Communication Currents

Perceptions of Asian American Students: Stereotypes and Effects

April 1, 2010
Intercultural Communication

Stereotypes are preconceived overgeneralizations about a group, without regard to individual uniqueness. Racial-ethnic stereotypes, include characterizations of communication and social skills, are often constructed and perpetuated by the media. For example, Asian Americans are traditionally underrepresented in the media and misrepresented with stereotypes, such as the model minority stereotype, the poor communicator or nerd stereotype, and the foreigner stereotype. Cultivation theory suggests that media-activated racial-ethnic stereotypes affect people's perceptions about the stereotyped groups. It is important to investigate if college students' perceptions of Asian Americans are consistent with the media stereotypes because these stereotypes could affect their interactions with Asian American peers.

After reading scenarios that manipulate communication and social skills, college students rated the likelihood of the person being Asian, Black, Hispanic, or White. As expected, college students' perceptions of Asian Americans are much aligned with media representations. Asian American students are most likely perceived as academic overachievers and nerds lacking appropriate social and communication skills. Moreover, college students' stereotypes seem to affect their interactions with peers. They are least likely to initiate friendship with Asian students during initial encounters. Asian Americans are most likely to be left out in socialization activities.

Among the stereotypes about Asian Americans, the model minority stereotype might be the most pervasive and dominant one today. The stereotype was constructed and popularized by mainstream media in the 1960s. Asian Americans are proclaimed as a model minority for academic excellence, affluence, strong work ethic, freedom from problems and crime, and family cohesion. They are typically represented as overachievers who are intelligent, industrious, technologically savvy, self-disciplined, self-sufficient, and law-abiding. For example, this stereotype can be seen in the characters portrayed by George Huang in Law & Order: SVU, Cristina Yang in Grey's Anatomy, and Archie Kao in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

Scholars have long been critical of the media's motive in producing the seemingly benign model minority stereotype. For example, Stacey J. Lee argued that the ostensibly sterling stereotype was constructed to silence the charges of racial inequality and to delegitimize the protests of racial discrimination. Additionally, Bob H. Suzuki questioned the validity of the stereotype, contending that it is only media hype, more myth than reality. Suzuki further argued that, deceptively flattering and favorable on the surface, the model minority stereotype is inaccurate, overgeneralized, and a liability for Asian Americans. The commendation of Asian Americans as a model minority implicitly denigrates other racial groups. Thus, Asian Americans might be more susceptible to racial harassment, discrimination, and hate crime than other ethnic groups.

The model minority stereotype could also have psychological, emotional, and social costs for Asian American students, such as studying harder and longer, foregoing social life, enduring loneliness and alienation, and experiencing extreme depression and stress. Unfortunately, these problems go largely unrecognized, and Asian American students receive little institutional support to cope with the problems. Educators and parents should recognize the liabilities and vulnerabilities of the seemingly positive model minority stereotype for Asian children, particularly their psychological, social, and relational costs.

In mainstream media, Asian Americans are also portrayed as poor communicators who are quiet, shy, humble, passive, non-confrontational, and speak poor English with an accent (e.g.Hiro Nakamura in Heroes). They are also stereotyped as all work, no play nerds, who are technologically savvy, mathematically talented, but not interested in fun and social activities, and lacking proper communication, social skills, and cultural knowledge. In addition, Asian Americans are seldom depicted as full-fledged Americans in the media; rather they are often portrayed as foreigners, sometimes even as deceitful foreigners who are untrustworthy and treacherous (e.g., Isabella in Miami Vice). Asian Americans are often stereotyped as exotic, non-American, and foreign, and are routinely treated as if they do not belong in the U.S. to the same degree as other racial-ethnic groups (e.g., Jin Kwon in Lost).

The poor communicator or nerd stereotype and the foreigner stereotype could also have a very damaging effect on Asian American students' socialization processes because peer exclusion often happens to those who are perceived as outsiders or nerds with inadequate language, communication, and social skills. People are more likely to initiate friendship with those who are perceived as similar, good at self-disclosure, and having good social and communication skills. Peer rejection should become a serious concern for educators and parents because of its potential devastating effects on children's emotional, social, and cognitive development. Frequently rejected children often suffer from excruciating pain, depression, loneliness, and stress, are socially withdrawn, paralyzed, and crushed, and might produce other/self-directed violence and punishment.

The poor communicator or nerd stereotype could also limit Asian Americans' career opportunities. In mainstream media, Asian Americans are often overrepresented in number-crunching professions that require minimal language proficiency (e.g., engineering and sciences), but underrepresented in social science and humanities fields that entail superb language and interpersonal communication skills. Thus, Asian Americans have to break the bamboo ceiling that prevents them from attaining management positions, getting promotions, and obtaining jobs in professions that highlight language, social, and communication skills.

About the author (s)

Qin Zhang

Fairfield University