Asian-American Stereotypes: “A Whole Different Issue”

Jeremy Lin puts up a shot in a game against the LA Lakers last year.
Jeremy Lin shoots in a game against the LA Lakers last year.

60 Minutes devoted a segment of its April 7th show to Jeremy Lin. Lin’s is a great story—born to Taiwanese parents in California, he graduated from Harvard and now plays basketball for the NBA’s Houston Rockets. The interview covers a range of topics, including culture, race, religion, and . . . prejudice.

When Charlie Rose asked Lin about why he didn’t get any scholarship offers from Division I schools, even though he was named California’s player of the year in high school, Lin replied: “Well, I think the obvious thing, is . . . in my mind is . . . that I was Asian-American, which, you know, is a whole different issue, but that’s . . . I think that was a barrier.”

“When you say because you were an Asian-American, what is that?” said Rose. “Because there’s nothing about being an Asian-American that doesn’t give you the ability to play basketball.”

“Yeah,” said Lin. “I mean it was just, I mean it’s a . . . it’s a stereotype.”

“Average” Asian Americans?
While Lin certainly contradicts some common Asian-American stereotypes, he seems to fit with others.

A study by the Pew Research Center, “The Rise of Asian Americans,” gained attention last year for announcing that Asian-Americans had surpassed Hispanics as the largest group of immigrants entering the US. But there is a lot of other information in the detailed report, including:

  • In 2010, 49% of Asian Americans age 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or more (compared to 28% of the overall US population).
    “More than six-in-ten (61%) adults ages 25 to 64 who have come from Asia in recent years have at least a bachelor’s degree. This is double the share among recent non-Asian arrivals, and almost surely makes the recent Asian arrivals the most highly educated cohort of immigrants in U.S. history.”
  • The median household income of Asian Americans is $66,000 (US population: $49,800)
  • 93% agree with the statement, “Americans from my country of origin group are very hard working.”
  • 50% identify as part of or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 28% identify or lean Republican.
  • The largest religious affiliation for Asian Americans is Christian, at 42%. The next largest group is “Unaffiliated,” at 26%.

A Double-Edged Sword
While much of the information in the Pew report reflects well on Asian-Americans, some feel that the statistics can have negative consequences.

Deepa Iyer, executive director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, told NPR that

it’s really important to understand that the community’s not a monolith and that we can’t use this information to think that it is the norm across all Asian-Americans because, historically, our communities have either been seen as model minorities or we’ve been put into the box of being disloyal, suspicious or we’ve been put into a box of foreigners who take away jobs. And the reality is that none of these stereotypes are true. Right?

Iyer wants us to remember that within the group of Asian Americans are many subgroups, representing people from a great diversity of circumstances and from a great diversity of countries—such as China, India, Vietnam, Pakistan, Cambodia, and the Philippines. (The Pew site has a great graphic that breaks down the demographics for each country of origin, here.)

Asian immigrants themselves tend to identify more with their country of origin than simply as “Asians.” While 19% most often refer to themselves as “Asian” or “Asian American,” 62% most often describe themselves by their country of origin, as in “Chinese” or “Chinese American.” Only 14% most often call themselves “American.”

Academic Robots?
The question of what to call oneself can be especially relevant to high-achieving high-school graduates. According to an Associated Press article, published in USA Today, some are refusing to check the “Asian” box on applications for top colleges. That is because they believe they need to score hundreds of points higher on test scores to compete with applicants from other ethnic groups. Critics of the current system believe

that Asian-Americans are evaluated not as individuals, but against the thousands of other ultra-achieving Asians who are stereotyped as boring academic robots.

Some applicants refuse to mark any box in the race section, but some who are mixed race, have a choice of which box to check.

Tao Tao Holmes is a student at Yale. Her mother is Chinese-born, and her father is a white American. She told AP:

My math scores aren’t high enough for the Asian box. I say it jokingly, but there is the underlying sentiment of, if I had emphasized myself as Asian, I would have (been expected to) excel more in stereotypically Asian-dominated subjects.

Holmes calls herself “an American . . . an Asian person who grew up in America.”

Susanna Koetter, another student at Yale, said that her racial identity changes depending on where she’s at. The daughter of a Korean mother and a white American father, Koetter said she’s “not fully Asian-American. I’m mixed Asian-American. When I go to Korea, I’m like, blatantly white.” But back in the US, when it came time to fill out her college application, did she leave the “Asian” box unchecked? No. “That would be messed up,” she said. “I’m not white.”

(“Linsanity: Jeremy Lin’s Rise to Stardom,” 60 Minutes, CBS News, April 7, 2013; “The Rise of Asian Americans,” Pew Research Center, June 19, 2012, updated April 4, 2013; Asian-Americans on the Rise,” NPR, June 20, 2012; “Some Asians’ College Strategy: Don’t Check Asian,” USA Today, December 4, 2011)

[photo: “Jeremy Lin 林书豪,” by DvYang, used under a Creative Commons license]


4 thoughts on “Asian-American Stereotypes: “A Whole Different Issue”

  1. Great thoughts here Craig! I think the biggest misconception is that “Asian” describes this group. Like you said, Chinese are different than Japanese and different from Indians.


  2. It’s so funny that they’re making such a big deal about emphasizing Jeremy Lin’s Asianness when in truth he’s probably not that much Asian at all. He’s just an American kid that looks Asian. Why can’t people get past that difference? Also, in reality the first “Asian” to make a big impact in basketball was actually Yao Ming. See instant otherness right away. Also, I hate pandering to the masses based on one’s ethnicity. It’s an insult to those who actually like the game and are actually trying to burst stereotypes.

    Me: why do you like Jeremy Lin?
    Random Asian dude: because he’s Asian.
    Me: facepalm.
    I’d prefer an answer like oh, he’s got a decent midrange shot, is a good passer etc…


    1. Thanks for the comment. Interesting points. Lin is a first-generation Asian-American (or second-generation, depending how you use the term), and he still seems to have some pretty strong family ties to Taiwan—and holding basketball camps there over the summer—so I can see why Taiwan/Asia would root for him. As for Yao Ming . . . so sorry to see his career end.


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