By Jennifer Lee
Conventional wisdom is that all stereotypes are negative and damaging.
African Americans are stereotyped as violent and threatening. Employers stereotype mothers as less competent and less committed. And undocumented immigrants are stereotyped as incompetent and untrustworthy.
Each of these stereotypes has negative consequences for members of these groups. But is there such a thing as a positive stereotype, and, if so, can positive stereotypes have positive consequences?
In our new book, The Asian American Achievement Paradox – based on a survey of 4,780 adult children as well as 140 in-depth interviews of Chinese, Vietnamese and Mexican immigrants – fellow sociologist Min Zhou and I found ways in which positive stereotypes can be advantageous.
We found that racial stereotypes and implicit biases could actually be helping Asian Americans achieve their much-touted academic success.
The Asian ‘advantage’
Studies have shown how teachers’ expectations impact achievement. Traditionally disadvantaged students have been known to perform poorly as a result of low expectations from teachers. But when teachers perceive their students as smart, their academic performance can improve.
In the case of Asian Americans, it contributes to their success.
In spite of the tremendous diversity of the US Asian population, Asian immigrants are perceived as smart, high-achieving and successful. This is largely due to the influence of some highly educated immigrant Asian groups.
Take, for instance, the Chinese immigrants in the US. Our study found that over 60% of Chinese immigrant fathers and over 40% of Chinese immigrant mothers had a bachelor’s degree or higher. We found this population to be even more highly educated than the general US population – only 28% of whom have graduated from college.
The Chinese and Vietnamese respondents in our study revealed that their teachers and guidance counselors perceived them as smart and promising. They expected them to excel and attend four-year universities.
Mexican students, by contrast, were perceived as low achievers who did not value education and were tracked for two-year community colleges. The children of Mexican immigrants had the lowest levels of educational attainment of any of the groups in our study. Only 86% graduated from high school, and even fewer – 17% – graduated from college.
How expectations work
Perception – regardless of validity – has consequences. Or as the American sociologist W I Thomas aptly noted, “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”
We found that expectation can enhance the academic performance of even some of the most mediocre Asian-American students.
Take the case of Trang, a 24-year-old, second-generation Vietnamese woman, who was placed into honors classes in high school, even though she admits she was not an outstanding junior high student.
Even more surprising is that Trang has no idea why or how she was placed in honors classes.
But once Trang was placed into the honors track, she began taking her schoolwork more seriously, spending more time doing her homework and studying hard for tests to keep up with her high-achieving peers.
Trang graduated with a GPA (grade point average) above 4.0 and was admitted to all the University of California schools to which she applied.
Ophelia, a 23-year-old, second-generation Vietnamese woman, also benefited from being positively stereotyped.
She described herself as “not very intelligent” and recalls nearly having to repeat second grade because of her poor academic performance. By her account:
I wasn’t an exceptional student; I was a straight C student.
Ophelia took the AP (advanced placement) exam at the end of junior high school, but failed. Despite that, she was placed into the AP track in her predominantly white high school.
Once there, something “just clicked,” and Ophelia began to excel in her classes.
When we asked, she elaborated, “I wanted to work hard and prove I was a good student,” adding, “I think the competition kind of increases your want to do better.”
She graduated from high school with a 4.2 GPA and was admitted into a highly competitive pharmacy program.
In contrast, Mexican students were academically profiled as low achievers who did not value a college education and found themselves having to actively vie for the attention of their teachers and guidance counselors.
In both Trang’s and Ophelia’s cases, self-fulfilling prophecies were at work in the precise definition of the term. As sociologist Robert K Merton has defined, a self-fulfilling prophecy begins with a false definition of the situation, evoking a new behavior that makes the original false conception come true.
And this is what happened in the case of Trang and Ophelia when they were favored by their teachers’ high expectations. It resulted in a change in both students’ behavior, and ultimately, a boost in their academic performance.
This also went into reinforcing prevailing stereotypes. Because Trang’s and Ophelia’s academic outcomes matched their teachers’ expectations, the teachers pointed to these students’ stellar academic achievement as proof of their initial assessment about Asian-American students (that they are smart, high-achieving, and deserving of being placed into the most competitive academic tracks so that they can reach their potential).
A double-edged sword
However, it is important to note that these same positive stereotypes and biases also have negative consequences.
First, those who do not attain high academic outcomes feel like failures and ethnic outliers. As we found in our study, some rejected their ethnic identities, claiming that they were not really Chinese or Vietnamese because they linked their ethnic identity to exceptional academic achievement.
Adam, a 21-year-old second-generation Vietnamese, identifies as “American Asian” rather than as Vietnamese or Vietnamese American because he dropped out of college. Adam also compares himself to his brother, who he described as “much more Vietnamese than me” because he attends a prestigious university and is on the path to medical school. Similarly, Paul, a 36-year-old second-generation Chinese American, described himself as “the whitest Chinese guy you’ll ever meet” because he attended art school rather than an elite university.
Second, the biases can also disadvantage Asian groups such as Cambodians, Laotian and Hmong, who have higher high school dropout rates than African Americans and Latinos – underscoring the extreme diversity among Asian Americans.
Additionally, the very same stereotypes that can boost Asian-American students’ academic performance can operate against them as they vie for leadership positions in the workplace.
Asian American students may be perceived as lacking leadership skills, creativity and managerial bravado. A recent study of Silicon Valley’s tech industry showed that while Asian Americans make up 27.2% of the professionals in tech, they comprise only 13.9% of executives.
Much like the glass ceiling that women face, a “bamboo ceiling” keeps Asian Americans from rising to the top leadership positions.
These are the burdens that come with stereotypes. Positive stereotypes can also be double-edged swords.