Racial Stereotyping and its Effects on Chinese American Teenagers

Racism is a touchy subject that most of us would readily admit is a criminal and hateful thing. With it come thoughts of dark times past, of oppressive regimes and brutal slavery. Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the belief that members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as superior or inferior to another/ other races.

The above definition illustrates that hate and cruelty do not necessarily form the pillars of racism, but merely the belief in ones superiority or another’s inferiority based simply on race. But the lack of a whip does not mean that this belief is in any way less poisonous. In fact, the brutality of slavery may have shielded the Black American community and enabled it to raise support for its struggle in a way that some other maligned, discriminated communities have not been able to do.

A few years ago, a UCLA student posted a video on the popular video-sharing web site Youtube, expressing her opinions about Asian students on the campus. Alexandra Wallace spent about three minutes of video screen time complaining about the culture and lifestyles of Asian UCLA students. The video begins with some sort of a “disclaimer” where she says the rant is targeted “not at her friends, but at the other numerous Asian students I do not know personally.” She complains about “the hordes of Asians” admitted to UCLA every year, and that they should “use American manners” upon their arrival; she complained about the fact that “ these people do not teach their children how to fend for themselves, hence the reason... all their relatives come around every weekend to cook and buy their groceries”; she complains further about their cell phone usage in the library, and mimics their language by using the words “ooh, ching chong ling long ting tong, ooh”, showing a disregard and insensitivity for any Asian language speaker.

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Admittedly, Alexandra did later make an apology by releasing the following statement to the Daily Bruin (UCLA’s Newspaper) “In an attempt to produce a humorous Youtube video, I have offended the UCLA community and the entire Asian culture...I would do anything to take back my insensitive words... I made a mistake”.

A misguided attempt at poking fund ended up in a young girl having to relocate to another campus, while her and her family received threats to their health and safety. Clearly, she had rubbed a raw nerve. She probably didn’t really mean to offend, but was probably looking to be a sort of stand-up comedienne, where, like the Chris Rock’s and Russell Peters’ of the comedy world, she could poke fun at another community without provoking racial sensitivities.

But even as we laugh at these jokes (the less racially-provocative ones) is there some harm done to the lives and minds of younger, impressionable youths who will perhaps not laugh at themselves, but rather retreat into themselves, ashamed of their cultural identity? Is it possible that, even as we laugh out loud, that there are those of us who are part of cultural minorities, will laugh along with us, but later resent the fact that we made casual jokes about an important aspect of their identity?

Asian Americans have historically been targets of racial discrimination, but have not had their cause and experiences received with the same level of attention as other minority races.  Jennifer Grossman and Belle Liang (2007) argue that this unrecognized discrimination has significant ramifications for their emotional development. Most people would view that African Americans may have borne the worst of the discrimination, with American Asians having achieved some degree of academic success and financial progress within the United States, have few emotional difficulties and little need for support or resources.

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As discovered by Stacy Lee in her 1994 study, many Asian American students are usually portrayed as academic superstars, apparently because the minority-model stereotypes picture them as coming from cultures that embrace hard work and the values of education. Hence, most people will readily believe that Asian Americans and in fact just Asians in general, are naturally gifted in the fields of science, computing, electronics and mathematics. This stereotyping has inhibited research and clinical exploration of discrimination and mental health problems among Asian Americans despite empirical evidence indicating otherwise. Emerging studies imply that Asian Americans students experience multiple adverse consequences of ongoing stereotyping and discrimination, including threats to wellbeing, depression and suicidality and feelings of not being able to fit in at school.

The American Psychological Association found that Latin American and Asian American students in California suffered the most victimization regardless of the school racial composition, and that they also suffered a higher incidence of verbal abuse and physical victimization. And the lack of attention or the absence of somebody to realize and address the situation leads to these students becoming withdrawn and unwilling to socialize.

Others will go the opposite way. This will mean that they usually immerse themselves in the American way of life; abandoning their background and cultural identity for a lifestyle they feel is more acceptable to the peers they are trying to join/impress. They will seek to reduce the visible aspects of their Asian Americans-ness, wearing contact lenses and dyeing their hair blonde. This in turn alienates them from those who may be more proud of their heritage and refuse to change, meaning that those who were trying ti fit into America remain in a sort of cultural no man’s land, where the Americans cannot fully accept them, yet they are also outcast by their fellow Asian Americans for being “Deserters”. They are doomed to remain permanent visitors, unable to fully belong anywhere.

John Ogbu studied education for minorities for many years in the United States and other societies, concentrating on school performances between minority and dominant-group students. Some of the questions he asked included the following: Why do some minorities do better at school than others? Is it because they are more intelligent or genetically superior? Is it because they come from cultures that are better at educating their children? Is it because they possess languages and learning styles better suited to formal education?

His conclusions were as follows:

1)      No minority group does better in school because it is genetically superior

2)      No minority culture is better at educating its children

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3)      No minority language is better suited to learning at school.

Therefore, differences in minority school performance are not attributable to race and/or culture. It would be incorrect and unfair to generalise characteristics for any community based on ignorance, yet we feel little or nothing when it is assumed that Asians will perform better in science because they have “a natural advantage”. And in school it has the potential for ruining a young and bright life by subjecting an impressionable young man to feelings of hatred for his own community. At the stage where they are teenagers, most young people are already contending with hormonal changes and defining themselves as they leave the sheltered confines of childhood and emerge into the pre-adult stage. Any emotional and/or mental scars inflicted at this age can be difficult, sometimes even impossible to heal.

The effects on a young mind can lead to severe depression or even a lack of identity as the victims attempt to run away from the perceived source of their torture. Wang, Cheryan and Siy found that because they have not had a racial movement to raise their cultural awareness, they tend to suffer more from self-esteem issues than other minorities,

Black Americans had and still do have associations, bodies and forums that address incidences of discrimination and racism against members of their community. There has been no such movement for Asians, because nobody seems to view it as a problem. Perhaps, like Alexandra, there are those that feel like racism is only bad if directed towards blacks, and if your anger is just directed at “those other Asians on campus that I don’t know personally” then it doesn’t really count as discrimination.

There are serious implications arising from perceived racism or misplaced humour. We should be more culturally sensitive to avoid widespread cases of depression and poor mental health.

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