The second part in exploring the rise of racism and fetishization of Asians in North America. In this piece, I explore more on stereotyping of both South and East Asians, featuring Chinese Canadian artist Hilary Meng, and Indian Canadian student, Bliss Kaur. This blog focuses on challenging the model minority stereotype and how Asians are represented in the media.
In a New York Times article on Confronting Asian American Stereotypes written by Adeel Hassan, he sat down with Asian American author, Jennifer Lee of “The Asian-American Achievement Paradox” and University Professor Karthick Ramakrishnan, to deconstruct the model minority myth. The article explores how the discrimination of Asian Americans based on stereotypes at the academic level, has led to a decline in the amount of Asian individuals holding positions of power in professional fields. When asked where she believed the stereotype of capable Asians lacking “interpersonal skills” [in leadership] came from, Lee responded with “While the current stereotype of Asian-Americans is that they are smart, competent and hard-working, a century ago, Asian-Americans were perceived as illiterate, undesirable, full of “filth and disease” and unassimilable.” (Ngai, 2014) She goes on to explain that with the passing of immigration laws, came an increase in immigrants with higher education to North America. As a result, cultural influences, parental guidance, social pressures to “fit in,” and financial pressures, were all factors set to impact Asian American children following settlement.
In her book, Lee discusses how many believe that the values rooted in Asian culture are the attributed cause for modern immigrant success, stating “because Asian Americans possess the “right” cultural traits and place a high value on education, they [critics] claim Asian American students outperform their non-Asian peers, including native-born whites.” This point falters in twofold, as Lee identifies it fails to consider both “starting points” and “hyper selectivity.” She explains how Asian immigrants start at a different level compared to their western counterparts, therefore their level of achievement should be measured differently than that of the average American’s. If one were to consider their own parents’ progress as a starting point for success, then this invalidates the notion that Asians are smart due to their cultural values. With this stance, Lee claims that Asian Americans would not meet the “model minority” standards if they do not meet or exceed the standards set by their own parents. This also presents the flawed logic that those who do not meet the standards would be deemed “unsuccessful” relative to their parents and to other Asians. Although now stereotypes regarding academic achievement are more commonly used as forms of both praise and mockery, this was not the case years ago.
Hyper selectivity, Lee’s latter consideration, is defined as “dual positive selectivity in which immigrants are more likely to have graduated from college than non-immigrants in sending countries and the host population” (Tran, 2018). Lee claims that if the playing field was leveled, and Asian immigrants were given the same resources and status as their host country counterparts, then the notion would once again change. Despite the clear barriers Asian immigrants have had to face, they’ve still achieved moderate success, even more so than Asians belonging to their respective home countries. Given that the white majority does not meet these same levels of success, it is clear that attributing any one individual’s achievements to simply their cultural expectations would be vilifying ignorant. It deliberately overlooks the sacrifices each independent minority has had to make and homogenizes the ethnic groups in Asia. The fact remains that Asians have worked hard to achieve their success, so quite literally, as Lee puts it: “What is cultural about Asian American academic achievement?”
These stereotypes only worsen the workforce environment for all minorities. According to an article from the Harvard Business review, Asian Americans holding college degrees are “less likely to be promoted to management, than any other race.” To combat this, Ramakrishnan suggests having more Asian Americans in leadership positions, to reduce stereotyping and increase the amount of Asians considered for managerial and political positions. To further explore stereotyping and representation, I sought out two women: Bliss Kaur, who is of South Asian descent and Hilary Meng, who is of East Asian descent, to answer some questions about their experiences.
When asked what her experiences were with stereotyping, Hilary responded “Stereotyping has definitely put me in some tricky situations concerning my viewpoint of my own identity. In order to reject certain asian stereotypes, I feel like I had to prove myself to people. “Asian” should not be defined and I should not feel the need to prove that I am or am not Asian. I have often heard the words ‘whitewashed’ or ‘you don’t seem Asian’ used as a compliment which makes zero sense because it implies [that being] ‘Asian’ is something pre-defined and set in stone instead of it simply being an ethnic background.”
As an artist, Hilary often incorporates Chinese culture into her work, both implicitly and explicitly. Some pieces are shown below
In gaining a South Asian perspective, I asked Bliss the same question. She started by explaining that regional differences did impact how she was treated, and how she’s learned to build tough skin through growing up in North America.“I feel as though stereotyping has impacted me more so through my own negative self perceptions. The portrayals of my identity as a South Asian woman in various media have made me question the way others in my life perceive me, even if others may not view me that way. Some examples of stereotyping I’ve experienced include the idea that I am supposed to be smart and submissive, or that I’m “no fun” because of those things. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that most people don’t actually care and that I can just express myself how I want. But those things were definitely a mental hurdle that I continue to overcome.”
She tells me how some stereotypes pressured her into thinking she could never be beautiful, and how they’ve definitely impacted her experiences with men. “Growing up with a message constantly pushed on you can take a mental toll. In my personal experience I’ve had men (of other races) straight up argue with me about my own ethnicity (which I don’t understand because I’m clearly South Asian), because they think in their heads “oh no way she’s Indian, she’s too pretty for that.” Something that has actually been said to me before was: “You’ve gotta be mixed with something.” This sentiment is so disrespectful.”
Bliss then explained how her life would be completely different if she had grown up in South Asia, and that she’d be faced with new conflicts, such as freedom and the threat of domestic violence. She states: “I was the first born daughter and that in itself has been used against my parents by their own family members, apparently that is how devalued women are in South Asian cultures. I have felt a pressure to be this “pure, perfect, intelligent” daughter because that is what I’ve been told I should be, as though any other form of existence is invalid.” She argues how if she had been another race, a lot of her actions would be brushed over, and that she’s been held to a different standard because of her ethnicity. She notes how her mother realizes these disparities and wants her to hold her ground, expressing how disinterested they both are in becoming “decorative pieces in the lives of the men.” Like many Asian women, both girls have expressed that they’ve felt invalidated due to stereotyping, and the need to constantly prove their ethnicity.
Another topic I explored was the lack of Asian representation in the media. Although fortunately increasing, Asian representation in the media is still limited and statistically, only about 1% of all lead roles in Hollywood (Teen vogue, 2016) go to Asian Actors. Viewers are tired of seeing the same Asian actors get “recycled” or written up as token minority characters. Film adaptations of traditionally Asian films have also become a prominent issue, as the stories become white-washed through casting choices, such as in the film Ghost of the Shell (Sanders, 2017).
Writers Buck Gee and Denise Peck from the Harvard Business Review, make a helpful claim to understand this concept, stating: “Because Asian Americans are not considered an underrepresented minority, they are given little priority or attention in diversity programs.” The writers were referencing Asian representation in the workforce, but this same idea may be applied to the assignment of roles in film. Since Asian representation is being promoted more, people forget that Asians are still underrepresented, and that there is still work to be done.
In sharing their beliefs on Asian representation, Hilary claims that “Asian representation in media is important as all representation in media is. I personally don’t think it needs to be something “forced.” I believe it is more important to have Black representation in the media as many of their original roots have been lost.” Hilary’s strive for the inclusion of other underrepresented minorities is admirable, as she understands the importance of prioritizing other minorities that may be at more risk, in addition to supporting the Asian community. In comparison, Bliss states that the existing representation is quite limited, but she appreciates the progression of inclusion, stating “Never before could I relate to any South Asian representation in the media until just this past year. It sucks to be implicitly told by the media that your identity is narrow and can only encompass certain attributes.” Hilary and Bliss’ perspectives are important in understanding how Asian women feel about current representation.
The last issue I explored was Asian cultural appropriation in the media. Several corporations have been found guilty in orchestrating cultural appropriation for financial gain, claiming ignorance once caught and lacking proper acknowledgement aside from public “apology” statements. Most recently, popular brand “Pretty Little Thing” and band “Little Mix” got caught up in a not so pretty little scandal regarding the appropriation of a traditional Chinese dress called a 旗袍 (Qipao). Though this act could’ve been an opportunity for exposure and profit, these reasons were precisely enough for both parties to ignore any form of immoral acts of appropriation on their behalf. The clothing was labelled as “oriental” online, and many viewers were mad simply over this phrasing, deeming it to be “excotism.” (Popbuzz, 2019) For reference, from left to right is Little Mix x Pretty Little Things’ campaign, compared to an example of the traditional 旗袍 (Qipao) dress, pictured below
When asked for her opinions on cultural appropriation, Hilary responded “The lines between appropriation and appreciation within the fashion industry are definitely hard to define and blurry. Often you can’t tell whether a piece of clothing is appreciative or appropriative unless you understand the background and motifs of the designer and/or company.”
She continues, “But even if you do, who is qualified to make the judgment? If someone is Asian yet has no connection or understanding to their culture still justified to use their heritage in this way? Is someone who is non-Asian yet appreciative and understanding of Asian culture justified? To what extent can culture be reinvented and reinterpreted? When culture is only “appreciated” when it is convenient, cute or trendy, this is not real appreciation. This is just a byproduct of materialism. I personally don’t feel offended when people who are knowledgeable and appreciative of my culture adopt elements from it in their fashion. However, I do find it offensive when ignorant people use my cultural clothing in a sexualized or offensive way to be “trendy”. This further perpetuates a false stereotype about Asian culture.” Hilary makes interesting points on the ethics of holding others accountable for their actions, and what determines appropriation in itself.
Bliss, in comparison, exclaimed that she is indifferent to the idea, as she’s fallen out of expressing her own culture explicitly. She still feels acts of cultural appropriation themselves are ignorant, stating “I personally don’t care if someone is culturally appropriating South Asian culture. I just find the people who do it to be uneducated. It doesn’t make me mad per say but a little disappointed because I’ve been made fun of for wearing my cultural garments/jewelry in the past, but now celebrities wear those same things to capitalize off of and gain praise.” Both girls express how exploiting their cultures for personal gain is unacceptable, as it contributes to implicit racism. To some, being educated on the culture as a non Asian, is not enough. To others, belonging to the culture itself yet not holding knowledge on its origin, is not enough. It all depends on perspective.
Through showcasing how Asian women feel, non Asians can better understand how to hold themselves accountable in respecting and appreciating Asian culture. Amplifying Asian voices on a larger scale, and supporting them in positions of power, are essential steps non Asians can take to help reduce the disparities faced, ensuring to focus the conversation on their perspectives first. Be sure to check out the linked Instagram pages below and support Asians in the media!