Stereotypes heighten problems surrounding mixed identities

People often juggle multiple identities, and specifically for Americans there is duality between American heritage and that of their background culture.

Students and staff of all races and ethnicities gathered Wednesday afternoon for Dr. Richard Q. Shin’s lecture, titled ‘Asian-American Ethnic Identity Development: Let’s stop hating on each other and start working together.’ The program, which was sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, stressed the importance of finding a cultural identity that balances both one’s Asian and American cultural influences.

The Asian-American community is not a concrete homogenous group, said Shin, an assistant professor in the counseling and human services department in the School of Education. According to his presentation, there are 13.5 million Asian-Americans in the United States, which equals about 5 percent of the population. In that demographic, 40 different nationalities are represented, from Chinese to Samoan to Hmong. Each group has a different set of migration experiences, levels of acculturation and different degrees of identification with its home country. The differences between individuals of these groups are even more numerous, and the existence of so many differences requires understanding both among Asian-Americans and between them and other ethnic groups.

‘Prejudice is a social construction,’ Shin said. He added the things people learn on an individual level either challenge or reinforce the stereotypes constantly surrounding them. Part of separating themselves from those stereotypes is forming a unique cultural identity.

Identity, Shin said, comes from messages the media, our peers and cultures send us. He noted the lack of mention about prominent Asian-American figures in textbooks and the lack of prominence even now, except maybe icons Connie Chung and Jackie Chan.

To explain the importance of balancing the many factors of one’s cultural identity, Shin offered two hypothetical vignettes about Asian-American college students. One student, a Japanese-American named David, works on several Asian campus events and does not think of himself as American at all. On the other end of the spectrum was Yvonne, a Korean-American who ‘doesn’t see color’ and does not want to think of herself as Asian, only as an American.

‘I’ve met people like Yvonne,’ said Tae-Sun Kim, from the Office of Multicultural Affairs. ‘I feel sorry for (them), because it’s clearly an internalization of racism.’

As with any minority, Asian-Americans can often be subject to the stereotypes of mainstream white society. Like Yvonne, many Asian-American children growing up may be ashamed of their parents’ broken English, the foods they eat at home or other cultural markers, because they do not want to be affiliated with those stereotypes. Racial prejudice can lead to low self-esteem and to a desire to escape their heritage, according to Shin.

‘Because we live in a white-dominated society, internalized racism is a given,’ said Christina Parish, an adjunct professor in The College of Arts and Sciences. ‘Take the example from earlier (of women who get plastic surgery on their eyelids). Society sets certain standards of beauty, and when you’re far from close to those standards, that (internal racism) is heightened.’

‘There are a lot of unfair categories imposed by the white majority,’ said Naoko Hashimoto, a senior psychology and women’s studies major. She said the key is to break out of those stereotypes.

Asian men, Shin said, are usually thought of as nerdy asexual guys who speak broken English, while Asian women are either the obedient housewife or the over-sexualized ‘hoochie.’ He suggested that these stereotypes may play into the high rate of Asian women who date and marry non-Asians.

‘I’ve seen it be the same in the (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, where Asian men will seek out white men,’ he said. Accepting generalizations about race can be destructive to one’s sense of identity.

Shin asked that everyone, regardless of race, be more sensitive to the stereotyping of Asians in American society.

‘We can’t afford to be divisive,’ he said.


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