In April 2014, the public was collectively shocked when University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School unveiled the results of a study examining racial gender biases in faculty mentoring. This finding particularly struck a chord: “We see tremendous bias against Asian students and that’s not something we expected. So a lot of people think of Asians as a model minority group. We expect them to be treated quite well in academia, and at least in the study and in this context we see more discrimination against Indian and Chinese students than against other groups.”

For most of the American public, such a finding was confounding. After all, for many Americans, it seems Asians reign at elite colleges and universities and go on to live the American dream. Eugene Volokh, for example, in this Washington Post piece, points to the overrepresentation of Asians at the Silicon Valley behemoth of Google as an example of “how the Asians became white.”

Statistics can be deceptive, just like our own stereotypes about Asians in America. If Americans think Asians have truly made it—or even have an unfair advantage—perhaps it’s time to think again:

1. In Higher Education

In a 2012 Op-Ed in the New York Times, Carolyn Chen noted, “If you are Asian, your chances of getting into the most selective colleges and universities will almost certainly be lower than if you are white.” She points out that while Asians comprise some 40 to 70 percent of the populations at elite public high schools (which admit students solely on grades), they only comprise some 12 to 18 percent of the student body at Ivy League universities. Things look even more sinister when you add in Ron Unz’s observations regarding an overall decline in the percentage of Asian students from 1992 to 2011—a period when the Asian population in the US nearly doubled. (White enrollment during the same period remained steady.) Let’s not forget the “SAT admissions gap”—according to this 2009 study from Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, Asians must score 140 points higher on the SATs than white applicants to gain admission to selective universities. Is it any surprise, then, that a growing number of half-white/half-Asian college applicants have chosen to identify as “white” when applying to the Ivies?

2. In the Workplace

In his 2011 New York Magazine essay Paper Tigers, Wesley Yang delivered one of the most compelling meditations on the “Bamboo Ceiling”—”an invisible barrier that maintains a pyramidal racial structure throughout corporate America, with lots of Asians at junior levels, quite a few in middle management, and virtually none in the higher reaches of leadership.” Look no further than the Committee of 100, a national Chinese American leadership organization, for evidence of how Asians—who comprise approximately 5 percent of the US population—are drastically underrepresented in leadership positions. Their 2004 Asian Pacific American Corporate Board Report Card highlighted that Asians filled a paltry one percent of the Fortune 500 corporate director seats in the US, and their 2005 Asian Pacific American Higher Education Report Card revealed that only 2.5 percent of the positions of president, provost, and chancellor were held by Asians.

Further surprising to most Americans, a 2005 Gallup Poll showed that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders reported more work discrimination than any other group (30 to 31 percent). This is a finding the Center for Work-Life Study confirmed in their 2011 report on Asian America, where “Twenty-five percent of Asians feel that they face workplace discrimination because of their ethnicity, while only 8 percent of African-Americans, 9 percent of Hispanics and 4 percent of Caucasians believe this to be the case.” Sadly, the 2012 University of Toronto study “Prescriptive Stereotypes and Workplace Consequences for East Asians in North America” showed that participants disliked dominant Asians in the workplace more than non-dominant Asians, suggesting Americans still prefer their Asian coworkers to fit the stereotype of a meek follower who “stays in their place.”

But this is nothing new. In their 1990 paper “Asian-American Educational Achievements: A Phenomenon in Search of an Explanation,” authors Stanley Sue and Sumie Okazaki early on proposed “that Asian Americans perceive, and have experienced, restrictions in upward mobility in careers or jobs that are unrelated to education.”

3. In Hollywood

To borrow the Hunger Games line, “the odds may never be in your favor” if you’re an Asian American actor aspiring to a leading role in American TV or the movies. According to Paula Long Lee in Salon, there’s always that “expendable Asian crewmember” who ends up getting killed off action films, from 2003’s X-men 2 to the remake of Godzilla. But that’s not nearly as telling as the stereotypical typecasting over the years, from the sinister Fu Manchu and submissive Madame Butterfly to the cringeworthy Long Duk Dong. In a 1998 academic paper titled “Getting the Message: Media images and stereotypes and their effect on Asian Americans,” author Teresa Mok contends “media do not often portray the diversity that is inherent within the Asian American culture and that such a paucity of Asian images may greatly affect perceptions Asian Americans may hold both of their own racial group and of the larger society.”

It’s ironic that Hollywood ignores Asians even as they’ve become superstars on Youtube and winners of many reality TV shows. Not surprisingly, young Asian American actors are increasingly leaving Hollywood for the greener pastures of Asia, becoming those heartthrobs and heroes and finally living a new version of the “American dream”—just not in America.

4. In Sports

If the sporting world is the ultimate meritocracy, why did Mirai Nagasu—who took the bronze in the US Figure Skating Championships—lose her place on the Olympic team to Ashley Wagner, who placed fifth? According to Jeff Yang, it’s a matter of marketing—that the US Figure Skating Association chose the girl who most embodied “the idea of the ‘golden girl’— a term first applied to one of Olympic skating’s early superstars, Sonja Henie, and which has survived since then through the years as an appellation for a particular type of skater: Blonde, ivory-skinned, willowy, slender.” Yang also points out that snubbing Nagasu in favor of silver medalist Polina Edmunds (another “golden girl”) doesn’t make sense in light of the USFSA’s own criteria.

What about Jeremy Lin and his uphill road to the NBA and Linsanity? As Gene Demby notes on NPR, Lin’s height was consistent with the typical point guard, his family were huge basketball fans and supporters, and his outstanding performance in high school basketball led to frequent coverage of Lin in the local media. Despite that impressive resume, Demby emphasizes that “not one of the 351 colleges with a Division I basketball program offered [Lin] a scholarship to play ball for them.” Lin himself has even acknowledged that being Asian American worked against him in the world of high school and college drafts for basketball.

5. In the Dating Scene

Justin Chan spoke for generations of Asian men when he wrote, “Are Asian Men Undateable?” in Policy Mic. Years of pernicious stereotypes have branded Asian men as emasculated, weak, asexual, and even too small in a certain department—essentially, editing them out of the most eligible bachelor pool. Not surprisingly, Freakonomics calculated that an Asian man would need to earn $247,000 more than a white man to be equally appealing to a white woman. That’s like requiring every Asian guy to own a Bentley before asking out the white girl next door.

But don’t envy the women, even though the late 2013 findings from the dating app “Are You Interested” prove what we’ve all suspected—that all men (especially white men) have a thing for Asians. As Elise Hu wrote at NPR “…it becomes a problem for the Asian women — Am I just loved because I’m part of an ethnic group that’s assumed to be subservient, or do I have actual value as an individual, or is it both?” Meanwhile, she adds, “white men never have to question whether they’re attractive to others because of a fetish, that’s for sure.”


Further Reading:


Photo Credit: Kheel Center via flickr

About The Author

Jocelyn Eikenburg
writer, award-winning blogger

Jocelyn Eikenburg is a writer and award-winning blogger who runs Speaking of China, a blog examining love, family, and relationships in China as well as Asian interracial dating. She has been interviewed by the BBC about her blog and cross-cultural marriage to a Chinese national. Jocelyn’s writing is also featured in Asian Jewish Life, Matador Network, and the Global Times, along with anthologies including How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit.

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  • nc

    Just a note about work place discrimination. I’ve seen studies from Canada and Australia (no US studies?) that showed résumés with Asian names but were otherwise identical to other résumés received 50% less call backs.

    Also Chinese men who had the same qualifications as white men received considerably less pay. See here.

    http://m.aljazeera.com/story/201312236385578609

    • Thanks for sharing, nc! Your comment is consistent with what I’ve shared above — it’s sad that our society still discriminates in such insidious ways.

  • It’s no different here in Bolehland. Meritocracy won’t get you far. It’s all pretty much about race. You may be an excellent student, but you won’t find a place in the local uni unless you meet the race factor. Okay, a token number to appear nice lah. Ditto in the public service, you hardly find any non Malays holding the top post – in fact, you find none, I would say! In the US of A, maybe they don’t spell it out loud. In Bolehland, we have the ‘bumiputera’ (native) prerogative thing. Haha. Nice!

    • That’s really sad, ordinary malaysian — and of course ultimately Malaysia loses out. (Just as countries like the US lose out when they discriminate against talented individuals based on race, ethnicity and more.)

  • David

    Ordinary Malaysian:

    The national policy in Malaysia regarding Malays has led to “brain drain” from the country. I was in Malaysia last month, and I still insist that lack of skills was the main reason for loosing MH 370 when it was in the Malaysian Airspace north of Penang.

    • Thanks David. Interesting theory — it sounds plausible, especially since brain drain would certainly impact the quality of talent in a country.

  • This is the reason why I read more books rather than watch TV. Why support something that made me feel bad about myself for years and years? Last year a Pinoy guy and I watched Fast and Furious together, and the AM/WF couple that was there ended up getting killed…ugh, talk about something that leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.

    • Yeah, I heard about that happening in the Fast and the Furious movie. Argh! (And yes, books rock!)

  • plorf

    I’m surprised this hasn’t garnered any attention or comments so far.

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  • Cori

    Ashley Wagner actually got 4th, not 5th in the 2014 US Championships. As a figure skater who coaches and is a gold medalist in MIF, USFS was justified in sending Wagner over Nagasu. I am a huge fan of both ladies, but Nagasu’s history in the 2 years leading up to that nationals was inconsistent. Along with that, she has a long history of underrotations and is often hit hard on that internationally (although she has improved this a bit since then). Wagner, on the other hand, had a strong history- consistently qualifying for Grand Pix final, top 10 at worlds. Her skate at that nationals did not reflect her normal abilities, and she has definelty proven this since 2014 (she has medaled at worlds- the first time a US lady had done so in 10 years). USFS was also not deciding between Wagner and Nagasu- they were deciding between Nagasu and Edmonds from what I’ve heard from people on the selection committee.

  • 5 Second Truth

    Asians have it fine.