A Look into Stereotypes: Why Aren't There More Asian American Politicians?
By Tony Shu (Wellesley High School Student)
The 115th Congress has a record number of Asian American members: 18. Yet, this unprecedented figure amounts to just more than 3% of the total 535 members of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. If Asian Americans make up roughly 6% of the U.S. population, why aren’t there more Asian American congressmen or politicians in general?
Does the historical political and physical exclusion of Asian Americans still have an impact on how they participate in civic life today? It has been more than a century since the signing of the Chinese Exclusion Act and seven decades since the closing of the last Japanese internment camp of World War Two. But today, these demographics have some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the nation (trailing whites by nearly 20% in certain federal elections) and are acutely underrepresented in our government.
Negative stereotypes were the root cause of these government sponsored programs that separated and rejected Asian Americans. Japanese Americans during World War Two were associated with the overseas enemy, despite the fact that the majority were legal citizens (and loyal ones too). Therefore, the propaganda that portrayed the overseas Japanese as dangerous, barbaric animals wrongfully affected Japanese Americans as well. The choice of internment revealed the belief that Japanese Americans could not be trusted to lead independent, unmonitored lives, let alone participate in civic life. Many decades earlier, another Asian demographic, the Chinese, were not even allowed to enter the United States at all. Historians have noted that although the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was presented as a means to protect American laborers, it was actually racial prejudice that advanced it through Congress. At the time, Chinese immigrants were seen as “permanently alien, threatening, and inferior on the basis of their race.” Some politicians believed that Chinese immigrants were “dangerous to American institutions.” Similar to the situation of the Japanese Americans, the perceived threat of the Chinese led to the development of an identity as perpetual outsiders. On the other hand, there were a few comparatively positive Chinese stereotypes: people saw them as industrious and unobtrusive.
It is exactly these ‘positive’ stereotypes, however, that have come to haunt the Asian Americans of today, holding them back from being perceived as effective leaders. A Harvard Business Review article notes that according to studies conducted in 2001, 2005, and 2010, common stereotypes of Asian Americans include high competence accompanied by social ineptitude/nerdiness (analogous to the ‘industrious’ stereotype) as well as a lack of dominance, shyness, and passivity (parallel to the ‘unobtrusive’ stereotype). In the studies, participants who held these views gave lower leadership ratings to Asians and were even “less likely to want to interact with or learn more about Asians.” Just as in the past, these damaging stereotypes continue to maintain the social and political isolation of Asian Americans. As politicians are associated with the traits of masculinity, assertiveness, and charisma, the perception of Asian Americans as just the opposite hurts their chances when they run for office.
Despite all this, Asian Americans cannot simply be considered as victims of their situation. That would gloss over the fact that to an extent, some Asian Americans play into and (perhaps unwittingly) support the stereotypes of them for the sake of ease and safety and out of fear of breaking with the norm. It is true that certain demographic groups do share similar traits and beliefs and it is absolutely fine to embrace them as well as to celebrate one’s own culture and heritage; however, it is harmful when someone feels the need to change who they are in order to fit a certain image or stereotype. In their research paper, Asian American Women and Racialized Femininities: "Doing" Gender across Cultural Worlds, Karen Pyke and Denise Johnson interviewed Asian American women and observed the extent to which they internalize the stereotypes of themselves. A woman named Elizabeth admits, “I feel like when I’m with other Asians that I’m the typical passive [Asian] person...that’s what’s expected of me and if I do say something and if I’m the normal person that I am, I’d stick out like a sore thumb. So I just blend in with the situation.” Although Elizabeth understands that she is not acting as her ‘normal’ self, she is willing to trade her individuality for the comfort of conformity. Thanh, another young woman, frustratedly expresses, “When [my former boyfriend] found out that I had spirit, kind of a wild side to me, he didn’t like it at all. Period. And when I spoke up ― [expressed] my opinions ― he got kind of scared.” This one instance of backlash for breaking stereotypes is representative of the broader dynamics of the business and political world. As the authors of the previously mentioned Harvard Business Review article recognize, Asian Americans who defy stereotypes and act dominantly and assertively (‘leader-like’ traits), are less liked. Thus, the cycle continues: Asian Americans are perceived as lacking leadership qualities and when they do exhibit those qualities, they are penalized and some may then choose to conform to and reinforce the exact damaging stereotypes that held them back in the first place.
Just as Asian Americans cannot be let off as victims, we also cannot avoid this problem by remaining as bystanders. Although it is difficult to change the longstanding views of millions of people, it is relatively easy to initiate the change by first looking at oneself.
The first step that we, as Asian Americans, must take is to become self-aware. We must be self-loving, self-respecting, and willing to accept our uniqueness and our own interests, whether they be in politics, business, the arts, the sciences, or anything else. We must be open-minded risk-takers who engage in new activities, interact with unfamiliar people, and voice our opinions within society and in politics. We must be willing to defy stereotypes (and break the harmful cycles they cause) when they do not represent who we are, regardless of the cost we may incur. Asian Americans have never been and will never be one monotonous group. We are not defined by our parents and the past and we should not be limited by the expectations of others. At the same time, we must appreciate our Asian background, for it can be used as a stepping stone to accelerate our own growth in America. Existing simultaneously in both worlds broadens our perspectives and provides us with different and creative ways to fully express ourselves. Asian Americans can be leaders, Asian Americans can be politicians, heck, Asian Americans can be anything that we want to be.
There may not be one definitive answer for why there are not more Asian Americans in politics, but acknowledging and confronting the harmful stereotypes of the present and their deep roots in the past can open our eyes to the ways in which we can move toward ensuring that Asian Americans reach their full potential in all fields.
This is a story and journey of more than just one demographic group. As it is predicted that America will become a majority minority nation in the coming decades, we must all take a look at how we treat and think of our nation’s minorities and immigrants. For as we’ve seen with the treatment of Asian Americans in the past, our thoughts, beliefs, and actions today will undoubtedly have an impact on the generations of tomorrow. Let’s make that impact a positive one.
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Here's how author Tony Shu suggests you can get involved: National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development