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Newsweek's Asian-American Stereotypes

By Vincent T. Chang and Amy C. Han

"On one issue, no one disagrees--the willingness of Asian-Americans to pay almost any price to get ahead."

"In the end, most authorities conclude, the success of Asian-Americans can be traced to one major factor: hard work."

"The lack of social mixing between Asian-Americans and other students hampers acculturation."

In the guise of presenting "scientific consensus," dogmatic statements such as these are sprinkled throughout the April 1984 Newsweek on Campus article entitled "Asian Americans: The Drive to Excel." This article presents very little in the way of original or constructive analysis, instead reinforcing the tired old stereotype which so stigmatizes Asian-Americans: the perception of Asians as automatons, humorless, hard-working, unimaginative, and unquestioning. In short, Asians are, Newsweek on Campus seems to claim, the yellow peril, "frightening to non-Asians" and at the same time a "model minority" of superachievers.

Such blanket generalizations are belied by the far more complex reality: Asians, no more than any other race, are not a monolithic group and cannot be characterized by facile, sweeping generalities. To be sure, the article is correct in maintaining that Asian culture does play some role in shaping the character of many Asian-Americans. However, the portrayal of Asian culture as uni-dimensional is simply fallacious. Asian culture espouses the work ethic, dedication, and education; however American society in general endorses these values. Moreover, Asian culture emphasizes humanity, character, and integrity, as well as the work ethic. Why does Newsweek on Campus disregard the deep-rooted Asian cultural emphasis on humanism, choosing instead to define Asian culture as solely achievement-oriented?

If the article's depiction of Asian culture is flawed, its conception of Asian society is even more fallacious. While Newsweek on Campus draws attention to "industrious" and "ambitious" Asians on American campuses, the article ignores the plight of the Chinese working in Chinatown sweatshops. While Asians are over-represented in a number of technical fields, they are also over-represented in the garment worker occupation, as well as the restaurant worker category. It is true that Asian incomes exceed the national average, yet Asians live in Pacific, Eastern, and metropolitan areas with costs of living that far exceed the national average. When compared to the average income within their metropolitan areas, Asian incomes generally lag behind the area-wide averages. Moreover, Asians tend to be underemployed for their levels of education.

Newsweek on Campus, thus, ignores the less glamorous, but no less significant, side of Asian-American society: the poverty of the Chinatowns and other Asian ghettoes in our urban areas. Instead of arousing the public to address the pressing social needs of our inner cities, Newsweek on Campus unwittingly invites resentment against the supposed domination of universities and technical fields by Asian-Americans.

Besides the inaccurate characterization of all Asians as well-paid techicians, the piece also makes a number of unsupported--and unsupportable--conclusions about the "Asian character." Asians are described as possessing "placid temperaments," capable of only "narrow" thinking, tending to "stick together on campus." In general, a Georgetown professor concludes that Asians will "work you into the ground."

Nearly all of these statements are presented as incontrovertible fact, yet when closely examined, virtually none of the arguments advanced in the article can survive close scrutiny. The characterization of Asian-Americans as placid, for example, is based on studies of Chinese and Japanese babies, not Asian-American babies. The gang wars so prevalent in American Chinatowns give regrettable evidence to the fact that placidity is not intrinsic to the character of all Asian-Americans.

The stereotype that Asians are only able to think narrowly is based on one quotation from one engineering professor at Houston. This stereotype assumes that technical areas allow no leeway for creativity. But who is to say that synthesis of a new chemical compound is less creative than the synthesis of a new social science theory? In addition, Newsweek on Campus virtually disregards Asian humanities and social science concentrators. UCLA's Valerie Soe is displayed in a picture captioned "Exception: UCLA's Soe is 'lousy at math.'" The implication seems to be that Asian-American non-science majors are so rare that they deserve to be put on display and labelled "exceptions." In actuality, the growing number of Asian social science and humanity majors do not flounder, as the Houston professor asserts, on "open-ended problems, those that require a tolerance for ambiguity."

Nor does the indictment of Asian-Americans of socializing among themselves hold much water. The article's conclusion is based on only a few limited examples. Moreover, the tendency of Asian-Americans to cluster in groups might exist because, as Newsweek admits, anti-Asian bias is formidable and thus many whites do not associate with Asians. To the extent that it exists. Asian "isolation" and "exclusiveness" could be more a function of the white majority's discrimination, rather than Asian-American aloofness.

The inadequacies of Newsweek on Campus generalizations illustrate the general folly of attempting to narrowly categorize entire ethnic groups. Just as the pernicious stereotypes of the past shackled blacks and women, precluding them from full participation in society, so do the stereotypes fostered by articles such as those in Newsweek on Campus hamper Asian-American advancement.

When Jews first came to America, many were characterized as incapable of learning--a stereotype imposed on entering Chinese as well. Ironically, today both groups are singled out as "model minorities." Consequently, both groups threaten the non-Jewish white majority, creating what a Newsweek interviewee termed "feelings of being overwhelmed." To its credit, Newsweek points out the irrationality of this paranoia, yet it does little more than feed the anti-Asian backlash as it buttresses the age-old stereotypes presented in its April article.

Just as the stereotype of Jews in the 1920s as mentally deficient was wrong and eventually abandoned, so should the stereotype of Asian-Americans as one-dimensional, technical supermen be exposed for its inaccuracy and discarded. It is the duty of publications like Newsweek on Campus to take the first steps towards the dissolution of such stereotypes.

This article has been endorsed by the Harvard Asian American Association.

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