There is an ostensibly positive stereotype of Asian Americans so ubiquitous that I do not question whether American (and many other) readers have heard or seen some version of it:
Asians are intelligent, studious and hardworking, family-oriented, polite and law-abiding and, through the diligent practice of these virtues in the face of challenges and obstacles, successful. They’ve pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps and attained the American Dream.
Major media outlets, sociologists, and politicians have lauded Asian Americans as a “model minority” or “superminority,” a “trophy population” that has moved “from pariahs to paragons” to become “exemplars of hope.” Television shows and movies feature Asian nerds; even portrayals of Asian criminals tend to be unusually intelligent and disciplined.
Who wouldn’t want to be considered intelligent, hardworking, and successful? Isn’t this stereotype complimentary? So what’s the problem? In reality, this “model minority” myth misrepresents the truth, and it’s harmful to both Asians and non-Asians.
For the sake of brevity, I will focus on one of the many ways this racial stereotype misrepresents the truth: income. Those who tout Asian Americans’ “success” often cite, for example, comparable average household incomes of Asian and non-Hispanic white Americans. Frank Wu has pointed out that upon further examination, however, the appearance of parity falls apart. Asian Americans live, on average, in larger households than white Americans, so household income is often shared among more people in an Asian household than a white one. There’s a difference between $45K shared among 3 people and the same amount shared among 4 or 5 people. An Asian American household is also more likely than a white one to include more people capable of and actually contributing to household income—a higher percentage of Asian American women work, a higher percentage of Asian households include non-nuclear family members over the age of 15. The life of a family that earns $45K by pooling the incomes of 3 people is not really comparable to a family that receives the same amount through a single breadwinner. Asian Americans are also more likely than whites to be self-employed, which usually means working longer hours with fewer benefits and greater risk of setbacks like bankruptcy. $45K eked from the family shop is not like $45K with benefits from the corporate job. Asian Americans are also more urbanized than any other racial group, geographically concentrated in states with higher-than-average costs of living. The Smiths’ $45K goes much further in Smallville than the Kims’ $45K does in Metropolis. Wu further points out that “the figures for Asian Americans are rendered unreliable by the careless inclusion of [upper-management] Asians who reside in the United States [for a few years] but who are not Asian American at all.” The income of a Japanese executive living in the United States is counted in the Asian American average even though the transnational executive is not representative of Asian Americans.
Despite the stereotype, Asian Americans have not attained economic parity with white Americans. Asian Americans are still more likely to live in poverty than whites. Some ethnic groups, like Cambodians and Hmong, have poverty rates 3 or 4 times higher. Racial inequalities persist.
And this apparently “positive” stereotype has negative uses and consequences. For a white person who wants to defend the status quo, this popular and widely-believed stereotype is a handy weapon. In conversations about racism, he throws out “Asians have overcome racism through hard work” and the stereotype allows him to achieve, among any who buy into it, three goals at once: he denies that Asians are still harmed by racism, he suggests that any person of color who has not attained similar success just isn’t working hard enough, and he absolves white people like himself of responsibility to work for racial justice. In a stroke, he’s shifted all the work necessary to overcome racism to those who suffer white racism.
A committed white supremacist might deliberately play on this stereotype not to praise Asians but to use them as a tool to denigrate other people of color, promoting his racist agenda and attempting to sow disunity among the marginalized. This has been done in the past, as Wu documents.
But a white person who believes this stereotype need not be mean-spirited to harm people. I recently read a study showing that non-Hispanic white people who believe Asians are smarter than other minorities (70%) and harder working than other minorities (more than 40%) are also more likely to believe that Asian Americans experience no racial discrimination in the job market. Believing that Asians don’t face such discrimination, whites are unlikely to make any effort to remedy it. This is a problem, of course, because Asian Americans do experience job discrimination. They are underrepresented in management, for example, and when they do receive management positions they are paid less than whites in comparable positions. This is not due to their own preference. Research has shown that Asian Americans do not differ from whites in desiring career advancement and management positions. And as I was writing this, Tim Wise called attention to the fact that when Asian Americans lose their jobs, they have a harder time finding work than whites, so their unemployment lasts longer. Yes, Asian Americans experience racial discrimination, and “positive” stereotypes are part of the problem.
We need become more conscious of the racial stereotypes and prejudices we harbor and take the time to examine them more carefully. It’s not just the obviously negative ones that help perpetuate racism and injustice.