Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Steven Chu, "Positive" Stereotypes, and Asians as "Model Minority"

We had a candidate give a wonderful talk last week on the effects of stereotypes on members of the Asian American community. It is made interesting by the fact that many of the stereotypes are on their face positive -- hard-working, smart, disciplined. For everything prescribed by the Protestant work ethic, the Buddhists supposedly have you beaten.

She gave an interesting discussion of the effects of these expectations within and across social boundaries. Of course, for those who do match some aspect of the stereotype, you get no credit because that's just the way you are supposed to be and the mythical status means you are never smart, disciplined, or talented enough. For those whose talents, interests, and personalities are otherwise, you are looked at as if you were defective just for being normal, just for being you.

But, of course, the "positive" stereotype is not really positive. Asians may be viewed as a "model minority," but supposedly possessing these virtues gets turned into a character flaw by virtue of being apart from the norm. Hard work gets turned into works too hard, isn't independent enough. Disciplined becomes "isn't creative or resourceful." By supposedly making the majority look bad, it surely doesn't reflect problems in mainstream white American culture, but is made to reflect badly on the minority -- truthful or not. So, these "positive" stereotypes are not really positive.

This led me to think of Steven Chu. Surely, being a Nobel Prize winner in physics and Energy Secretary at a time when energy is of crucial national importance makes him a role model for anyone. But, of course, communities love when members of their own excel and they have every right to be prouder than proud. The question is what happens when your quite legitimate role models also reinforce stereotypes? Should the role be played down if the person both helps and hurts the community by being nothing but positive?