Positive stereotypes are hurtful, too

Social Double-take


For the love of everything that’s good and pure, can someone please explain to me what the phrase “You’re so Asian” means? And while you’re at it, let me know what criteria, scale and measurements one might use for determining my degree of “Asian-ness.” Maybe there’s a panel of judges involved? I’ve heard the stereotypes one too many times to accept them as an integral part of my character and identity anymore.

The stereotype is an interesting concept, isn’t it? Particularly in its versatility. It can be comic and satirical and, at the same time, offensive and humiliating. My ethnicity mostly experiences positive stereotypes, such as the model-minority stereotype. But just like their negative counterparts, positive stereotypes strip people of their individuality and alienate them for not meeting the standards that are imposed upon them.

Negative stereotypes are widely acknowledged as harmful, so they’re often effectively rejected. But positive stereotypes, which are widely embraced and even considered flattering, can be equally detrimental. One particularly harmful positive stereotype of Asians is that they are all smart. A 2010 study about the model-minority stereotype showed that Asian Americans are most likely to be perceived as nerds. OK, so a lot of people think we’re smart, and yes, it’s good to be smart. Synonyms include intelligent, brilliant, bright … These terms couldn’t offend anyone in their right mind. But there’s a reason that out of all of the Asian stereotypes out there that could cause my identity to feel threatened, it’s this one.

First off, it’s important to recognize that this idea that every Asian person is smart is like any other stereotype — obviously false and easily ignorable. It’s true that 42 percent of all Asian American adults have at least a college degree, which is the highest out of all major ethnic groups, but because of factors like stereotypes, sometimes it slips our minds that not every Asian person is the same. And due to the way that many people — of any racial background, including Asian – usually regard this “Asians-are-smart” stereotype as more acceptable than others, its implications change. According to this stereotype, intelligence is the result of having Asian genes. The stereotype that “Asians are smart” then becomes “Asians are smart only because they are Asian.” Therefore, no matter how much effort, studying or practice an Asian person puts in, when he or she achieves academic excellence, it’s likely that the common reaction will be along the lines of “Asians are so smart” or, you guessed it, “You’re so Asian.” It’s difficult not to see that this person’s achievement and intelligence are being attributed to one thing and one thing only — race.

Well, at least we’re not being called stupid, right? I mean, we’re being called smart for crying out loud. How could I complain about that? Despite how trite this may sound, it truly is a blessing and a curse. Many of us who are of Asian descent are, without even having to prove ourselves first, already presumed to be smart … which can be as nice as it sounds. But if my race is taking all of the credit for my efforts and accomplishments, what am I as an individual? Will my capabilities and successes always be defined entirely by my race? What if I feel that I don’t meet these expectations, standards and pressures that my race imposes on me … Am I not truly Asian?

I’ve never had that perfect 4.0, and I’m not the type to strive for absolute perfection in every academic endeavor. So yes, I’m personally victim to the pressures of this stereotype — to make sure I’m staying on top of my studies because if I ever show signs of struggle, I’m not being “Asian enough.” I’ve witnessed during all of my years in the public school system how parents, classmates and even teachers expect the Asian student to excel and even unknowingly guide them on paths of math and science without considering the individual student’s interests and abilities. These pressures can cause some to crack. The model-minority stereotype creates unnecessary stress, prevents students from acknowledging problems with stress and seeking help and generates feelings of shame and reluctance in seeking academic assistance.

Out of all of the stereotypes about my race, I find this one to be the most limiting and oppressive. I feel as though I, along with others, am boxed in by this stereotype because even though it’s easy to just ignore assumptions that I’m as smart as I’m “supposed” to be, it’s hard to ignore that I’m regarded as smart only because I am Asian. And it’s even harder to ignore that I’m not “Asian enough” if I struggle academically. Stereotypes are inevitable, but something like intelligence can be so important to a person’s life that attributing it merely to race and disguising it as a compliment is more than a stereotype — it’s an outright insult.

Hailey Yook writes the Monday column on contemporary social issues. Contact her at [email protected].

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  • Egg Salad Johnny

    Positive stereotypes are by definition not harmful or hurtful. Nor is this particular stereotype offensive to Asians (formerly known as “Orientals”). I lived among them for several years and they are, in general, not reflexively anti-intellectual, as are many Americans. This article is a silly exercise in mandatory, Democratic Party “political correctness.”

  • Icy Blast

    The U.S.A. is a very dangerous place. At any moment, a white person may accost you and say, “You’re smart” or “You’re pretty.” It’s enough to crush your soul. I don’t know how women of color can bear up under the sheer psychic pressure.

  • Weiz

    I agree that positive stereotypes can be harmful too. It biases the perception and shapes attitude. Stereotyping reduces the efforts of knowing each individual. Most significantly, it is that the normal individuals may potentially be regarded as ‘abnormal’. For example, Asians study hard so that they are regarded as smart. For those who do not enjoy study that much but have an average performance, people subtype them and likely make negative dispositions towards them. They are most likely to be regarded as ‘abnormal’ through the lens of the stereotype. The comparison with positive stereotype might produce inaccurate negative attitude towards those individuals.

  • Wahid Ishrar

    Very well written with a lot of truth behind an issue that is seldom addressed. Well done!

  • AnOski

    You have three options. 1) People assume you are stupid. 2) People assume you are smart. 3) People do not have a preconceived idea of your aptitude.

    Option #2 will get you preferential jobs and additional consideration when applying for positions of responsibility.


    Whether or not you fear the responsibilities you may rack up is another matter, but don’t say it’s a disadvantage. That’s just wrong.