diversity digest
Spring 01
Institutional Leadership and Commitment
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Access Denied: The Complexity of Asian Pacific Americans
Christopher T. H. Liang, Doctoral Student in counseling psychology and Instructor for Asian American Studies Program,
Marie P. Ting, Doctoral Student in higher education and Assistant to the Associate Provost for Equity and Diversity, University of Maryland and
Daniel Hiroyuki Teraguchi, Program and Research Associate, AAC&U


As campuses have increasingly come to realize that institutional diversity enhances educational quality, the problem of deciding which groups constitute "diversity" continues to complicate access issues. Over the years, institutions have used race as the dominant criterion for defining diversity in the context of access policies such as affirmation action.

Unfortunately, this approach has resulted in merging disparate ethnic groups into artificial racial categories and has ignored differences within such constructed categories. This practice excludes significant racial/ethnic groups, drawing attention away from the needs of the individual ethnic groups and ultimately impeding the creation of truly diverse campus populations. While we strongly support access policies such as affirmative action and their principles of social justice, equal opportunity, and democracy, we offer a way to strengthen the implementation of such policies to ensure that a wider spectrum of groups is served.

Because of their racial complexity, Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) provide a good example of the danger of lumping groups together in a single racial category. By lumping APAs or any other sets of racial or ethnic groups in this way, access policies ignore significant differences between groups and overlook needs of certain populations or subgroups within the identified racial category. This type of policy masks the 31 diverse groups of the APA community (Hing & Lee, 1990), which are not linked by a single language, religion, social class, or national origin (Lott, 1997). The Model Minority Myth (MMM), which originated to highlight and explain the successes of Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans in the 1960s and continues to misidentify and hinder APAs, further obscures the needs of different APA subgroups. Hune and Chan (1997) found that the MMM serves to divert higher education's attention away from the educational and financial needs of more recent APA immigrants and refugees and of Pacific Islanders, who have high poverty rates or low educational attainment (2000 U.S. Census).

More specifically, an access policy with a monolithic view of APAs will not recognize that nearly 40 percent of Laotians and Cambodians live below the poverty rate, that over 94 percent of Tongans, Cambodians, Laotians and Hmongs do not complete college, and that only 31 percent of Hmongs graduate from high school (2000 U.S. Census). The proactive inclusion of APA subgroups within the mix of groups identified as "minority" for diversity purposes adds multiple perspectives--especially those of Pacific Islanders and refugees--to the campus climate in and out of the classroom. This, in turn, enhances educational quality and promotes more complex forms of thinking in all students.

Access policies must therefore acknowledge the ethnic diversity within any overarching racial category. We suggest that increased diversity at an institution can be achieved responsibly by implementing an access policy that begins by assessing the institution's student population and the community it serves. Race may still be helpful in determining which groups are underrepresented, but institutions must also disaggregate the racial data to ensure that diversity can be defined appropriately and accurately. In addition, other indicators--such as poverty rate, college retention rates, and high school completion rates--should be used to crosscheck institutional data in order to determine which ethnic groups in a single racial category may benefit from increased access to higher education. Whether a campus determines that APAs are over- or underrepresented, it is critically important to disaggregate the data to ensure that all groups of Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders are included.


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Christopher T.H. Liang
Marie P. Ting
Daniel Hiroyuki Teraguchi