A number of people may have the unwarranted impression that positive stereotypes about a minority community can be beneficial to that community, as they think that portraying an entire group of people in a positive, if narrow, light can help that community to succeed. However, this impression is far from the truth, as even stereotypes of communities as being hard-working and intelligent can lead to negative consequences not just for members of the community in question, but for other communities to which so-called “model minorities” can be compared. Though it may not be obvious to people not well-educated about the history of racism in the United States, positive minority stereotypes have long been used as a tool to disenfranchise and alienate minority races in a number of ways.
The question of how positive stereotypes can cause offense and harm has been brought to the forefront recently as a result of democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s casual invocation of Asian stereotypes on the campaign trail. One of Yang’s catchphrases, “The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math,” invokes a well-worn Asian stereotype, and during the third Democratic debate he quipped “I’m Asian, so I know a lot of doctors.” While supporters of Yang and Yang himself view these comments about his race as playful in-group references, others have seen these remarks as inappropriate and demonstrating ignorance of the harm Asian stereotypes have caused historically.
Yang has also drawn controversy lately for his reaction to being referred to with a racist slur by comedian and former SNL writer Shane Gillis who on a podcast called Yang a “Jew c—-k.” Gillis was fired for this and other racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks, prompting Yang to comment that while he found the insult hurtful, he did not think Gillis should lose his job and invited Gillis to have a conversation with him about the controversy, which Gillis accepted. Yang further commented that he had experienced a lot of anti-Asian sentiment over the course of his life and felt that discrimination against Asians was not taken as seriously as discrimination against other groups in America, but that in 2019 people have grown excessively sensitive about issues of race in some circumstances. Gillis did not apologize for this and other remarks, instead arguing that it is his job as a comedian to push boundaries, but commented that he respected NBC’s decision to remove him from the cast of SNL.
While Yang has fared better than other presidential contenders when it comes to discussing the issue of race, his repeated invocations of his own race on the campaign trail may come back to haunt him as the primary progresses.
Despite Yang’s willingness to open up a dialogue with Gillis about race, the candidate has drawn criticism for how we went about handling the controversy. Li Zhou, for instance, thinks that Yang’s frequent references to math and other stereotypical aspects of his Asian identity “[set] the tone for how many people may see Asian Americans and [perpetuate] a damaging caricature in the process.” Zhou points out that while stereotypes of Asian Americans tend to focus on intelligence and propensity for success in professional and academic environments, these characterizations have caused harm not only for Asian Americans but for other communities as well. According to Zhou, these stereotypes obscure diversity in the community, leading people to believe that all Asians have the same talents and interests, and Yang’s use of them panders to a white electorate which may be inclined to racist judgments.
Zhou also alludes to the history of the immigration of Asians to America and how their integration into American life led to the development of harmful stereotypes. In a 1966 op-ed piece published in the New York Times, sociologist William Petersen hailed Japanese-Americans as being the “model minority,” arguing that despite being the object of discrimination, this group of people has achieved a great degree of success relative to other “problem minorities,” a thinly-veiled attack on African Americans. This analysis, Zhou points out, fails to take into consideration the structural racism experienced by black people throughout American history as well as the fact that there were strict restrictions on immigrants from Asia to the United States, as only immigrants with a certain degree of educational or professional achievement were allowed to enter. The myth of the model minority, Zhou argues, is used to pit minorities against each other and further disenfranchise the individuals affected most by racism.
Yang’s comparison of society’s treatment of racist slurs targeting Asians versus those targeting other minorities also ignited criticism, as Yang observed that slurs like the n-word are treated more seriously than those against people like him. For this comment, Yang was accused of taking advantage of racism against black people for his own political ends and unfairly comparing the type of racism he experiences to the type of racism others experience, falsely implying an equivalency. While Yang has fared better than other presidential contenders when it comes to discussing the issue of race, his repeated invocations of his own race on the campaign trail may come back to haunt him as the primary progresses.