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  • Writer's pictureHolly Corbett

The History Behind Common AAPI Stereotypes

Asian woman wearing a black turtleneck in an office typing at a computer
May is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, which celebrates the histories of the fastest-growing racial group in America. GETTY

May is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, which celebrates the histories of the fastest-growing racial group in America. The AAPI population has increased more than 35% between 2010 and 2020 and is expected to quadruple by 2060, according to the Census Bureau. While celebrating the history of this diverse group, it’s also important to raise awareness about the rise in hate crimes they’ve experienced, and to work to break deep-rooted stereotypes and biases by exploring the history they’re rooted in. Below are some of the biases and myths the AAPI community faces, and the history behind them.

The Stereotype: The Forever Foreigner

The AAPI community is not a monolith, but encompasses more than 50 ethnic groups, such as China, Vietnam, Korea, India, Cambodia, Japan, the Philippines, Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia, and many others.

“Within the Asian American Pacific Islander community, we have very different experiences, but amongst different communities of color, we have different experiences,” says Jean Lee, president and CEO of MCCA, an organization focused on hiring, retention, and promotion of diverse legal professionals. “The shootings and the events that have happened during the pandemic show that when we do not address hate and racism together as a community—white, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Latinx and the like—it will continue to have a negative impact in our communities and on employees within the workplace.”

Ingrained biases against the AAPI community in general may be in part rooted in history, with policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, blocking Chinese from testifying in court, banning Chinese from entering the country, and essentially framing them as “forever foreigners.” The Japanese internment camps during the 1940s contributed to the ongoing “othering” of the AAPI community.

To combat anti-AAPI discrimination and hate crimes, there is a push for states to require lessons on AAPI history to further the message that AAPI history is American history. Currently 18 states have no AAPI content in their K-12 history curriculum standards.

Thomas Orlina, a Filipino-American recording artist and content creator is looking to increase acceptance for the AAPI community by creating content with diverse representation. “It was challenging at first to find my footing in the entertainment business, because growing up a lot of talented artists didn’t look like me,” Orlina says. “I thought I had no chance in this industry. Now we live in a world where the Vice President of the United States identifies as Asian-American, and there are many other entertainers, such as Olivia Rodrigo, who embrace their AAPI heritage. I find that has helped bring the representation of the AAPI community to a new dimension and elevate our community.”

Representation matters because it can help break down biases and stereotypes, offer role models for marginalized groups, and expand audiences’ awareness of the diversity that is embedded within our country. Yet a recent Neilson study found that two-thirds of Asian Americans feel there is not enough representation of their identity group on TV, and more than half of Asian American respondents feel the portrayal is inaccurate.

Orlina is trying to change that: He is releasing a music video project called “Journey” in honor of AAPI month after partnering with AAPI talent, including video editor and graphic artist Danica Orlina Quizon, choreographer Tiara Summer Richards and director Karla Escobar, in an effort to spotlight more diverse talent. The message he wants to spread is, “Asian Americans and people of all backgrounds deserve to be represented in this day and age,” says Orlina. “Ultimately, I would like everyone to be seen as a human being, no matter what race, sexual orientation, gender, or religion you practice.”

The Stereotype: The Model Minority

The myth of the model minority perpetuates the narrative that all Asian-Americans excel in math, are non-confrontational, and are successful. This stereotype may have contributed to divisions among America’s marginalized groups and may be a contributing factor for AAPI people who experience discrimination being less likely to speak out. The stereotype also goes against the fact that all AAPI people do not benefit from a high socioeconomic status; the wealth disparity between the richest AAPI members and the poorest is larger than for any other racial group in America.

“There is a lack of awareness of the history [behind the model minority myth], not only from the broader society, but also within the Asian American community,” says Lee. “There was a strategic effort by the federal government in trying to address the race issues during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The label came about in part to divide [marginalized groups] and to put the U.S. in a more favorable light in addressing some of the racial tensions at that time.”

The myth of the “model minority” was amplified in a New York Times Magazine article in 1966 by sociologist William Petersen called “Success Story, Japanese-American Style.”

“The myth that all Asian Americans are somehow wealthy, smart and good at math or science is so harmful to our communities, because then the people that don't fit that myth are ignored and neglected and made invisible,” says Cindy Trinh, a Vietnamese-American photojournalist and creator of Activist NYC.

Trinh, inspired by the 2015 New York Times article that exposed the horrific conditions of nail salon workers—a majority of them AAPI women—documented working class Asian Americans such as street vendors, nail salon workers, store clerks, cooks, and more in the photo essay “The Model Minority Reality.” It aims to debunk the stereotype that Asians are the model minority and also show their tenacity, hard work, and struggle. “For me, it's always been about sharing the stories of our most marginalized and ignored in our society,” Trinh says. “What I aim to do as a photographer, an artist, and a journalist is to really showcase those stories.”

The Stereotype: The Bamboo Ceiling

The “bamboo ceiling” is a term used to refer to the discrimination AAPI people experience in advancing in the workplace. One recent study revealed that 65% of AAPI managers view the bamboo ceiling as a moderate to serious problem in their careers. For example, Asian Americans made up about 13% of the professional workforce, but just 6% of executive and senior officers and managers, according to Ascend.

The notion of the bamboo ceiling has been a barrier for AAPI employees to advance into leadership positions because the stereotype is that they are good at executing, but not seen as leadership in the current cultural model where the majority of leaders remain white and male.

“[Members of the AAPI community] are often seen as worker bees who are really great at executing a lot of work, but never seen as leaders,” says Lee. “This goes back to the history of the model minority myth and birthright citizenship, because of the fear of being labeled a certain way or being excluded or not being able to remain in this country for the longest time. Culturally, it’s perpetuated, because we are taught to be much more humble, to be quiet, and to build group consensus. It's very hard to translate that when the American standard of leadership, and especially the white male standard, is about speaking up and being assertive.”

Organizations have to expand the idea of what a leader looks like if they truly want to have diverse representation in top positions, which has a proven business case. “We’re constantly having to fight unconscious biases and racist perceptions within a white male dominated standard in corporate America,” says Lee. “The system does not allow us to succeed when we try to break that mold, because of the perception of how we should behave. Yet creating a workforce that is sustainable requires you to rethink the status quo.”

Lee says the way for organizations to make long-term progress to change the system is to focus on data, be transparent, and create accountability. “What are the things you do to provide opportunities for people to remain within your organization, and then ultimately be promoted? The only way to understand what works is by collecting the data,” says Lee. “Also, if you’re having an issue finding diverse talent, ask why. It might be because you're not looking in the right places, but at the same time, maybe your standards should be reevaluated. You might need to rethink how you’re evaluating people—such as women and people of color—in those spaces to create opportunities. Use your position of authority, your power, your voice—whether you're a man, a woman, non-binary, Asian, Black, Hispanic, whatever your ethnicity or your status—to really advocate for sustainable change.”

*Article originally published in Forbes


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