McKayla Pilla

Asian Americans are being confined by the positive stereotypes placed upon them.

Malavika Kannan, Reporter

From the karate master to the evil scientist or nerd, Asians have always held a cherished place in American culture. After all, it’s supposedly not a bad thing to stereotype Asian Americans as genius and perseverant — it’s better than being stereotyped as poor and uneducated. Society thinks it knows Asian Americans: smart, hard-working aficionados of math, science and rice alike– good enough to make our phones and fix our computers, but not good enough to be considered people. Right?

As it turns out, positive stereotypes are everywhere. They’re flattering assumptions that people make about others based on their looks, race or gender —but, and get this– they are not at all positive. Innumerable studies have shown that positive stereotypes make their victims feel “depersonalized,” stripping away their identities, personalities, and ultimately their humanities. Whether or not the assumptions are kind, the fact that they are being judged by their appearance alone rankles many Asian Americans.

In other words, stating that an Asian person is good at math implies that they are only good at math because they are Asian, and by no merit of their own. Ultimately, no matter how hard an Asian student works, their academic success will likely be attributed to their Asian genes. And that’s simply unacceptable.

Indeed, despite what many Americans think, not all Asian Americans are educated and successful; while these stereotypes generally hold true for Indians, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, many other Asian Americans are statistically more likely to live in poverty. Their children are likely to be measured against a scale that does not fit them. Thus, purportedly positive rhetoric towards Asians erases historical institutional racism against Asian Americans, and it ignores crucial differences in the backstories and reality faced by different Asian groups.

Furthremore, by diminishing the staggering and vibrant diversity of Asian people into mere caricatures, society does a great disservice to itself by inhibiting the possible contributions of these individuals. 

“We [Asians] succumb to peer pressure because people expect us to be a certain way, go into certain fields. Because our parents come from another country, these ideas become their roots and they want to stick to their roots. They have embraced the stereotype [as well],” says Indian-American freshman Sanjana Prasad.

These stereotypes are not a modern problem; they have had huge implications across American history. The first immigration restriction in American history was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, created to prevent Chinese migrants from supposedly stealing American jobs. A century later, the 1965 Immigration Act encouraged the immigration of Asians of a certain background, presumably due to their hard-working, law-abiding nature. Instances like these have promoted the “model-minority” myth, presenting Asians as the ideal foreigners who work hard and keep their heads down, serving as useful machines for the country.

Indeed, while Asians dominate the science and tech industries, few ever find themselves in leadership positions. 

“By suppressing [Asians] to a certain group of jobs, Asian Americans are terrified to break out of conformity and reach leadership positions,” says Chinese-American freshman Caitlin Chen.

Ultimately, positive stereotypes serve to alienate Asian Americans from other minorities, pitting ethnicities against one another. By praising Asian Americans but belittling other persons of color, society insinuates the question: if Asians can reach success and stay out of jail, why can’t others do the same? Essentially, these stereotypes function like a teacher who is equally terrible to all students but keeps a teacher’s pet, dividing the class with jealousy and hatred.

This rift was unfortunately evident during the 2016 Oscars. Although the show was hosted by Chris Rock, a black man, and was meant to showcase diversity after the controversial year of #OscarsSoWhite, Asians were inorexably the butt of the joke. Throughout the night, Rock publicly humiliated Asians, making jokes about iPhone sweatshops and comparing Chinese Americans to yellow minions –– and here’s the thing: it was perfectly acceptable. His jokes made it through rounds of editing, presumably because the stereotypes were relatively positive. By pitting minorities against each other, society forces one race to climb to success on the backs of the other.

The racism at the Oscars received backlash from the Asian American community, most notably through the hashtags #OnlyOnePercent, which highlighted the incredibly small percentage of cinematic roles which go to Asians #NotYourAsianSidekick was also popular, but the public response was feeble compared to the wildly popular #OscarsSoWhite and hashtags.

The root of this issue is simple: today’s Asian Americans have not been empowered to stand up for themselves. They are the fastest-growing victims of hate crime, but when they are presented with a different form of racism-– masked with edged compliments and positive stereotypes–- it is very hard to fight back. Asian Americans seem to have embraced the stereotypical role given to them, and while it is true that many do indeed value hard work and follow the laws, this is still unacceptable. As long as Asian Americans are marginalized into a one-size-fits-all category, change will be impossible.

“Because stereotypes are disguised as compliments, they don’t make as much of a news story as negative stereotypes. [So] even if you have such an ideology, saying it aloud strongly enforces it. Don’t let [positive stereotyping] become widely acceptable,” says Chen.

The people who perpetuate these stereotypes may go on to be elected mayor, congressperson or president. They decide who gets to win in society, and with their beliefs rooted in prejudice and stereotypes, they affect not just the entertainment industry, but the integrity of our country’s cultural democracy. Positive stereotyping ultimately enables society to justify the dehumanization, institutional exclusion, and lack of social mobility for Asian-Americans.

The solution is not quite as easy, but it starts with a relatively simple change: accepting our roles, whether outright or not, in a racist society, even having difficult conversations with our friends and family. Unless they learn to grow out of this mentality as a society, Asians will continue to be reduced to, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, “yellowrobots fueled by rice,” law-abiding machines, the side-kick with a bad accent, and the butt of jokes that aren’t worthy of a decent Twitter hashtag because they’re not really that racist.

And that simply isn’t an option.