The Harmful Silencing of Southeast Asian Americans

The term Asian American is often only thought of by Americans as people of East Asian descent. Left out of this identity are all of the people from Southeast Asia, and as a result, Southeast Asian Americans have been disadvantaged by stereotypes that assume Asian Americans as a group that performs and acts in the same manner as particular, high-performing East Asians. This paper will tackle this problem in regards to the current court case of Edward Blum versus Harvard University. Focusing specifically on Southeast Asians, this paper will first examine their history of coming to the United States. Subsequently, this paper will discuss how Southeast Asians have been hurt by the model minority myth in relation to education. This is to all give context to why success in the current affirmative action case for Blum would hurt Southeast Asians. Success for Blum would not only put down people of color outside of Asian Americans, but it would not even help Southeast Asians, a major part of the Asian American group who Blum claims to be supporting. The current lawsuit against affirmative action is detrimental to Southeast Asian Americans, who suffer from the assumption of a monolithic Asian American identity on a national level, and neglect inside of the school setting.

Asian Americans currently make up 5.8% of the United States population or around 21 million people. Out of those 21 million, just under 2 million are Southeast Asian Americans. Southeast Asian migration to the United States was relatively minimal before the second half of the 20th century. As a result of the conclusion of the Vietnam War, and the horrific damage it caused to Southeast Asia, the number of Southeast Asian refugees and immigrants skyrocketed. Unique from other Asian immigrants, the majority of Southeast Asian immigrants were refugees. Between 1975 and 1994, 1,250,000 refugees entered the United States from Southeast Asia. The first wave of refugees in the 1970s was comprised of 95% Vietnamese people and 5% Cambodian people. During this time period, the United States government accepted 650,000 of these refugees. From 1978-1982, known as the second wave of refugees, Laotians began coming to the United States as well. The United States Refugee Act of 1980 implemented a process to admit and permanently resettle refugees who had endured a difficult humanitarian living environment. This opened the door for not just Vietnamese, but numerous other refugees and immigrants from Southeast Asian countries to establish permanent residence in the United States, thus making Southeast Asian Americans an important group in the demographic of the country.

The genesis of conflating Southeast Asians into a false categorization of academic ease and widespread success with East Asians originates with the term ‘model minority.’ Model minority refers to the idea that Asian Americans are more likely to attain a greater level of success and socioeconomic status through their superiority in education. The term, while a myth, has been accepted by a large portion of Americans and has been normalized as part of the Asian American identity. This myth is used to disregard the needs of minorities who do not have adequate resources to achieve a successful education, and who underperform in the classroom. Through this myth, it is assumed that Asian Americans naturally succeed in the classroom and have the correct resources to do so. This is not true of the majority of Asian Americans. This is where portraying Asian Americans as a monolithic group greatly harms Southeast Asians.

From purely a resource standpoint, Southeast Asians have long been at a disadvantage when it comes to educating their children and preparing them for college. According to AAPI data from 2017, Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian, and Vietnamese people are above the national poverty average.5 Cambodians almost double the national average of poverty rates, and Hmong more than double the rate. The United States Census Bureau has statistics stating that 38.5% of Cambodian, 39.6% of Hmong, and 34.3% of Laotian adults do not have a high school diploma. At the next level, 65.8% of Cambodian, 63.2 of Hmong, 63.2% of Laotian, and 51.1% of Vietnamese Americans have never attended college. It is not only unfair, but also inaccurate to group Southeast Asians into the model minority identity, where they are expected to be high achieving in high school, attend a top college, and succeed there. The statistics show that a significant portion of the Southeast Asian community lives in poverty, and a majority of the population has not attended college. A major reason behind these statistics can be related back to the previous history section of this paper. A large portion of Southeast Asian immigrants to the United States came as refugees. The refugees came with very little, and their main goal was survival first, not education. This contrasts with the situation of many East Asian immigrants who have been settled in the United States for a longer period of time, or have come with stronger financial backing and can afford to place more of a focus on education.

The paradox in the identification of Southeast Asians is that while on the larger scale, they are grouped into the model minority category, inside public high schools they are written off by teachers and guidance counselors who hold little hope or expectation for them. This paradox functions as a double-edged sword in that state or federal initiatives will not be passed to make higher education more accessible for Southeast Asian students, and the teachers and administrators in the schools that see these students struggling, will not put the effort needed in to support them, because they have already written them off. Southeast Asian students become aware of this and are stuck in a place where their identity makes their life more difficult. A research study conducted with academically successful Cambodian students found that students distanced themselves from their Cambodian identity in order to avoid the negative consequences of being labeled Cambodian in the academic setting as well as their community. Students felt that abandoning their identity would release them from unrealistic expectations from the outside world, and inadequate support at school.

I attended middle and high school in the Providence Public School system. Providence public schools has an Asian American population of around 1,300, or roughly 5%. The vast majority of that 5% are students of Southeast Asian descent. At my schools, the majority of Southeast Asian kids hung out and were grouped in with the Black and Latinx students, while the East Asians were grouped in with white students. The Southeast Asian students lived in the same neighborhoods as the Black and Latinx students, grew up with them, and often were mistaken as Latinx. Predominantly, these students were first or second generation Americans whose families were not wealthy and did not have parents with experience in college. Attempting to navigate school and the college process was incredibly difficult for these students to do on their own. On top of that, being more generally Asian American, they encountered outsiders who conflated their experience with others who were financially better off and adequately prepared for college, while other outsiders wrote off their ability to even have a fighting chance in college.

This is all to say that the Southeast Asian population is often forgotten about, and as a result is misrepresented and misunderstood. Now, Southeast Asian Americans are faced with another major obstacle in their unceasing struggle to be equitably classified in order to give their children the best shot at attending a quality university. This comes in the form of conservative lawyer Edward Blum’s lawsuit essentially attempting to end affirmative action. Blum’s argument is that affirmative action is being used in the college admissions process to hurt the chances of Asian Americans to get into top schools across the country. He believes that Harvard University has set a quota on Asian Americans, and is holding their applicants to a higher standard. The goal for Blum is to eliminate race and ethnicity boxes from college applications, and effectively eliminate affirmative action. Blum is doing this through Students for Fair Admissions, an organization which has members who are Asian American students that feel as if they were cheated in the college admissions process. Blum and this organization are suing Harvard University, but the implications of the decision will be felt by universities nationwide.

Blum claims to be fighting for the Asian American community, but the case does not represent all Asian Americans. Again, as has been happening since their arrival in the United States, Southeast Asian Americans seem to be a disregarded group. Blum is not fighting for the poor, underserved, Asian American. Blum is using rich Asian Americans as a prop to abolish a law that helps minorities. If affirmative action is abolished, it will be white people and a select portion of rich Asian Americans who will reap the benefits. This case has rightfully garnered major national media attention because of its possible implications. Problematically however, it is billed as Edward Blum and the Asian American community against Harvard University and affirmative action. In reality, the vast majority of Asian Americans represented in the media pieces about the case are wealthier East Asian students and adults. Southeast Asians are silenced and overshadowed by this fact. One is hard pressed to find the opinions of Southeast Asians to major media outlets on this case. Not only will minorities outside of Asian Americans be harmed if Blum wins his case, but a large share of Asian Americans, most specifically Southeast Asian Americans will be harmed as well.

On March 6, 1991 President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925 banning government employers from discriminating against employees or job applicants on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin. Through a series of subsequent executive orders the order was expanded to women and to the subject of education. The order, more commonly known as affirmative action, provides minorities more equal opportunities to receive jobs and attend schools. Because of this, white conservatives have challenged the order in court on numerous occasions. Each time it has been upheld. Edward Blum poses the most serious threat to affirmative action to date, and this time it is a group of East Asian Americans who are supporting him. The claim is that Asian American students’ chances are greatly hindered by affirmative action. This claim completely disregards Southeast Asian students. Many Southeast Asian students come from recently immigrated families who are poor, and do not have experience in the college admissions process. Southeast Asians are forgotten by the media, schools, and admissions officers. It is imperative to remember that Asian Americans are not a monolithic group. There are 48 countries in Asia. It is the largest continent on this planet. Believing that Asian Americans are all the same is not just lazy and uninformed, it is now being manipulated as well.


Written by Noah Kim