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Why ‘The Asian Advantage’ May Not Be an Advantage

By Christine Z. Song
Christine Z. Song ’22 is an Economics concentrator in Currier House.

After a federal judge ruled in October that Harvard doesn’t illegally discriminate against Asian American applicants, I’m once again confronted with the meaning of being Asian American at Harvard, a prestigious institution, and more broadly, the meaning of being Asian American in an educational context. Being immersed in a setting where diversity and inclusion are constant topics of discussion, I have introspectively delved into my personal experience of being Asian American and found that it’s characterized by high levels of stress and anxiety perpetuated by the idea of the “Asian Advantage,” or more accurately a “stereotype threat” that is masked by a phrase with positive valence. Asian Americans have been labeled the “model minority,” a label marked by hidden stereotype threats and microaggressions; this not only undermines the performance of Asian American students, but causes mental health issues and affects long-term performance.

The term stereotype threat is defined as circumstances where “individuals who know of a stereotype associated with a group to which they belong are anxious about confirming the stereotype, and their anxiety causes them to perform below their real abilities.” In the case of Asian Americans, there’s a persistent stereotype that Asian Americans are intelligent, self-disciplined overachievers who are naturally gifted in the sciences and math — or STEM — fields and thus possess an advantage. These perceptions have manifested into the idea that stereotypes imposed on Asian Americans are “stereotype lifts,” or stereotypes that benefit Asian Americans’ performance in learning and academic situations. However, recent research has shown that these “positive” stereotypes held, and even endorsed, by teachers and peers lead to psychological distress and a reluctance to seek help. The high expectations put on Asian Americans can cause Asian American students to “choke” under pressure, and there’s evidence that feelings of threat from stereotypes can undermine academic learning. Therefore, characterizing the stereotype threat against Asian Americans as a stereotype lift does not take into account the various responses that these stereotypes induce on Asian Americans and only serves to perpetuate Asian Americans’ emotional distress from pressure to conform to high expectations and feelings of invalidation in response to everyday putdowns.

Stereotypes also contribute to the presence of microaggressions, or subtle comments and actions that express a prejudiced attitude and are often unintentional or unconscious. The most common microaggressions inflicted on Asian Americans are inaccurate attributions of intelligence and alienation in one’s own land. These microaggressions once again create pressure to succeed academically and negatively affects self-esteem and self-efficacy. Therefore, Asian Americans are subjected to being stereotyped and socially marginalized, which additionally affects their sense of social belonging, or their sense that they have good relationships with others. Negative sense of social belonging, along with negative self-esteem and self-efficacy, is correlated with lower academic performance and poor mental health. The interaction of stereotype threat and microaggressions against Asian Americans only hurts their sense of social-belonging and once again, perpetuates psychological distress and pressure on academic performance.

Critics may argue that the stereotype threat doesn’t really undermine Asian American students’ performance given the statistical data on their educational achievement and household incomes, but that is not necessarily true. An important consideration to account for is that the immigration of Asians to the United States is hyper-selective due to U.S. immigration laws. Many of the Asians entering the U.S. are highly educated and highly skilled. Their children are able to start off at a more favorable starting point due to high socioeconomic status, which has been shown to be a positive indicator of academic performance. Additionally, other outside influences may include Asian cultural norms, which emphasize the importance of education and high motivation to succeed academically, which is commonly shared among children of immigrants due to their parents’ sacrifices. While teachers’ perception and subsequent actions towards Asian American students may cause some Asian Americans to internalize these perceptions and achieve more than they normally would have, the stereotype on Asian Americans is still a double-edged sword with the high cost of mental health issues that plague many Asian Americans who feel pressured and “don’t feel Asian” because they don’t fit the stereotype.

In fact, the stereotype threat affects Asian Americans in the long-term, both professionally and mentally. The “positive stereotypes” bleed into Asian Americans’ post-academic life, where the same stereotypes of being self-disciplined and naturally gifted in STEM fields morph into negative stereotypes of being quiet, uncreative, and lacking social and leadership skills. Ironically, the same stereotype used to explain why Asian Americans achieve higher educational outcomes is the same reason that there’s a large disparity in Asian Americans and white Americans’ occupational achievement and leadership positions in the labor market; despite making up a large percentage of the professional workforce, Asian Americans do not obtain executive positions at the same rate. Additionally, the same distress that Asian Americans feel about confirming the stereotype of academic excellence in educational contexts carries over to the workforce where their colleagues perceive them to have traits that society deems negative, binding Asian Americans to the bamboo ceiling. The first step in dismantling the bamboo ceiling is breaking the ideas of the “model minority,” “Asian Advantage,” and “stereotype lift;” that starts with unveiling the hard truths behind those seemingly optimistic terms.

As Asian American students who have constantly experienced the notions behind the label of the “model minority” and will continue into the workforce barred by the bamboo ceiling, it is important for us to inform others about the challenges we face and not accept the stereotypes that are placed on us, including the stereotype of being shy and complacent. As students who will possibly continue on into educational fields or policy making, it is important for us to constantly challenge these notions to bring awareness to a large group of the population that is constantly overlooked.

Christine Z. Song ’22 is an Economics concentrator in Currier House.

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