Why Being ‘Good at Math’ Can Be a Bad Thing: Perpetuating model minority stereotypes leads to resentment and anger toward Asian Americans

Hailed by some in the United States as “model minorities,” Asian Americans are “good at math and science” and “hardworking and ambitious,” to name just a couple — arguably positive — stereotypes.

But even positive stereotypes can lead to negative feelings toward Asian Americans. New research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in March argued that model minority stereotypes lead to prejudice, because other groups perceive Asian Americans as a threat to their status and success, especially in the context of educational, economic and political opportunities.

The team of William Maddux, Adam Galinsky, Amy Cuddy and Mark Polifroni sought to prove the connection between positive stereotypes of Asian Americans and negative feelings through four studies conducted with Northwestern University students. The studies showed statistical evidence supporting the team’s hypothesis that a phenomenon called “realistic threat” links positive stereotypic traits (ambitious and hardworking, among others) to negative attitudes (dislike) and negative emotions (hostility, fear and envy) toward Asian Americans.

The research shows for the first time why positive evaluations can produce prejudice toward a minority group, said Galinsky, one of the authors of the study and article, “When Being a Model Minority is Good … and Bad: Realistic Threat Explains Negativity Toward Asian Americans.”

According to Galinsky, when people are competing for better grades or jobs, they will begin to feel prejudice toward a group that is seen to have an effortless knack for getting good grades, or who seem to work harder and longer. “Prejudice can occur when there are scarce resources that people are competing [for], and a minority group has positive stereotypic attributes that are relevant to that scare resource,” Galinsky said.

Indeed, many Asian Americans have encountered positive stereotypes and resentment at some point in their lives.

Chris Cheung, a 28-year-old chiropractor who lives in San Jose, said he frequently encountered stereotypes in school. A second-generation Chinese American, Cheung said that sometimes achieving success has a “negative impact in regards to our transition into American society.”

“[People would say], ‘Oh, you’re Asian; you should be good at math or should get an A. Don’t worry; you don’t have to study that hard,’” Cheung said, adding that he thought these statements came out of jealousy.

When Asian Americans are one of few Asian faces in the midst of white Americans, their threat to the majority group may be greater because they are seen more as Asian than American, according to Frank Wu, dean and professor of law at Wayne State University Law School.

This was the case for Cindy Kim, 32, an attorney who was one of few Asians in her high school class in Columbia, Md. Kim recalled one Caucasian classmate who would routinely single her out for her test results.

“She would say, ‘Let’s see what Cindy got,’ in front of the whole class and make me say what I got. Sometimes it would be a high mark, but not all the time. She thought I would always get the highest grade because I was Asian,” Kim said.

Both national and international Asian success may affect race relations in the United States. Perceptions of Asian Americans are inextricably tied to how Asians are faring around the world, because Asian Americans are still seen as foreigners to this country and therefore undeserving of their success. And if they complain about how they are treated, there is an attitude of “‘If you don’t like it here, go back to where you came from,’” said Wu, who wrote about the model minority myth in his 2003 book, Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White.

If Wu and the new research are correct, as competition grows stronger for increasingly limited resources, as is bound to happen during an economic downturn or recession, we can expect prejudice to grow.

Further, the threats of violence and even genocide toward successful minority groups may increase. As the authors of the study note, throughout history, successful minority groups have been scapegoats for various societal problems. “When you think about economic downturns, one of the classic examples of a model minority to suffer extreme prejudice and discrimination and eventually genocide is the Jews in 1930s and 1940s Germany,” Galinsky said.

According to Wu, we have already witnessed the scapegoat phenomenon in this country.

“Look at the Chinese Exclusion Act,” suggested Wu, referring to the 1882 law passed by Congress that temporarily barred Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. and denied U.S. citizenship to ethnic Chinese already in the country. A more recent example is the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, killed by two white, laid-off autoworkers in Detroit who were angry at the Japanese for the decline in the local auto industry.

Cooperation, rather than competition, may be necessary to break down the model minority myth. The new research notes that far less negativity toward Asian Americans was reported when there was cooperation on a task between Asian Americans and other groups.

Ultimately, Asian Americans must realize their stake and responsibility in this cultural dialogue. “Asian Americans shouldn’t be too smug” about their success in the U.S., Wu warned.

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