Scrutinizing the Reasons Why Asians are Scrutinized
By Shriya Singh
Asia is a large subcontinent, the largest and the most populous in the world, to be exact. Over the years in human evolution and civilization, the continent has divided itself into south, east, southeast, west and central regions. People belonging to this continent are referred to as “Asian,” or if you want to sound more well-read, “Asiatic.” Obviously, there are several different countries within a specific region, as is the case with every continent in the world.
Somewhere within the advancement of human civilization, people began travelling and voyaging around the world. Later on, the term “immigrant” was coined by Noah Webster in his “American Dictionary of the English Language” in 1829. This is the term which drastically changed the way people in America viewed travelers from other countries who chose to stay, especially those with Asian ethnicities. In the decades that followed, Asians from primarily China, Japan, Korea, India, Russia, and the Philippines, migrated to the young United States to fill the high demand for cheap labor in mines, factories, and on the Transcontinental Railroad. This mass movement reached its peak in 1960s and 1970s, and later on came to be termed as “Asian American Movement”.
Did this sound too much like a boring history lecture?
Well, my argument is very closely intertwined with these history bits because within them, you’ll find out the how and the why prejudiced and stereotypical notions that exist among a majority of people with European descent came to be about Asians. From what our history pages tell us, the reasons behind immigration of Asians to European regions like California, Hawaii, Canada and the West Coast were all circumstantial in the beginning. Asian immigrants mingled within the United States and the second generation was thus Asian-American from birth. The question that arises here is where did this scrutiny come from then?
Asian discrimination has existed for a long, really long time and what prompted that discriminatory behavior builds quite a long list. The onset of immigrants led to dissent among the natives for a variety of reasons like the spread of unverified mass rumors about people from Asian countries being uncouth, who carried diseases with them and were “Job Stealers”. Also, as people of color they were generally viewed as an anomaly by people who were not. In the age of colonization, colonized countries were deemed to belong to people of inferior descent. In the late 19th century, white nativists spread isolationist propaganda about Chinese uncleanliness in San Francisco. This fueled the passage of the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law in the United States that barred immigration solely based on race. In the early 20th century, American officials in the Philippines, then a former colony of the U.S., denigrated Filipinos for their supposedly unclean and uncivilized bodies. Colonial officers and doctors identified two enemies: Filipino insurgents against American rule, and “tropical diseases’’ festering in native bodies. Asian immigrants and later on Asian-Americans have hence, experienced a long legacy of exclusion and inequity in relation to school policies and practices, particularly during periods of changing demographics, economic recession, or war as observed in momentous events. In spite of historic, linguistic differences, palpably different Asian nationalities have been grouped together and treated similarly in schools and in the larger society. The grouping of Asian-Americans together, then, makes sense in light of historic links from the past to the present.
People hold stereotypes about Asians as they do with any racial group. In two separate studies (by Colin Ho and Jay W Jackson in 2001 and by Monica H Lin and colleagues in 2005), participants generated lists of all the stereotypes they had heard about Asians. Similar items were put together, and two main stereotypes emerged: Asians are particularly high on competence (they were seen as successful and intelligent) and low on social skill (they were considered nerdy and antisocial).
The study conducted in 2002 found that people who saw Asians as particularly high in competence experienced greater admiration of and envy toward Asians. Those who saw Asians as particularly low on social skill displayed greater fear and hostility toward Asians. The other study in 2005 demonstrated the effects of these reactions, showing that individuals who held stereotypical views of Asians were less likely to want to interact with or learn more about Asians. For example, both high-competence and low-sociability ratings of Asians were negatively correlated with individuals wanting to be roommates with an Asian person. The authors of both papers theorized that whites are threatened by the “unfairly high” levels of competence possessed by Asians and essentially use the stereotype that Asians lack social skill as a pretext for discrimination.
The Asian American Achievement Paradox.
Have you heard of it? It’s a term coined to refer to the notion that Asian Americans are more successful financially with a more robust educational background than their counterpart demographics which is often credited to their cultural values. Often we have heard people consider, i.e., stereotype Asians as the “Model Minority”. The authors of the book called The Asian American Achievement Paradox, Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou explained in an interview, “There is a popular misconception that Asian Americans attain high levels of education and achieve success because they hold the right cultural traits and values, but this argument is as misguided as attributing poverty among the poor to their wrong traits and values. This line of reasoning also fails to acknowledge important structural and institutional factors and, in the case of Asian Americans, fails to acknowledge the pivotal role of U.S. immigration law. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 gave preferences to highly-educated, highly-skilled applicants from Asia, which, in turn, ushered in a new stream of Asian immigrants of diverse skills and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
In Lee and Zhou’s research, they learned about the hidden ways in which Asian Americans benefit from racial stereotypes in schools. Asian American students are positively stereotyped by teachers, guidance counselors, school administrators, and their peers as smart, high-achieving, and hard-working. As a result, they are more likely to be placed in competitive academic tracks, and are also more likely to be offered help with their college applications. These opportunities were not accorded to the Mexican, white, or black students in their study.
Quite ironic is the fact that although people with Asian ethnic background are positively stereotyped as intelligent and smart, they are doubly stereotyped as people who don’t possess traits people tend to find in leaders. While business leaders are often expected to be competent, intelligent, and dedicated, they are also expected to be charismatic and socially skilled — along with masculine and dictatorial or authoritarian. This puts at a disadvantage Asian Americans, who, like women, are often seen to fit low to mid level management positions but not top-level leadership(it’s even harder for Asian women — they comprise only 3.1% of executives in the five tech companies mentioned above, while Asian men comprise 13.5%.)
Furthermore, when Asians do act assertively, they are more likely to be penalized for violating the stereotype, which would seem outrageous to many. This is similar to the double bind that women experience when ascending to leadership positions: competent and assertive women, who fail to meet the gender role expectation of being kind and empathetic, tend to be evaluated negatively.
Why the Scrutiny? Is there an End to it?
With the pandemic-specific racism and hate crimes on the rise, many Asians in America spoke out about the depravity they have tolerated over the years. As I said before, people hold stereotypes about Asians as they do about any racial group. Can we stop every person in the world from stereotyping people belonging to the Asian continent? No, we can’t. But what we can do is rise above those stereotypes and define our individual characteristics. Speaking up about it helps too, in this age of information it has become possible to do what was once impossible, i.e., busting misconceptions on a worldwide scale.
Scrutinizing others is easy, everybody does that at some point in their lives. This entire article explained how and what led to Asians being scrutinized by Europeans over the years. However, Asians have scrutinized Europeans as well. There are several preconceived notions which exist about people with European descent too. It’s just that they haven’t been as spectacularly put under scrutiny as those of Asian descent have been. India, a southeast Asian country has somehow been shrouded in several dozen misconceptions and a thick layer of mysticism imposed on it by a combination of European pop culture and media since the 80’s. Many Indians confess to having faced deplorable reception when they travelled to different countries just because of the fact that they were Indians. We have all now heard about the “Apu from The Simpsons” controversy, while quite a few foreigners receive the worst cultural shock in their lives when they travel to India. There are several reasons behind that as well, most of them have to do with the stark difference in lifestyles and core values observed in people from India and European countries. We have to keep in mind that there are many people who are so caught up in their lives and insecure about losing their way of life that they react with hostility to anything foreign in their own country. They are xenophobic, and xenophobia is not limited to people from any particular region of the world.
This goes to tell us that human beings, despite looking different, possess similar characteristics all over the world. In a way, that can be a good thing. Racists from all over the world can bond over the fact that they can learn curse words in multiple languages to shout at each other and keep the negativity among themselves.
Further Interesting Reads/References:
- Long History of Racism Against Asian-Americans
- Asian Americans Then and Now
- The Asian American Achievement Paradox
- Asian Immigration to the United States
- The Problem with Apu
Sources(Photos, in the order they appear):
- UN Women/ Lin Jo Yin
- Artem Beliaikin from Pexels
- Asian Family in Brazil, Wikipedia
- Asia Centre, College of Humanities at University of Utah
- Diversity and Inclusion Focus Area — The Conference Board