vehicle for liberation” (Osajima, 154).
As a professor and an author, Keith Osajima specializes in race and higher education, especially that of Asian-American students (Osajima, Keith). In addition, he has other publications on his website that discuss internalized racism and Asian-Americans as the model minority. He uses his previous experiences teaching Asian students at other schools such as UC Berkeley as evidence to back up his observations. Keith Osajima not only put forth his personal experience as proof, but also used quotes from other professors and authors to define terms, provide evidence, and clarify points. The people he quoted, such as Albert Memmi, Frantz Fannon and Paulo Freire, were all very well versed in their fields and as well published.
As an Asian-American student myself, I have seen and experienced many of these stereotypes, but I was never able to describe or label most of them. From a young age, I was pushed to do well in school by my parents—get good grades, get into a good school, get a good job, make lots of money, have a good life, and make sure my kids got the same treatment as I did. However, my parents were aware of a stigma attached to students like me, so they urged me to participate more in class and not just be a passive learner so that in the future I could make connections, get recommendation letters, etc. When I entered elementary school, I was continuously reprimanded for asking too many questions and for my energy and talkativeness, so eventually I aimed at being a “good” student by being quiet and doing my work. After reading IERE, I realized that this was a misinterpretation of a student’s behavior, in which I was considered talkative, not engaged in class. This habit carried on throughout middle school, high school, and is still how I act in class at college.
In this aspect, I fully agree with Keith Osajima about how the educational system is oppressing and furthering the stereotype of the quiet Asian-American student and about how the “Asian way” is to work hard to gain status. This article was really an eye-opener to me because it helped me put a name to so many different things happening around me my entire life. In my biased opinion, I think this article was well written and well backed with citations and personal experience to be considered credible.