“Synonymization Threat” in the United States and Hong Kong

Authors: Dr Sung Tae Jang, Assistant Professor, The University of Hong Kong

Policymakers and practitioners alike often make assumptions about racial or ethnical minority children based on their other identifying features. For example, in the U.S., it is often presumed that racially and ethnically diverse students lack English language proficiency, while in Hong Kong, ethnic minority students are labeled as non-Chinese speaking (NCS). This “synonymization” of identities is a global phenomenon. In the U.S., it is particularly evident for Black and poor students. Similar synonymization occurs with Latinxs through the melding of ethnicity and immigration status (the assumption that Latinxs are immigrants) and ethnicity and English language proficiency (the assumption that Latinxs are English learners). In Hong Kong, this process can be seen in the melding of ethnic minority students of South Asian and Southeast Asian heritage and NCS students (Gao et al., 2018). We (Alexander & Jang, 2019; Alexander & Jang, in press) propose that invoking such synonymization of identities on children and communities creates negative synonymization threat to in a range of resource allocation decisions.

What is “Synonymization Threat”?

We (Alexander & Jang, 2019) suggested the framework of synonymization threat based on the combination of synonymization and the notion of stereotype threat that focuses on individuals (Steele & Aronson, 1995; Steele, 2012). Such framework is particularly grounded on critical race theory (CRT) scholars’ critiques of stereotype threat by focusing on the collective communities. Synonymization is “a policy threat that emerges when policymakers conflate two marginalized identities resulting in policies that ostensibly, but not actually, address biased structures” (Alexander & Jang 2019, p. 153). In other words, synonymization threat brings with it all of the negative implications of stereotypes. At the same time, we argue that synonymization threat bears the additional burden of policymakers’ belief that partially addressing issues caused by language barriers also addresses issues related to other minority attributes. For example, this belief may mislead Hong Kong policymakers to assume that addressing the academic and linguistic needs associated with students’ Chinese language proficiency will simultaneously address the unique needs associated with their ethnic minority status.

How Does Synonymization Work to Create School Funding Inequities?

We have used synonymization threat to analyze policymakers’ school funding decisions in Minnesota, U.S. and examined their implications for impacted students. For example, our cross-sectional multivariate regression analysis covering the 15-year period between 2000 and 2014, revealed that the only those living in poverty in Minnesota consistently received additional funds as their proportion of the population increased (Alexander & Jang, in press). Moreover, higher levels of funding were associated with higher proportions of poor children over the 15-year period, suggesting that vertical equity was uneven but still improved across time for this group of children. In contrast, there was no statistically significant association between total expenditure per pupil and the proportion of Latinx students served in a district. Similarly, they observed no statistically significant associations between per-pupil total expenditures and the proportions of ELs served in each district. These trends signal that Minnesota’s school finance policies will continue to focus primarily on mechanisms that address poverty, with increasingly fewer resources targeting ethnic-conscious strategies for supporting Latinx students and the establishment of programs for supporting students with language barriers. Our findings suggest that additional resources did not flow to Latinx students to address their unique needs over the period examined, which exemplifies the threat these students face. We argue that such a threat is based on policymakers’ assumption that addressing poverty or programs that support learning English in part addresses the problems of xenophobia or ethnic bias generally. In Hong Kong, the school funding formula for supporting marginalized groups of students mainly focuses on alleviating linguistic barriers (e.g., Chinese Language Curriculum Second Language Learning Framework, Education Bureau, 2023). If the past is prologue, Hong Kong’s school finance policies will likely continue to focus primarily on mechanisms that address linguistic needs, while ethnic minority students may not receive adequate funding to address their other unique needs and structural barriers (e.g., Jackson & Nesterova, 2017; Gube & Bryant, 2021).

Aiming for Uniqueness over Synonymization

The theory of synonymization threat allows us to specifically identify the synonymization process in diverse educational processes (e.g., allocation of school funding) and policymakers’ rhetoric and fallacious assumptions that may aggravate institutionalized discrimination against marginalized groups of students, such as Latinx students in the United States and ethnic minority students in Hong Kong. As the synonymization threat framework suggests, although the schooling experiences of ethnic minority students in Hong Kong are disproportionately affected by linguistic barriers, addressing such barriers without explicitly considering ethnicity is unlikely to be sufficient. Thus, further empirical investigations of the synonymization process will be essential to advance equity and social justice in Hong Kong. Indeed, the synonymization threat framework “bears stating explicitly that equity calls for a recognition of the uniqueness of identities, not their submergence” (Alexander & Jang, 2019, p. 171).


Alexander, N. A., & Jang, S. T. (2019). ‘Synonymization’ threat and the implications for the funding of school districts with relatively high populations of black students. Race Ethnicity and Education22(2), 151-173.

Alexander, N. A., & Jang, S. T. (in press). ‘Synonymization’ threat, equity, and the funding of districts with relatively high populations of Latinx students. Journal of Education Finance.

Census and Statistics Department. (2018). Hong Kong poverty situation report on ethnic minorities 2016. Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Education Bureau. (2023, June 28). Initiatives in the 2014 policy address: Support for ethnic minorities. https://www.edb.gov.hk/attachment/tc/student-parents/ncs-students/new/SupportEM-Eng.pdf

Gao, F., Lai, C., & Halse, C. (2019). Belonging beyond the deficit label: The experiences of ‘non-Chinese speaking’ minority students in Hong Kong. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development40(3), 186-197.

Gube, J. C. C., & Bryant, D. A. (2021). “Cloistered multiculturalism”? Challenges in connecting an ethnically diverse school to its local Chinese community. In C. Halse & K. J. Kennedy (Eds.), Multiculturalism in turbulent times (pp. 124-140). Routledge.

Jackson, L., & Nesterova, Y. (2017). Multicultural Hong Kong: Alternative new media representations of ethnic minorities. Multicultural Education Review, 9(2), 93-104.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology69(5), 797-811.

Steele, C. M. (2012). Extending and applying stereotype threat research: A brief essay. In M. Inzlicht & T. Schmader (Eds.), Stereotype threat: Theory, process, and application (pp. 297-304). Oxford University Press.

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