Asian Women LivingHomeThe Activism Issue

Stuck Under Stereotypes

By April 26, 2019 79 Comments

By: Tara Mehra

This is an article produced in partnership with Lune Magazine

We’ve all heard the cliché—society sorts us into boxes. Stamps barcodes on our foreheads based on our identities and divides us. Clean. Simple. Easy.

But I’ve never been one to fit into a box. And you haven’t, either. See, I don’t think any of us genuinely fit into the molds that society has crafted to shape our identity, but rather, we choose to. We look into the world—television, social media, books—and see what our options our based on our identities. Try on these identities like clothes until we find one that, while not the perfect fit, is manageable to maintain.

Being half-Indian and half-white, I have always felt the need to choose not simply between these identities, but between the stereotypes that they represented. Could I live up to the “model minority myth” that young Indian Americans were stereotyped as? Did I want to make my father proud by building robots and coding until I ended up in his seat at Microsoft? Or did I want to embrace the American high school experience—go to the mall with friends, win Prom Queen, wear pink on Wednesdays, and all that jazz?

Truth be told, I’ve cautiously teetered between these binaries throughout my life. And through that experience, I’ve understood the burdening nature of having the seemingly positive stereotype of the “model minority”. This stereotype, like any other, is confining. However, its attachment to Asian-Americans, those who are already “otherized” to some extent in this nation, is what makes this stereotype toxic. Because, in the experience of myself and many other Asian-Americans, not conforming to this positive stereotype can make one an immediate “failure” to society. But simultaneously, the hard work that is put in to gain the achievements associated with this stereotype are undermined due to one’s heritage. Though seemingly contradictory, allow me to illustrate this concept in simple terms: comments that I have personally received.

“Yeah, you got a 97 on the math test, but that doesn’t count because you’re Indian.”

“Really? You’re not good at math? But you’re Indian!”

Other than illustrating that my math career took a 360 degree turn, these simple, contrasting comments illustrate that the eyes of society are never satisfied even with the “positive” stereotype that Asian-Americans hold. And that has to change. People shouldn’t find it surprising that a young Asian-American woman is studying political science or fine art, and people shouldn’t expect that for making these choices, she is a disappointment to her family. Doing so would be supporting a century of these molds and boxes.

Through the identities that I have had in my life—first generation in America, Indian, Irish, Californian, Theatre Kid—I know that stereotypes can be harmful. Just because I did theatre does not mean that I only speak in lyrics from Newsies, and just because I’m originally from California doesn’t mean I’m a vegan. But the stereotypes held to Asian American are not the “positive” ones that society prides themselves on having. Truly, they are causing harm to individuals within this community. With this in mind, think not just about the stereotypes you hold for people—even the frivolous ones—but also think about the consequences that they bear for those communities. Think about the burdens you have that stem from stereotypes and expectations.

Most importantly, remember—a positive stereotype does not exist.

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