Not All Asians Are Alike!

Pew Research Center Report Perpetuates Harmful Stereotypes of Asian Americans

As was mentioned in your June 19 article (Asians Nation’s Fastest Growing Group) on the Pew Research Center’s recent report (The Rise of Asian Americans), there are significant differences among Asian Americans based on country of origin. What your article failed to note, however, are the harmful consequences of labeling all groups with the “model minority” tag.

We’ve come a long way in recognizing the incredible diversity in the Asian American population. Asian Americans represent more than 49 ethnic groups and 100 languages, with striking bi-modal distributions of education and income. The Pew Research Center’s report perpetuates a public perception of Asian Americans as “model minorities” with serious harmful consequences, including diverting needed resources for public services and health care access. The “model minority” myth also has been applied to health outcomes such as cancer, with aggregated statistics that overlook disparities in selected Asian American subgroups, leading to unfortunate stories of patients who have had to deal with the viewpoint of some medical providers that “Asians don’t get cancer.”

At the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, our research efforts have shown that Asian Americans vary considerably in their cancer burden, much of which is driven by differences in their genetic, lifestyle, economic and social profiles. Thus, we are deeply concerned about the Pew Research Center’s report that perpetuates the misleading “model minority” stereotype. The report emphasizes that Asian Americans have the highest-income and are the best-educated of any group in the United States and have experienced “economic success and social assimilation” despite being still majority immigrant. In doing so, this report over-generalizes socio-demographics and health of this diverse population.

While some of the ethnic groups, as a whole, do indeed exceed the average American in terms of education and income, many Asian American groups fall far below the American average. For example, more than half of Southeast Asians, such as Hmong, Laotian, and Cambodian (groups that were not included in the Pew report), have less than a high school education, compared to about 20 percent among the Asian American groups in the Pew report. Likewise, one-third to one-half of these Southeast Asian groups are living in poverty, relative to little over 10 percent in the Pew report. Similar striking differences across the Asian American populations can be seen across nearly all social and economic indicators.

At CPIC, much of our research and outreach efforts have focused on producing the needed data for documenting cancer patterns and conducting research to understand the reasons for cancer-related health disparities in specific Asian American groups.

In fact, the work at CPIC has shown that cancer is a significant problem in many Asian American communities. We recently showed that rates of breast cancer are high and increasing, especially in young, US-born Asian Americans, with rates exceeding those of non-Hispanic White women. We also have found that Asia-born women have up to a four-fold worse survival rate after breast cancer than US-born Asians.

Ongoing CPIC research is addressing culturally appropriate ways to improve survival and quality of life after a diagnosis of cancer. We have conducted research on vaccine-preventable cervical and liver cancers — leading cancers among Asian Americans, especially those born in Vietnam and China. CPIC’s research also has included pioneering work with low-income workforces, including Vietnamese nail salon workers, and found that workers may be disproportionately exposed to harmful chemicals. Findings from our air quality assessments in nail salons underscore workplace hazards as well as highlight understudied workforces composed mainly of low-income Asian immigrants. The Pew report fails to capture these kinds of issues.

Together with our research colleagues and our community partners, we have made significant strides in documenting and understanding cancer-related health disparities in the diverse Asian American population, yet more work remains to be done. We are committed to continuing to conduct the needed research to inform public health and clinical prevention efforts, and ultimately help to ensure that Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities do not suffer needlessly from cancer. Reports that perpetuate the stereotype of the “model minority” can go a long way in undermining that work.

© Cancer Prevention Institute of California