Chin: The Myth of Good Stereotypes

by Clara Chin | 10/13/15 7:15pm

First impressions are rarely accurate, as I have learned over dinner with several of my floormates. A couple of nights ago, we laughed over how wrong our initial impressions of each other proved to be. During this discussion, one of my floormates told me he assumed I was “smarter than I let on” before he met me — in other words, he thought I was shy and smart. Another floormate, on the other hand, said he did not think I seemed like the “typical Asian.”

While my second friend’s comments are clearly about my race, I could not help but wonder if my first friend’s comments were related. After all, first impressions are often informed by racial stereotypes and our perception of ethnicity, and it is well known that Asian women are stereotyped to be meek and intelligent. When I asked him if he felt that way because I am Asian, he responded that I should not worry — after all, he argued, being smart is a good stereotype. I, however, find it hard to believe that any stereotype is a good one. Pigeonholing people and letting their physical appearance and cultural backgrounds dictate expectations is always problematic.

Many of the stereotypes associated with being Asian may seem innocuous. Some of the more common ones include assumptions that Asians are smart, hardworking and good at math. While most people can agree that these are not inherently bad qualities, inferring that all Asian people fulfill these character traits is not a compliment, nor is it a productive way of understanding people different than you. Rather, these assumptions can limit the ability of Asian people, and various others, to express themselves without hesitation.

Because of the expectation that Asians will embody these three characteristics, people might subconsciously forget about traits that many other Asian people might possess, such as creativity, boldness and adventurousness. One might argue that it does not matter what others think of this individual so long as she knows her own skills and talents. This may prove true for some, but we often see ourselves and shape ourselves based on what others think of us.

Speaking to the Washington Post about the stereotypes associated with Asian-American students, Jennifer Lee, a sociologist at the University of California at Irvine said, “What you have is a self-fulfilling prophecy where initially what is untrue becomes true.” Preconceived notions of Asian students’ performance may limit many to focus on trying to appear smart or hardworking, while those unable to reach the top of their class or get the highest math grades may feel invalidated or like a disappointment. The social pressure to conform might cause us to forget that we can also be artistic, poetic and musical. These so-called positive Asian stereotypes are also harmful to other groups, as some may assume an Asian classmate will unquestionably out-perform them.

These positive stereotypes, however, carry with them implicit negative undertones. For example, being a smart Asian is code for being an uptight Asian. These supposedly “good” generalizations provide ways to simplify the complex makeup of the American population in attempts to make diversity and personality types easier to understand. Sometimes, it is easier to make assumptions about people than to truly get to know them. Looking at these stereotypes as positive also encourages us to neglect their negative effects. For example, if we assume that Asians are “smarter,” we may also assume that it is easier for them to get into college. We can conveniently forget that research indicates that Asian applicants to Harvard University must score an average of 140 points higher than white applicants. Good stereotypes have harmful consequences.

I do not blame my new friends for assuming that I am a certain way just because I am an Asian girl. If anything, it demonstrates that even those closest to us were once — or still are — capable of making misguided assumptions. Yet these assumptions need to be addressed. Many people are guilty of turning down friendships because they wrongly judged individuals upon first meeting them. Perhaps you thought someone was too loud, too quiet, too uptight or too apathetic to be your friend. When these judgments are based on race — and when we do not recognize them as problematic stereotypes — they are especially hurtful. There really is no such thing as a good stereotype.