Fighting Asian American Stereotypes

There’s a common myth that Asian Americans do not experience racism on as grand a level as do other people of color. While many Eastern Asians experience light skin privilege, and violations like police brutality do disproportionately affect African Americans, there is still an urgent need to fight for Asian American rights in this nation, too.

Let’s take the numerous stereotypes that persist about Asian Americans. The most common ones maintain that Asians are fond of rice, proficient in the maths and sciences (and have parents who force them to enter those fields professionally), and prone to being quiet and submissive. How can these stereotypes be offensive or damaging? Many seem to wonder. There’s nothing wrong with liking rice, acing math, or being shy. What difference does it make if not every Asian person adheres to these stereotypes? It can’t be that harmful, right?

Wrong. All stereotypes are inherently harmful because they erase the complexities and unique individuality of all members in a group, instead forcing them into a homogenous, artificial identity. These stereotypes scream, “Forget the fact that there are millions of Asian Americans, each with their own backgrounds and personalities. All of them are either Chinese, Japanese, or Korean — not that there’s any difference between the three. Forget the ones who don’t like rice, hate math, and are boisterous. Forget the Indonesians, the Vietnamese, the Laotians, the Malaysians, the Indians, the Filipinos, the people of multiple ethnicities. Forget those being raised by a single parent or in abusive homes. Forget the ones who want to act, write, sing, dance, play sports. Those Asians don’t, and can never, exist.” This erasure, this denial of access to unique, multifaceted identities, suffocates Asian Americans, and forces us to conform to such stereotypes.

These generalizations don’t just impact individual Asian Americans, but also have much broader implications. For example, the completely non-diverse Oscar nominations last February led many people of color in Hollywood to boycott the ceremony and fans to create the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, which turned the offensive incident into a platform to discuss racial inequity. Chris Rock’s opening monologue at the Oscar ceremony itself pushed the movement forward, as he daringly addressed Hollywood’s racism. It seemed, therefore,  that the night would focus on inclusion and progress, but for some reason, Asian Americans were pushed back in the process. Chris Rock tastelessly brought forth three Asian American children in business attire, reinforcing the good-at-math and blandly-hardworking stereotypes. But this “joke” only reinforced racist stereotypes. The children were given no speaking lines or opportunity to represent themselves well; they served no other purpose than to be pointed and laughed at. Later in the ceremony, Sacha Baron Cohen transparently referenced Asians as the “hardworking-yellow people with tiny dongs.”

Our community watched this play out in horror and disbelief. A night that was meant to shed light on the struggles people of color have faced turned into a blatant parade of ridiculing Asian Americans. Why were we not only being excluded from working toward racial inclusion, but actively pushed back in this pursuit? Why did society, so freshly concerned about diversity, strengthen the walls that boxed us into stereotypes? Why was the demand for an apology only met with an impersonal, insufficient statement from the Academy? We crave change, but our voices remain stifled. Because, apparently, stereotypes about rice and math can’t cause any damage.

This past January, I was standing in a group of three other Chinese-American friends in the hallway of my high school, somberly discussing the racist actions of some students at our school. They had attended a party where the central theme involved the appropriation of black culture, and, at a predominantly white school, we students of color were exhausted that the issue was being swept under the rug as usual. Their actions were highly publicized and tension ran through the entire community.

“Asian is the only race that’s still okay to make fun of,” one of my friends sighed. The truth of his statement struck me, as I recounted the endless micro-aggressions I face every day. Individually, they were small and most were not badly intended. But I realized that the accumulation of these aggressions contributed to the way I will always be broadly treated as lesser in some ways just because I’m Asian. Every time I get straight A’s, it’s because I am Asian and all Asians are smart, not because I worked hard and kept an open mind. I’ve smiled at strangers and been greeted with a disturbingly botched “ni hao,” just because I’m Asian, even though I was born in California and have lived here all my life. I’ve noticed people giving me and my family members intense grins when we cheer at a baseball game, or when my dad drinks a Budweiser, or when my mom bakes an apple pie, as if to say, “Oh good, you’re enjoying American culture. You’re assimilating just fine!” because Asians are supposed to stick to their own culture and traditions, not because we’re American citizens and identify with American culture as much as we identify with Chinese culture.

The discrimination extends beyond day-to-day interactions as well. It conflicts with our dreams, and the opportunities we have to reach those dreams. Since stereotypes enforce Asians’ prowess in the mathematics and scientific fields, they stifle the presence of Asians in other fields. According to a study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Asians receive only one percent of lead roles in films. Also, despite Victoria’s Secret’s attempt to diversify their Angels, there have been no Asian Angels. Currently, there is only one Asian Senator (Mazie Hirono), one Asian Congressperson (Judy Chu), and no Asian Supreme Court justices. The NFL has only seen thirty Asian players in its 96-year history. The lack of Asian representation in these fields does not mean that Asians simply lack talent in these areas, but rather reveals the lack of resources, opportunities, and representation available to Asians. As a seventeen-year-old aspiring to a career in sports-related media, I can already feel the predetermined limitations pushing against me simply because of the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes.

Perhaps the most harmful stereotype slapped on Asians is that of our quietness. ASIANS ARE NOT QUIET! We are loud, we are bold, we are funny, we are creative, we seek liberation. We want you to listen, we want you to stop telling us we’re overly sensitive about rice comments, we want you to drop the biases and accept our true beauty. We understand the struggle, and we join hands with all people fighting for justice. We just hope you will join us too.

More articles by Category: Feminism, Media, Race/Ethnicity
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Gender bias, Racism, Asian American/Pacific Islander, Discrimination



Leanne Yuen
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