Monday, September 26, 2011

No, I'm Not Great At Math & Why This Positive Stereotype Hurts

I have a quick question! I remember when you were at Neuqua, you didn't appreciate when students made generalizations and said that all Asians are skilled in math and science. For the Asian American Studies course I am taking, I'll be writing an essay analyzing this stereotype (among others). I was wondering if you have any other statements or opinions that you would be willing to share, about this stereotype or any experiences you have had regarding being of Asian descent and living in America. Thanks in advance if you do!
- One of my former students

How often are you reminded that you are a woman? How often are you reminded that you are a twenty-something? How often are you reminded that you are a brunette?

In the course of a day most of the time I don’t think about the fact that I’m an Asian American. While I am proud of my heritage, this isn’t something that sits in the front of my mind. I don’t wear my background like a badge and it’s not the first thing I tell people when they ask me about myself. Honestly, it’s one of the last things I talk about. I’m more likely to tell you about my wife, my life as a teacher and my dog.

I don’t look at pictures of my family and think, “wow, we’re all Asian.” I don’t walk down the street and see a Chinese restaurant and think about how it’s “my people’s food” and I don’t bring up in conversation my perspective as an “Asian American.” I simply don’t see my life through that filter.

So when is it that I am reminded about being Asian? There’s positive moments when I cook Chinese food or can understand someone walking down the street speaking Mandarin. Also there’s when people ask me about my background, which I’m happy to talk about. And while these moments do remind me about my heritage, I more think about the feeling of home then the label of being “Asian.”

If you really think about when you are reminded of the labels and categories that our society has constructed it’s when stereotypes get thrown in your face. A blond joke makes someone with fair hair feel bad, and a comment about a father not being as loving parent as a woman makes a person reconsider their masculinity.

What about the good stereotypes? What’s so bad about assuming that I’m good at math and science? Why don’t I take that as a compliment? Well, first, I’m not really good at math and science so then I end up appearing less intelligent then what someone thinks. More importantly, good or bad, a stereotype boils incredibly complex and meaningful aspect of who you are down to a single characteristic. This trivializes important parts of people’s personalities, judges entire groups of people and most of all simply hurts deep inside.

It hurts because expressing a stereotype is viewing me as a category first and a person second. Now, the whole colorblind approach to race-relations was a disaster, and I can get into that another time. So I’m not saying that we shouldn’t acknowledge other people’s races. Go ahead, if someone is African-American, you don’t have to pretend that you don’t see that. But to stop there and form ideas about that person based on stereotypes and not through interactions with the person is abhorrent, disrespectful and demonstrates the worst kind of ignorance.

Yes, there’s a grain of truth behind every stereotype. But just a grain. And behind every label, there’s a person who is so much more interesting and so much more beautiful then any preconceived stereotype could ever encapsulate.

Stereotypes effect everyone, including Caucasians. What is most insidious about stereotyping is not what is does to the people who are stereotype but what is does the people who are propagating these broad generalizations. 

I’m an advocate with my students against stereotyping not so they don’t hurt other people’s feelings but so that they don’t close their owns minds down to meaningless and inaccurate viewpoints of groups of people. I can get over someone thinking I’m bad at driving because I’m Asian, but I wonder how much that person is missing out because they don’t go deeper into the humanity that we all share.

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