Understanding — and Avoiding — Asian American Stereotypes

Anti-Asian hate protesters in Times Square on March 16, 2023. (Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Before Will Schick became a journalist, he served in the United States Marine Corps. He was one of only a few Asian Americans in his 2007 training class. After ranking his top choices for his officer assignment, he was shocked to be placed on an obscure tech project — something he wasn’t aware of or even interested in. 

“I asked my platoon commander and he said it was because I was really good at computers,” said Schick, who is part Korean and now director of programs and partnerships at the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA). “If you had known who I was, nobody would ever pick me to be the guy who’s really good at computers.”

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Schick had experienced one of the many prevailing stereotypes about Asian Americans — being a tech nerd. Combatting stereotypes is something he’s passionate about in his work as a journalist and with AAJA. One in 4 people say news coverage affects their perceptions of Asian Pacific communities, according to a recent GoldHouse and Nielsen study.

Will Schick

“Stereotypes are extremely harmful because they affect how people think, feel and act,” said Michelle K. Sugihara, executive director of the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment. “When it’s on our screens, and when we’re constantly bombarded with these stereotypes, it starts to change people’s perceptions and then perception leads to reality, which is why media is such an important and powerful tool.”

Not to mention that the stereotypes have roots in racist historical events that greatly affected AAPI people — which more than 60% of Americans are only slightly familiar with, according to a 2023 study by The Asian American Foundation.

“All the way up through the mid-19th century to the 1940s and ‘50s, the stereotypes of Asian Americans were extremely demeaning and negative,” said Ellen D. Wu, associate professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington and author of the book, “The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority.And those stereotypes, in turn, were used to justify the arrangement of power, resources and policies.”

I spoke with historians, professors and media organizations about Asian American stereotypes, and they all agreed that the best way to avoid them is to learn their historical origins and understand why and how they appear.

The model minority

The “model minority” stereotype portrays AAPI people as smart, nice and diligent workers, mostly in STEM fields. It can be traced to a 1966 New York Times article by sociologist William Pettersen, who called Japanese Americans a “model minority” because they were successful after years of anti-Asian racism post-World War II. The piece, and the stereotype, essentially pitted the AAPI community against the Civil Rights Movement. Asians were the model minority, compared to the “rebellious” minority of Black Americans, or so the thinking went. 

“What I think people don’t realize is that [the term] was essentially created as a racial wedge, and it minimizes the role that systemic racism plays in the struggles of other racial and ethnic minority groups,” Sugihara said. “During the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the message was if Asians can do it, then why can’t you? That’s something that I don’t think is discussed enough when we talk about the model minority myth.”

This stereotype has persisted in journalism over the years, perhaps most iconically in a 1987 Time magazine cover of Asian American students posing with books and computers and labeled as “whiz kids.” More recently, the characterization was perpetuated in coverage of the Supreme Court’s June 2023 ruling that struck down affirmative action in college admissions and Asian Americans’ complicated feelings about it. Even a recent Pew Research Center study found that 58% of Asian adults had at least one stranger assume they were good at math or science.

“If we want something different academically, suddenly we’re at odds with the world,” said Betty Ming Liu, an NYU adjunct journalism professor. “It’s ugly, it’s complicated and it’s mentally toxic for us. I think everyone needs to learn the history and understand that they have a choice to be more individualistic and still be part of a collective. They can be different.”

The forever foreigner

As a mixed-race, half-Chinese woman, I’ve been asked, “Where are you from?” more times than I can count. But the asker is never satisfied when I answer New York City, because they aren’t asking for my hometown — they want to know my country of origin.

Sugihara said that question has roots in the “forever foreigner” stereotype, which treats AAPI people like perpetual outsiders, even if they were born in the United States. “No matter how long we’ve been here, we’re always still an outsider,” she said. “We see it again and again on our screens, being made fun with exaggerated foreign accents. And there’s nothing wrong with being an immigrant or with having an accent, but it’s those stereotypical portrayals that magnify it.”

That stereotype manifested in several ways after 9/11, especially among South Asian and Arab Americans who experienced a staggering 1,600% rise in racism and Islamophobia after the Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, according to the FBI. More than 30% of Indian and South Asian adults have also experienced heavier scrutiny at airport checkpoints, the Pew Center study found.

Then during the pandemic, when initial reports traced the virus’ origins to  Wuhan, China, the “forever foreigner” stereotype ramped up again. One in 5 Americans still think the AAPI community is responsible for the pandemic, and 1 in 4 Americans believe Asian Americans remain more loyal to their country of origin than the United States, according to the Asian American Foundation study. 

Schick recalled how many media outlets mispronounced or avoided saying the victims’ names in the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, in which a man killed six Asian women. To help, AAJA issued a pronunciation guide for the victims’ names, along with guidance on how to cover the incident with proper context. 

“My advice is for journalists to listen more, get to know people and be open to learning something different about yourself or others,” Schick said.

The exotic, submissive woman

The spa shootings also resurfaced the Asian American stereotype of the exotic, submissive woman, with some outlets referring to the victims doing sex work or being part of sex trafficking. 

Seeing AAPI women as exotic and submissive has origins in the first known Chinese immigrant to the United States, Afong Moy, a teenager who emigrated in 1834. Nicknamed “The Chinese Lady,” Moy worked for two wealthy merchant brothers, Nathaniel and Frederick Carnes, who made her perform with bound feet in a New York City parlor for many hours, singing Chinese songs, advertising the Carnes’ vases to an audience of predominantly white men. She attracted so much attention that the siblings sent her on a national tour, where thousands of people came to see her in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and other cities.

A woman remembers the victims of the Atlanta spa shooting at a New York vigil on March 19, 2021. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A few decades later, many Chinese people came to California for the Gold Rush; the men worked on the railroad, but the women were misled or sold into sex work. Soon, it led to the passing of the Page Act of 1875, a law that banned any further immigration of Chinese women into the U.S., calling them “immoral.”

Sugihara pointed out that movies began to perpetuate this stereotype, resulting in a problematic portrayal of Vietnamese sex workers in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film, “Full Metal Jacket.”

 “That phrase ‘Me love you long time’ is still, unfortunately, a common phrase used to sexually harass Asian women today,” she said, noting it expanded into two other negative characterizations of AAPI women: the mysterious Dragon Lady and the overbearing Tiger Mom.

Liu and Wu urged journalists to dive deeper into the histories of these Asian American stereotypes to avoid them in the future. “If we understand our history, we know that this didn’t just happen over one generation or two,” Liu said. “This has been percolating for forever.”

The weak, unsexually desirable man 

Asian men are no strangers to stereotypes, either. Back in the late 1800s, male Chinese immigrants in the United States experienced widespread racism and discrimination, which prevented them from taking lucrative jobs in mining, farming or manufacturing. Instead, they were limited to working in laundry service, which was considered a less manly, undesirable profession.

“White American workers accused Chinese workers of undermining American standard of living because employers got away with paying them less,” Wu said, adding that Asian men were also judged for leaving their families in China for the U.S. and for their diet, which included rice. “All these ideas about the insufficiency of Asian masculinity became part and parcel of this negative stereotype.” 

And that unfair characterization continued into the next century. A 2018 study by a group of sociology professors found that 90% of non-Asian women said they wouldn’t date an AAPI man. Wu pointed out that this categorization was perpetuated because Asian men excelled at nerdy, office jobs in tech and research — which soon became part of the stereotype Schick experienced during his 11 years in the armed forces. 

“It was a very macho, man-eat-man world,” he said. “I occasionally encountered that stereotype, and the only thing you could do is basically outlast it and prove it wrong.”

How journalists can fight Asian American stereotypes

Liu encourages student and early-career journalists to learn about AAPI history and get to know deeper parts of the many Asian communities that exist — and not see them as a monolith. Despite what the model minority myth perpetuates, 12 out of 19 Asian ethnic groups have poverty rates that matched or exceeded the national average in 2019, according to the Pew Research Center.

Liu says even AAPI journalists need to question what they think they know about various AAPI communities. “Give yourself a chance to explore, and the thread may seem hidden and disconnected at first, but it might take you back to your culture,” she said. “Part of being put in the boxes of these stereotypes means the layers are missing.”

Schick, who previously ran a nonprofit newsroom in Washington, D.C., advises journalists to examine their biases and let go of any preconceived notions about what their stories should be, allowing them to truly reflect the communities they cover.

“If you did the reporting correctly, you would have learned something new about the situation and maybe debunked some of your original thoughts,” he said. “Be open to somebody else describing the world for you, and don’t be too fixated on the story that you want to tell. Embrace the story that wants to come to the surface.”