As we celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, it’s important to remember historic events and sociocultural narratives that continue to affect the community today.
From old discriminatory laws influenced by the “yellow peril” to more brazen acts of violence against “COVID spreaders,” Asian Americans barely had a break from being subjects of destructive prejudice.
Below are 10 harmful stereotypes against AAPIs that persist to date – and should be ended once and for all.
1. The model minority
The model minority is arguably the most common stereotype AAPIs have always faced. This myth lumps together Asian Americans as a monolithic group of high-achieving and hardworking individuals who reached the “American Dream” through a rigid upbringing, top education and unparalleled work ethic.
While the idea appears positive on the surface, it ignores the diversity of AAPI communities and the systemic racism that they continue to experience. For one, the Pew Research Center reported in 2018 that Asian Americans, while being the most financially successful of all racial groups, had the highest income inequality based on decades-long data.
It also perpetuates the common assumption that success is based only on merit instead of being influenced by structural factors. Many Asian Americans face barriers in education and employment, while those who find themselves on the other side are forced to deal with unrealistic expectations that eventually result in burnout and feelings of inadequacy.
2. The perpetual foreigner
The perpetual foreigner stereotype assumes that AAPIs are not “real” Americans despite being born and raised or registering as citizens in the U.S. As a result, they are seen as “exotic” and forever foreign.
This stereotype leaves AAPIs to be treated as outsiders. Examples include others questioning their ability to speak in English, asking where they are “really from” or outright demanding that they “go back to China” or some other Asian country.
Like the model minority myth, the perpetual foreigner stereotype creates barriers for AAPIs in school, work and other areas of life. It can also lead to feelings of marginalization, isolation and alienation from one’s own country.
3. The yellow peril
Originating in the late 19th century, the yellow peril stereotype was born out of fears of an “Asian invasion” of the Western world. The influx of Asian immigrants into the U.S. fueled racism, xenophobia and unfair economic competition.
Perhaps the most recent stereotype to torment AAPIs and Asians around the world is the COVID starter or spreader, which hinges on the deadly pandemic’s origins in Wuhan, China. This rhetoric is largely responsible for anti-Asian hate in multiple countries.
One common and dangerous stereotype against Asian people is the assumption that they all consume pet animals such as dogs and cats. The fact is that it’s simply not true, and while there are a few who do so – such as in China’s Yulin Dog Meat Festival – the vast majority tend to be in opposition.
In connection with the “COVID spreader” stereotype, Asians were recently accused of being “bat eaters,” owing to the reported zoonotic origin of the coronavirus and a 2016 video of a Chinese woman consuming bat soup. The said video spread like wildfire on social media, triggering xenophobia against Asians at the time.
6. The submissive female
Asian women have long been depicted in popular culture as submissive, passive and/or weak. These supposed traits have contributed to their hypersexualization and objectification in real life, which could even result in sexual violence.
“It’s exhausting,” J.L., who is in her 50s, told NextShark. “You’d think someone my age is already free from this, but I still frequently get suspicious message requests from non-Asian men on social media. I can only imagine how it goes for other Asian women, especially younger ones. It’s a shame to be happening in 2023.”
7. The emasculated male
While Asian women tend to be hypersexualized, Asian men are often reduced to comical side characters that are seen as weak, effeminate and/or devoid of sexuality. This stereotype, compounded by an image of the “nerdy student” or “computer science geek” – which falls into the model minority myth – can also have negative effects on their self-esteem and dating prospects.
Z.Z., who works in the creative industry, believes Asian men should be “respectfully” sexualized. “There’s definitely progress such as in the casting of hot Asian male leads in some movies and shows, but we’re not quite ‘there’ yet,” he told NextShark.
8. The unemotional or duplicitous friend/neighbor/coworker/etc.
Asians are also often portrayed as unemotional or duplicitous in popular culture. As supposedly unemotional people, Asians are seen as lacking empathy or incapable of expressing their emotion, which only worsens the fact that many in the community are ignoring mental health issues over taboo concerns and fear of judgment.
As supposedly duplicitous people, Asians are seen as dishonest, untrustworthy and masters at concealing their true intentions or feelings. This ties with the exotic or perpetual foreigner stereotype, and one classic example is “The Siamese Cat Song” from the animated “Lady and the Tramp,” which featured the lyrics “We are Siamese if you please, we are Siamese if you don’t please.”
9. The bad driver
Asians, particularly Asian women, have been accused of being “bad drivers.” The stereotype appears to be rooted from the assumption that Asian people are unfamiliar with Western driving rules and customs, therefore posing a danger on the road.
Isolated traffic incidents may also contribute to the perpetuation of the stereotype. For Asian women, this further reinforces harmful gender biases, such as men being more competent to engage in the activity.
Interestingly, data shows that Asians have been the best drivers in the U.S. since at least 2006. At the time, the group’s reported fatality rate – four deaths for every 100,000 people – was at least three times lower than any other ethnic group. Whites, Hispanics and Blacks followed at 12 deaths per 100,000, while Native Americans were in most danger at 32 deaths per 100,000.
10. The primitive villager
One ever-present but relatively unspoken stereotype about Asian people is what we are calling the “primitive villager.” This myth assumes that Asians, especially those living in rural places, are held back by archaic, backward or primitive beliefs that have no place in modern society.
However, this stereotype does not only fail to recognize the value of Asian customs and traditions (which are also often culturally appropriated). It also assumes that Western positions are far superior, stemming from deeply entrenched colonial beliefs that non-Western cultures have to be “civilized.”
For their detrimental impact – and inherently flawed bases – on AAPIs and Asians all over the world, these stereotypes are the ones that have no place left in a diverse and informed world society. They all need to go, and it is our part as productive members of this society to call them out when we see or hear them.
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