(Why) Do Asian Americans have a target on their backs?

A UCLA student's racist video raises troubling questions.

Posted Mar 16, 2011

This is a guest post by Anna Lau, Ph.D., a professor of clinical psychology at UCLA.

Stereotypes help people simplify information processing in a complex world. But this efficiency comes at a cost, usually bigotry. Ms. Wallace believes that Asians are rude, so she's more likely to attend to instances that support this stereotype and ignore evidence to the contrary. In other words, she suffers from confirmation bias, and in that she is not alone. (Note: at the beginning of her video Ms. Wallace gives a kind of shout-out to her Asian friends with whom she has no problem).

But what would embolden Ms. Wallace to post her anti-Asian sentiments so publicly, when two of five UCLA students are Asian American? I mean she took it all the way to "Ching-chong, ting-tong, ling-long," she only forgot to tug at the corners of her eyes to produce the full effect. Ching chong is the Asian American equivalent of the N-word. Have we not learned this from Rosie O'Donnell's gaffe? So, what possessed Ms. Wallace? A couple hypotheses to ponder...

1. Yellow Peril and the modern day threat of the Model Minority. The UCLA Asian Pacific Coalition's dignified and scholarly response drew parallels between the language Ms. Wallace invoked and historical public sentiments that led to the lynching of early Chinese immigrant laborers, the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. But what is maintaining these feelings today? Long before and ever since that Time Magazine cover, the model minority has been seen as a threat in American schools.

Maddux et al. (2008) showed that positive stereotypes of Asian Americans as smart and hard-working can arouse antipathy among other students. In one experiment, White college students were to imagine a scenario in which they were in a Chemistry class described as mostly Asian Americans, with some Whites, and a few Black and Latino students. A challenging project was assigned that would be graded on a curve, and the professor would assign lab partners. In one condition, subjects were told they were assigned to a partner named Yoshi, an Asian-sounding name. In this condition, there was no threat since the Asian American partner should be seen as an advantage. To establish a realistic threat in the other condition, subjects were paired up with Jamal, a Black sounding-name. After some filler tasks, subjects took part in a purportedly unrelated survey of perceptions of "groups in society." Subjects in the ‘Jamal' condition reported more dislike and cold feelings toward Asian Americans than those in the ‘Yoshi' condition.

These results are sort of amusing and it's tempting to dismiss these experiments as lacking ecological validity. But a study of actual race relations among students at UCLA showed that increased contact with students from other ethnic groups increased positive attitudes and reduced prejudice toward those groups for everyone EXCEPT Asian Americans (van Laar et al., 2005). This is a prime example of the model minority problem. 

The model minority stereotype has always been divisive, historically pitting ethnic minority groups against one another. It's a stereotype has fall-out for race relations on campuses around the country. Asian Americans are not safe from discrimination on campus because of their number. Actually the opposite is probably true.

2. The Perpetual Foreigner and De-humanization. Ms. Wallace called for Asians to take on American manners. Beyond the cell phone etiquette, she expressed her annoyance that Asian American students were bringing their mothers, fathers, uncles, aunties, brothers, sisters, grandmas and grandpas over from Asia with them. And all these old Asians overrun the apartments on the weekends to cook and clean for students who ‘can't fend for themselves' like real Americans. Ms. Wallace sets apart her Asian American peers as decidedly un-American. Using the ever-ubiquitous Implicit Association Test, it's pretty hard for most Americans to pair Asian American faces with the Statue of Liberty and stuff like that--that is, most of us harbor the implicit bias that Asian Americans are far from being Americans.

Yet, most Asian American UCLA students are U.S. born and not immigrants or international students. Ms. Wallace says ‘our school' in a way that says ‘not their school'. The perpetual foreigner stereotype is another divisive tool that separates ‘us' and ‘them'. When people can make this psychological segregation complete, it is much easier to insult, disparage, objectify. You know, like the Stanford Prison Experiment.

So, sadly I wasn't too surprised by ‘Asians in the Library.' I've learned that anti-Asian American sentiment is not only widespread, it's also socially acceptable. I used to be surprised, like when the UCLA Daily Bruin published a supposedly ‘satirical' editorial about how all the Asian American students on campus should be sent off to the new UC Merced campus to increase student body diversity in Westwood. I was also surprised when I heard that Jeremy Lin, Harvard University basketball star grew accustomed to shouts of ‘Chink' at college campuses all around the northeast. But, I am hopeful that is a great teachable moment on a campus that is dear to me. There is a way forward to address problems with campus climate, and I'm proud of the Bruins who have responded with dignity and grace to something that hurt.

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers: