Are media stereotypes responsible for identity crises in Asian-Americans, and do they contribute to social diffidence in Asian men and the high rate of out-dating of Asian women?
This is certainly a loaded question! It is a topic that gets debated, analyzed and thrashed out by any Asian-Americans seeking the societal and political advancement of their community in America. I think it would be fair to say that most Asian-Americans are dissatisfied with how Asians are depicted in the media and film, and many believe that these depictions contribute to anti-Asian discrimination.
There are still yet others in the Asian-American community who go further than this in suggesting that stereotyping leads to crises of identity for Asians, a supposed diffidence amongst Asian men (if indeed Asian men are generally diffident!), and causes Asian women to fawn over white men! This seems to be a somewhat popularly held belief within the general Asian-American population. I agree entirely that negative media stereotypes foster racist attitudes, and perhaps even desensitize viewers to the inhumanity of racism toward Asians; but, can media depictions be implicated as the major cause of diffidence, identity issues and sexual obsession to the degree that some in the community would suggest?
I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say that many – perhaps most – Asian-Americans see media depictions as one of the major, if not the major, stumbling block to the advancement of the community. In this essay I will explore these ideas and present a solid case for why I believe that so much focus on the idea that changing the media will be a resolution to these problems may itself hold back the community.
For me, there is no doubt that Asian-Americans experience identity and assimilation issues. A sense of not belonging, being an outsider and perhaps even isolation are somewhat common experiences for Asian-Americans. Media rejection of images of Asians as Americans may certainly exacerbate this problem. The issue of confidence levels amongst Asian-American men is often cited as evidence of media emasculation, and that stereotyping leads to disempowered Asian men. Certainly the most contentious issue is that of interracial dating and the role the media plays in the high outdating rates of Asian women. The media is often cited as being responsible for brainwashing young Asian-American girls who subsequently grow up craving white men.
All of these phenomena are real; many Asians do experience identity crises, many Asian men have a sense of disempowerment, and a substantial percentage of Asian-American women do show a preference for non-Asian men. But is it too simplistic of an assessment to blame media depictions for these realities? I believe that this thinking is inaccurate and perhaps even damaging. Individuals do not derive their identity entirely from what they observe in the media or film and the drives that motivate any human being seem to be far more complex (and often subconscious) than simple reactions to media depictions would suggest. In a strange twist of irony, suggesting that Asians can be so easily influenced in this way is itself a negative depiction, and in some ways, may contribute to the sense of disempowerment that Asians experience. If media depictions aren’t the primary culprit, then what can explain these phenomena? For me the answer is obvious; persistent racial harassment throughout childhood is more likely to result in identity and confidence issues than negative media stereotypes.
To illustrate, I’ll briefly describe some of the experiences common to Asian-Americans who are raised in the United States, and I have very little doubt that many Asian-Americans reading this will be very familiar with the experiences I describe. Most American children of Asian descent will experience racism in varying degrees from the moment they enter the school system aged five, until they graduate high school and perhaps even beyond into college. The nature of this racism will vary; name-calling, vulgar imitations of “Asian” accents, and mockery of Asian physical ethnic characteristics on one end of the scale, with violence, and physical intimidation on the other (although these days harassment seems to be slowly developing a more violent character). This type of harassment is often a regular ordeal, occurring daily for many.
Sadly, for many Asian-American children, the adults whose job it is to ensure their safety (teachers and administrators) seem unable or are simply reluctant to create an environment where harassment of Asians is marginalized or addressed in any meaningful way. In fact, the sheer routine prevalence and apparent acceptance of harassment of Asian children as normal casts an almost surreal sheen on the whole subject, since for the most part it is ignored or swept under the carpet. Thus, the trauma of such experiences are often underplayed, not believed, or simply denied.
It seems more plausible that these experiences of racism and denial play a much larger role in shaping what Asian-Americans believe about themselves, their identity, and perhaps even influences their dating choices, more than any media depiction possibly could. What could be more obvious? Through the medium of racially motivated harassment young Asian-Americans are given the clear message that they are deficient, physically unattractive, unwelcome, and generally less than. The problem is further exacerbated by the attitude that these anti-Asian attitudes are not abnormal.
It is generally accepted that individuals form much of their sense of identity, self-perception, self-esteem and ideas of their place in the world during childhood and adolescence. Given that the experiences of many Asian children are dominated throughout their school lives by demeaning harassment and even threats of violence from their non-Asian peers, it seems far more reasonable to propose these factors as more primary causes of confidence and identity issues, and which in turn may even offer some partial explanation for high out-dating rates amongst Asian women.
It’s clear then, that the experience of racism in childhood is likely to be more damaging to the psyche of Asian-Americans than media depictions ever could be, and the issues under discussion that are often associated with negative media influence may actually not be the result of media stereotyping. It is evident that this explanation is obsolete and that striving to change media depictions in the belief that this would address these issues would actually fail to accomplish this goal.
By conflating the two issues and assuming a common resolution, we are in some ways ourselves failing to acknowledge the gravity of the effects of school racism on young Asian-Americans and how this may affect them throughout their lives. This presumption may also smother any perception that there may even be a need for more thorough exploration and study of how racism affects Asian children and thus deprive them of the depth of community support and mentoring they may need in learning to overcome prejudice. Furthermore, it is impossible to address these issues effectively if the causes are misidentified.
It seems evident then, that although media stereotyping is an important issue that has negative effects on the Asian community and the way that we are perceived by the mainstream, its role in shaping the self-perceptions of young Asian-Americans is often over-rated and its power of influence is often overblown. I see no good reason to believe that media depictions have more power to influence the self-image of Asians than any negative experiences of discrimination that they may have grown up with.