Distorted cognition and Hollywood's indoctrination

Hollywood has a notorious record of stereotyping Asians.

Posted Mar 25, 2011

Ms Alexandra Wallace's rant posted on YouTube has generated outrage from many viewers and her words were regarded as "racist."  I perceive the issue differently. I think that what she said can be best described as manifesting distorted cognitions. In terms of stereotyping Asians/Asian Americans, Hollywood certainly has a much worse record.

I do not use the term racism to characterize Ms. Wallace's video because the use of "racism" to define or explain an action is very convenient, but it only gives people a superficial sense of understanding of an event as a moral violation, without offering the true comprehension about the target issue. Besides, the term is often simultaneously used both as the definition of and as the explanation for the alleged negative intergroup behavior, resulting in the statement "Racism causes racist acts," which is tautology. Furthermore, I don't think there is scientific validity of the racial classification as used in North America today, because there is no genetic evidence supporting the categorization. Labeling "race" as culture does not make it a scientific variable either (see my early posts: "How the use of "white vs. nonwhite contaminates criminology" and "Can race take the responsibility for hate crime?").

I think that the mistake she made involves "cognitive prejudice," which is defined as "cognitive distortions of the social reality, the indicators of which may include erroneous generalization and oversimplification, the formation of social attitudes before or despite objective evidence, illusory correlations and preexisting stereotypic judgments of a group, the lack of appreciation of situational constraints on actions of people who may be members of a group, and other inaccuracies in categorizing, evaluating, and explaining social entities" (Sun, 1993). In this sense, everyone may have some degree of cognitive prejudice when he/she misrepresents a false perception as true.

To be fair, it's quite normal for her to feel upset with the loud talks on cell phone when she was studying in the UCLA library for her finals. I would be bothered, too. If she followed the "American manners" to inform the librarian about the issue and let the staff to enforce the code of quietness, that would be the end of the whole issue. She could also write to the campus newspaper to raise the issue. There is no problem to use YouTube to express her concern. Her issue includes generalizing the behavior of some students (most likely international students from Japan) to the whole Asians, including Asian Americans. Additionaly, her imitation of the alleged Asian speech only suggests her ignorance and negative intention, because the stereotyped accent does not match any Asian dialect.

Cognitive prejudice can be increased or decreased, depending upon one's learning experiences and environments. Although there are no data about how the environments influence Ms. Wallace's perception of the world, it is safe to say the information she has been exposed to fails to help her develop more accurate understanding of social reality (as she said later that she didn't know "what possessed her" when posting the video online). If we want to reduce cognitive prejudice, we need to create learning environments that facilitate interpersonal communication and understanding. Most people who grow up in a setting isolated from cultural/international exchanges tend to rely on the popular media as the winder to know the world. In terms of stereotyping Asians/Asian Americans, Hollywood unfortunately has a notorious record.

From "Fu Manchu," "Charlie Chan," to the recent remake of the 1984 Cold War movie "Red Dawn," Hollywood has portrayed Asians as the perpetual aliens in America. As described in a recent Los Angeles Times article, the "Red Dawn" remake follows several teenagers in Spokane, Washington, who fight invading Chinese forces allied with Russia in the near future (in the original film, the Soviets partnered with Cubans). Yes, in order to make money in China with the movie, MGM is digitally erasing Chinese forces and symbols and substituting them with North Koreans. The LA Times may not be aware that the there were several protests against making the movie by Chinese-American community last year and the "Chinese solders" were actually played by South Korean actors (as reported in World Daily News, a Taiwanese newspaper), because Chinese actors refused to become part of the propaganda film. Someone may say the movie is just fiction. What's the problem with the entertainment? The answer is that some people would mistake this fiction as a documentary and act on this belief, because they have done so in the past.


Sun, K. (1993). Two types of prejudice and their causes. American Psychologist, 48(11), 1152-1153. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.48.11.1152