Two instances of stereotypes of Asian Americans have recently surfaced in the media. One involved media coverage of the book, Battle hymn of the tiger mother by Yale Law School Professor Amy Chua. The media coverage of Chua’s book focused on Chinese American parents who are strict, critical, and emphasize their children’s academic success. A Wall Street Journal essay by Chua on the book is entitled, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”.
The second stereotype involved the exclusion of Asian Americans by the National Research Council (NRC) in their rankings of the diversity of doctoral programs. Non-Asian ethnic minority students, women, and international faculty and students were included in the rankings. The implication is that the achievements and characteristics of Asian Americans are on par with those of European Americans and for this reason, Asian Americans do not bring diversity to doctoral programs.
These instances that highlight academic success are stereotypic because not all Asian Americans fit these stereotypes. However, it could be argued in both cases that the stereotypes are positive and not harmful. Academic success, whether it be among children or among students and faculty in doctoral programs, is laudable. Nevertheless, harsh parenting is not uniformly effective, and may create undue pressure and have harmful psychological consequences. A harmful effect of the apparent success of Asian Americans in higher education is invisibility in the NRC data. However, many Asian Americans have unique cultures and experiences that enhance the diversity of institutions as much as the cultures and experiences of any other minority group.
Seemingly positive stereotypes of Asian Americans as academically successful also have not resulted in acceptance into mainstream American society. Research by psychologists Thierry Devos and Mahzarin Banaji suggests that Asian Americans are viewed as less American than members of other ethnic groups in the U.S. Academic success does not immunize Asian Americans from the discrimination that targets all ethnic minority groups in the U.S. Discrimination toward Asian Americans ranges from microaggressions such as the question “where are you from?” to institutional discrimination, such as systematic exclusion from leadership positions based on perceptions of culturally-based personality characteristics of inscrutability and passivity. Moreover, Asian American academic success may be perceived as threatening and some would contend that Asian Americans should not receive special attention because this would constitute an unfair advantage.
Stereotypes of any group are inherently inaccurate because they try to shoehorn all members of the group being stereotyped into a single conception while ignoring the wide diversity within the group. Moreover, some stereotypes are simply wrong and are perpetuated by the majority group in order to bias perception of the targeted group. Asians in the U.S. are from at least 30 different national and cultural backgrounds and there also is much individual diversity within any Asian American group. There certainly are unique, positive characteristics of Asian American cultures that may enhance well-being, including academic achievement. However, an exclusive focus on the academic achievements of Asian Americans has rendered them invisible at times, threatening at other times, and overlooks their needs as a minority group. Indeed, there are many Asian Americans that fit the exact opposite of the academic success stereotype, with many struggling academically and living in poverty. The Asian American Psychological Association encourages a balanced consideration of both the strengths and needs of the over 15 million diverse people of Asian ancestry in the U.S.