The class’s discussion of “positive stereotypes” on Thursday from the Sui Sin text particularly fascinated me. The reading hinted at the perception that Chinese men are industrious and hardworking, a characteristic often attributed to them in the early twentieth century during heavy immigration to the American west coast. This labeling was not especially hateful when compared to other subhuman or animalistic depictions of Chinese men at the time. Thus, it begs the question, what harm can positive stereotypes even do?
Humans naturally judge their surroundings and make assumptions about others as a primitive, survival instinct. With constant stimuli coming its way, the brain must sort and categorize information to determine appropriate behavior. Thus, preconceived notions are born. In use, these permeate into mass society through cultural ties and then perpetuate norms. This is where the threat of positive stereotypes lies.
A close friend’s life at Vanderbilt represents the underlying harm. She is a 5’10, strong woman of color who speaks her mind and dedicates time to issues close to her heart. From a loving family in Memphis, she worked her entire high school career to be admitted to VU. And once here, she has often found herself in uncomfortable situations.
“What time is y’all’s game this weekend?”
“Congrats on last week’s win!”
“What sport do you play?”
Despite her academic excellence, she frequently feels the victim of positive stereotypes. Comments like these are not meant to be malicious or nasty, but rather are innocent examples of racial profiling. Her intellect and extensive accomplishments are undermined when her place on this campus is automatically assumed to be that of a student athlete.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with playing a sport and having physical prowess. But this skill set is a historical generalization about African Americans in the United States, designed to limit their potential. By saying blacks are better at sports and more athletic, this implies they are closer to nature, more in touch with ancestors, and somewhat less dynamic than whites. This creates a division between black and white in terms of ability: whites are academic, intellectual, and complicated, while blacks are physical, muscular, and simple.
Positive stereotypes do not seem insulting from the outside. After all, being industrious is a desirable trait. However, this adjective was used to flag Chinese men as ideal candidates for incredibly punishing, demanding labor. In turn, this typecast Asian immigrants as only fit for certain work and certain opportunities, reinforcing an unspoken, racial hierarchy in America that left the best for whites. Stereotyping has utility, but ultimately does more damage than good, even when perceived as harmless.