Disaggregate the Asian Data
Issue 7, Volume 113
While perusing The Spectator, I came across a chart detailing mask-wearing by ethnicity. The groups included in the chart were white, East Asian, South Asian, African American, and Hispanic. To my surprise, there was no bar for Southeast Asians. Additionally, the author wrote that East and South Asians make up approximately 72 percent of students at Stuyvesant. The statistics the author relies on describe Stuyvesant’s population as being 72 percent Asian, not East Asian and South Asian. Just Asian. It was clear to me that both the surveyor and the author had neglected the Southeast Asian student body.
Unfortunately, this generalization isn’t confined to that Spectator article. Among the plethora of articles discussing specialized high school admission and ethnicity, there are few to no articles mentioning Southeast Asian students. When I learned about this paucity, I felt invisible and started searching for anything that represented my background. I assume other Southeast Asian students often feel the same way.
Whenever conversations about Asian education arise, Southeast Asians fall through the cracks, mainly due to monolithic views of the Asian community. Despite differing cultures, physical appearances, and socioeconomic compositions, East Asians and Southeast Asians are typically perceived as the same. One example of the perpetuation of such monoliths by the media is Raya and the Last Dragon, which Disney heavily advertised as their first movie showcasing a Southeast Asian princess. However, it ended up consisting of a primarily East Asian cast, with most of the Southeast Asian actors taking on minor roles. I felt robbed of actual Southeast Asian representation and concluded that Disney used a Southeast Asian princess to garner profits.
Seeing Southeast Asians and East Asians as the same makes it easier to perpetuate the model minority myth. Countless people paint the narrative that Asians are the most hardworking minority group, as they have poverty rates akin to other minority groups, yet they thrive in many aspects of their lives, especially education. These generalizations ignore the experiences of Southeast Asians. The Pew Research Center reports that while 24 percent of Asian Americans have obtained a graduate degree, Southeast Asian groups report much lower rates: 10 percent among Vietnamese Americans and Filipino Americans, six percent among Hmong Americans, and five percent among Cambodian Americans. Within the Asian American community, the three groups who have the highest poverty rates are Southeast Asian: 37.8 percent for Hmong Americans, 29.3 percent for Cambodian Americans, and 18.5 percent for Laotian Americans.
These assertions arise from the lack of Asian “data disaggregation.” Many systems and studies see “Asian” as one group, despite the countless differences within the demographic. Large institutions like the National Institutes of Health don’t qualify Asians as underrepresented enough to receive educational and job-related benefits, even though Southeast Asians are genuinely underrepresented in STEM education. This grouping is also present within discussions surrounding affirmative action. Even though affirmative action exists to give opportunities to those who are systematically disadvantaged to create a diverse student body, schools still use these aggregated classification systems. When Southeast Asians mark that Asian box on their college applications, they are lumped together with all Asians in a way that ignores educational and economic disparities. Subsequently, when the data for graduation rates by race comes out for that year, surface-level observations make it seem as if all Asians are doing exceptionally well educationally and don’t need any help.
Even though the anti-affirmative action movement fights against this system, it also disregards Southeast Asians. The argument that grade-based admissions systems will give Asian people a more fair shot ignores the fact that Southeast Asians are disadvantaged within K-12 education. This data is also aggregated, as out of 151 studies researching Asians in K-12 education, 97 percent have a monolithic predisposition in their methodology. Even alternatives, like affirmative action based on economic circumstances, do not solve these disparities, as some Southeast Asian groups are not economically disadvantaged and have much more complex barriers that still limit their educational success. No matter what side of the affirmative action debate one is on, Southeast Asians are left unrecognized.
I find myself lucky enough to surround myself with Southeast Asian friends who share very similar experiences regarding these harmful Asian monoliths. However, I felt isolated because of the fact that some of my friends at school hold these monolithic beliefs. One time, my friend jokingly told me that a particular person and I would get along because we were both “Russian and East Asian.” When I confronted them about the issue, they seemed genuinely confused, believing Southeast Asia was just a part of East Asia. Joining the Southeast Asian Alliance helped me cope with my feelings of isolation. Even though we’ve only had one meeting and five people in attendance, we connected over Southeast Asian snacks, drinks, music, and personal anecdotes. These communities are so important, as interacting with one’s culture in an educational setting helps with learning.
It is necessary to address these monoliths. If researchers are conducting a report surrounding an Asian community, they should be as intentional as possible in attempting to disaggregate the data. The federal government could also step in by ensuring that schools with a significant amount of Asian students report disaggregated data in terms of academic achievement. To solve the issues surrounding education disparities in K-12 schools, people can advocate for more Southeast Asian staff, primarily focusing on hiring those who can teach English to the Southeast Asian groups with the lowest rates of English literacy. Schools should also start recognizing educational disparities and acting on them by preemptively contacting Southeast Asian students’ parents to help deal with the barriers that they will face.
State and local governments should also help by investing in organizations that distribute educational resources to communities that are economically disadvantaged or have poor school systems. When it comes to colleges, inserting an addendum in the race section of the college application to disaggregate the Asian community will force colleges to collect representative data and allow them to adequately accommodate the Southeast Asian community within the system of affirmative action. By taking these steps, Southeast Asians can move forward with newfound empowerment and proper recognition of their identities.