They tell us we are smart. Hardworking. Studious. Naturally good at maths and sciences. They say we are the model minority who never caused trouble. Meeting demands never made of those who enjoy white privilege.
I find stereotypes for Asians to be one of the most interesting and unique phenomena. Compared to the popular stereotypes of other racial groups, they seem harmless, complimentary, or even endearing. As a result, even in progressive communities where most other stereotypes are tabooed, these “positive stereotypes” still seem to linger around.
And then there is the more sophisticated and subtle version— that we come from a stronger educational system, a culture of good work ethics, a family that places higher value on achievement and education…
Is there not a grain of truth in any of these stereotypes? Perhaps. But that is hardly the point. Not only do these one-size-fit-all cultural statements ignore the historical, economical and cultural diversity in Asia, but they are deeply harmful. All of them, no matter how subtly phrased or pleasantly sounding, point to the same argument: that Asians have it easier, either due to some genetic mutation or cultural background, and thus it is natural and justified for them to be held to a higher standard.
In October 2018, a famous lawsuit Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University rekindled the discussion of “positive stereotypes” in America. The lawsuit concerns the claim that Harvard University violated the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against Asian-American applicants. I don’t want to focus on the specifics of the lawsuit, or its implication on the future of Affirmative Action policies in the US, but rather the internal admission documents that the university was asked by the court to disclose.
The internal report from 2013 showed that, based on pure academic performance, Asian-Americans would account for 43 percent of the admitted class. But their actual admission rate that year was a mere 19 percent. It is no news that Affirmative Action in the United States is historically punitive to Asian Americans (much more so than the caucasian applicants), but the report disclosed in court demonstrated that the process might be punitive to Asian applicants in more than one way.
For example, according to an analysis of more than 160,000 student records, Asian-American applicants are consistently rated lower on “positive personality traits,” such as likability, courage, being interesting, and helpfulness, even when the admission officers hadn’t met them in person. We know this is a result of racial stereotyping because the alumni interviewers, who did get to meet the applicants, often rated them highly on personality.
There are certain personality traits that are often seen by our society as intrinsically connected, while others seen as mutually exclusive. “Studious”, “hardworking” and “mathematically inclined” naturally brings about the mental image of an awkward math genius with thick glasses and a non-existent social life. The “positive stereotypes”, in fact, are often what feed into and reinforce the negative ones.
And then there is the ugly truth of what lies behind these “positive stereotypes”. Asians do value education, but that has hardly anything to do with our “cultural predisposition”. Rather, it comes from the economical anxiety of being a first or second generation immigrant, or the struggle as we try to catch up with a societal expectation that seems ever-rising.
The even uglier truth is how the “model minority” myth became popular in the first place. The term was first coined in 1966, in a New York Times article titled “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” which contrasted the achievement of Japanese Americans to that of “problematic minorities”— African Americans and Mexican Americans.
Add in a little bit of history and one would find that 1966 was at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. This is the core of the positive stereotypes of Asian Americans— creating the story of a minority race who doesn’t complain and never protests, who seem to be able to “get there” all by themselves and are always, eternally grateful. “Elevating Asian Americans as ‘deserving’ and ‘hardworking’ was a tactic to denigrate African Americans and to minimize the impact of the Civil Rights Movement,” outlined by Fortune in The Asian Glass Ceiling, “‘Instead of complaining and protesting, why can’t they succeed in the same way?’”
Even that “Success story” they so eagerly sold us was far from the truth. Asian American professionals in the U.S. were less likely than any other racial groups to be promoted into management roles. “If you’re perfect, we might accept you. But if you’re not perfect, forget it.” Summarized an Asian American woman in a 2014 study of science professors conducted by The Atlantic.
And, no, success wouldn’t be anywhere closer even if we trained ourselves to be smarter, more hardworking, or better at maths and sciences. The myth of positive stereotypes is the myth that individuals can ignore the existence of institutionalized racism, that if we simply “get there”, the discrimination and exclusion we have faced for generations will disappear. We must stop fooling ourselves with the notion of “positive” stereotypes. We must, instead, realize that a so called “positive” stereotypes never has, never will, and never can exist.