Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Herd Of Cats

Overcoming Stereotypes.

Here in Asian-America much is discussed about the notion of overcoming stereotypes and for many (possibly most) people from the Asian minority the effect of being stereotyped is something that they encounter on a daily basis. Often these experiences might involve the mundane, but sometimes stereotyping can result in violence and even murder. So the issue of stereotyping is complex and covers a wide range of experiences ranging from irritating to fatal. I think it would be accurate to say that the process of stereotyping has a dehumanizing effect and by propagating the social acceptance of demeaning behaviour towards the Asian minority it upholds the structure of social marginalization and personal disempowerment.

America is known throughout much of the world for its commitment to freedom and the cause of individual attainment. Vague and often elusive, the notion of freedom can be and often is interpreted by different people to mean different things. The notion of freedom has been understood to comprise a negative and positive aspect (as examined by Isaiah Berlin). In simple terms, the negative aspect of freedom holds that there be few external restrictions from others within one's society (be it from other citizens or government and generally accepted to come in the form of society's laws) that interfere with one doing as one pleases - limited of course by laws that protect the common good. Positive freedom is more of an internal concept that involves the idea of individuals transcending personal limitations - which can often be in the form of social, cultural or even self created limitations - and achieving one's full potential as an individual.

If we look at stereotyping through the filter of negative and positive freedom we might notice that the process of stereotyping creates an environment that allows mainstream society to restrict our ability to enjoy freedom as completely as other Americans. Political propagation of mistrust of Asia plus social willingness to accept - as normal - behaviour that denigrates Asian peoples and trivializes violence against them (as popularized by the media) all serves to diminish our capacity to live our lives free from pervasive random acts of prejudice and nurtured ignorance.

So, even though we won't find any laws that explicitly deny the Asian minority its freedom, in practice social attitudes are promoted that allow and perhaps even encourage interference in our lives. This means that whilst institutional racism towards Asians is ostensibly limited, the free market promotion of negative attitudes encourages prejudice as an expression of individual choice driven by social expectation and demand, which, put another way, means that institutional racism towards Asians has become privatized. In other words, whatever negative freedoms American democracy guarantees its citizens is diminished through sometimes severe social restrictions resulting from society's eager embrace of negative stereotyping and the subsequent effects this has on the Asian minority.

For most Asians what this means is that despite some degree of economic prosperity (which many people assert is the measure of a minority's integration and "success"), society's promotion of demeaning xenophobic attitudes and behaviours results in routine experiences of baiting, harassment and bigotry that often carries with it the potential for violence. This contradicts ideas of positive liberty as outlined by Isaiah Berlin............
".....we are not acted upon by external nature or by other men as if I were a thing, or an animal, or a slave incapable of playing a human role........I feel free to the degree that I believe this to be true, and enslaved to the degree that I am made to realize that it is not".                                                                                      

Two Concepts Of Liberty
In this sense stereotyping can be viewed as a process of social engineering carried out by cultural institutions and apparently driven by market demand. The goal is to reinforce ideas of a social hierarchy that excludes Asians (especially Asian men), and diminishes our humanity whilst simultaneously mainstreaming hostile behaviours towards us and effectively creating social barriers that promote personal limitations.

What all of this means is that the struggle to overcome stereotyping is first and foremost a personal and private endeavour that seeks liberty from imposition of limitations through the emancipation of the mind. It is individuals that have to emerge as role models and positive archetypes (but not necessarily via the media) for others within their own community. The individual has the choice to decide the power that attempts at social limitation and stereotypes will exert in their lives. This means no centralized notions of what constitutes a "good" or "bad" stereotype where the individual is informed from above on what best represents them. Rather, the process becomes one of individual inquiry that discovers its own limitations and thresholds and by so doing informs the community and society at large about who or what it is.

This is not to say that the work of protesting media stereotyping is without value, but to suggest that we shift our focus away from the sometimes superficial idea that stereotypes are an insult and turn our attention to the real tragedy which is that stereotypes place social limitations on individuals from our community. For instance, I don't like stereotypes such as Long Duk Dong but not because it has the potential to make me look bad. If non-Asians are stupid enough to put that on me, then it's my job to make sure they understand who I really am. What should truly make us angry about the existence of such depictions is that Asian men, individuals perhaps much like myself, have had and to a large extent still have social limitations placed upon them that restrict their opportunities to realize their full potential in whatever their chosen field might be.


  1. Without a doubt there is an instantaneously disabling effect when we're hit with marginalizing comments in the workplace (or elsewhere in the public sphere). Whether I like it or not, want it or not, the sum of these encounters register into my identity and personality today. That, though, has been my edge because it's shaped me into a tougher advocate. The good: I don't back down. The bad: I'm overly defensive and hypersensitive to anything that even remotely begins to smell like marginalization. Yeah, I know. It's the sob story of every other ethnic minority. C'est la vie.

    Is there an alternative social policy to negative freedom?

    Emancipation of the mind. I like that.

  2. Hi TZ

    "The good: I don't back down."

    Remind me never to get on your bad side!

    "Without a doubt there is an instantaneously disabling effect when we're hit with marginalizing comments in the workplace (or elsewhere in the public sphere). Whether I like it or not, want it or not, the sum of these encounters register into my identity and personality today."

    That's exactly right. It amounts to an internal battle to overcome the limitating intentions inherent in social stigma.

    I think that this is a fundamental "ontology" for an Asian-American consciousness - to overcome personal limitions that have been imposed by a mainstream social consensus that exists within a political framework that apparently promotes individual attainment and potential. Society gives with one hand and takes with the other.

    Overcoming stereotypes occurs within the individual and should find expression in our daily interactions.