Yes, "Positive Stereotypes" Are Still Harmful

Asian American woman squatting with her arms crossed over her body

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

When I graduated high school, I was voted “most likely to attain a PhD.” All my friends thought it was amazing to be recognized since it was very plausible. I was at the top of my class. I was thinking about pursuing one too; however, I felt conflicted.

Why didn’t I want to be known as the smart one in the class?

Why didn’t I want people to think I have the ambition to pursue such an accomplishment?

It was at that moment that I questioned whether it was because I was one of few Asians in my class or because I was a straight-A student.

As an Asian female, I fit many stereotypes. I am introverted and quiet. I have a strong work ethic. I did well in school and didn’t like being in the spotlight. But there are many stereotypes I don’t fit. I speak English fluently without an accent. I’m not submissive. I can lead and I’m definitely not a bad driver.

I knew what negative stereotypes were and how they made me feel. But these seemingly positive ones made me feel just as horrible. Whether they were true or not, the assumptions that were made about my character based on the color of my skin created challenges in my mental health and contributed to my ongoing identity crisis.

Being Depersonalized and Feeling Undifferentiated

I knew what negative stereotypes were and how they made me feel. But these seemingly positive ones made me feel just as horrible.

A 2015 review showed that when a positive stereotype is mentioned within a group interaction, Asian Americans experience a negative response.

Specifically, they feel others perceive them as undifferentiated from those of a similar ethnic group and being depersonalized for who they are as unique individuals. Those who had a stronger sense of individuality felt a more negative response than those who felt they were similar and connected to their ethnic group.

Being grouped with all the other Asians meant I didn’t have a chance to stand out. I might as well accept my fate and blend into the sea of soy sauce.

It’s like all those times when I travel to a rural city and the first question I get when I make small talk with some strangers is, “Are you related to the Nguyens who own the Vietnamese restaurant down the street? They are such good and hard-working people. I love their food. It’s delicious.”

On the inside, I want to scream, “I’m Chinese, not Vietnamese. I don’t know the Nguyens. I’m sure they’re great people. I’m here on a trip with some friends for a few days and I’m out.”

But then I push those feelings down and internalize my frustrations. I’ll convince myself to act indifferent, justifying their ignorance by their lack of exposure to different cultures. It’s the small-town charm, right? 

I’ll politely shake my head and under my breath with a slight chuckle, I’ll utter the words, “No, I’m not related to them.”

Do Positive Stereotypes Lead to Other Stereotypes?

If you’re stereotyping me for something good, I’m thinking you’re most likely going to stereotype me for something bad.

In a 2016 article published by the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Siy and Cheryan reviewed five different studies that looked at the connection between positive and negative stereotypes. It showed that when Asian Americans experienced a positive stereotype such as “good at math,” they also believed they were being prejudiced against.

Stereotypes about the intelligence and relative intelligence of various races has a negative history, so saying something "good" doesn't really erase that.

One of my first real jobs was as a research assistant. One day, a manager pops his head in and asks me directly, “Hey, can you help me with an Excel thing?”

I jumped to my feet and immediately rushed over. I wanted to prove myself, give a good impression, and was eager to help.

I entered his office and looked at the screen. It was a relatively easy issue to fix. I did my thing and he thanked me. I felt proud of myself as I walked back to my office. I sat down in my chair and I looked around. I shared the space with three other research assistants, all non-Asian but with very similar educational backgrounds. 

Excel is something I am proficient in and had in my CV. But I couldn’t help but wonder if he asked me for help because I was good at numbers or because I was Asian?

Then I started pondering whether I was also being negatively stereotyped. 

Does he also think I’m a worker bee?

Does he also think I won’t speak up during meetings?

Does he also think I can’t lead and will only follow instructions like a robot?

Will I be at the bottom of the list for promotions and management positions?

At barely 20 years of age, I was already worried about how my career was going to be affected because of how others perceived me due to my ethnicity. Constantly questioning why I was being recognized affected my confidence and self-esteem. 

What If I Don't Live Up to Those Standards?

You’re supposed to be smart and successful, right?

A study published by Psychological Science (2000) looked at the performance of female Asian Americans on a quantitative test under conditions where it is expected they will perform well due to their ethnicity.

It showed that those who were exposed to these conditions had trouble concentrating and ended up with poorer results. It concluded that when positive stereotypes are clearly stated, it can negatively affect an individual’s performance as it can cause them to “choke under pressure”. 

In a world where you are expected to be a successful, highly motivated, hard-working, and intelligent overachiever because that’s what society says you are, it creates a significant amount of pressure to do everything perfectly. 

What happens when an individual can’t live up to these standards?

In my life, I’ve had three anxiety attacks. I was in the 10th grade when I experienced my first. I was in math class and I couldn’t solve the first question on a pop quiz. As the other students handed in their work, I was frozen with my hands tightly gripping my number two pencil for dear life. I couldn’t put anything on paper because I didn’t know what to write. Anything that came into my mind felt like the wrong answer.

The quiz was supposed to take the first 10 minutes of class but because I was the top student, my teacher let me keep working on the test while the class continued. 

When the bell rang, my teacher came to my desk and she literally had to rip the blank paper from my hands. The fear of failure completely took control of my body physically, emotionally, and mentally. My heart was pounding faster and faster. My breaths were shallow and I felt like I was falling into a tunnel of doom as defeating thoughts tore away at my self-worth.

Shedding Deeply Ingrained Beliefs

Stereotypes are based on deeply ingrained beliefs created by our conditions and social networks; it can be hard to recognize and acknowledge when it is happening.

The first step to avoiding stereotypes is to learn more about them so that you understand the issue and become more aware of the positive and negative assumptions you make about groups of people. Then it’s about asking difficult questions that challenge your beliefs such as:

  • Where did those beliefs come from? Was it a person? The media? The environment I grew up in?
  • What assumptions do I have about certain groups of people? How does it make me feel when I meet someone who does not fit that stereotype? 
  • Am I complimenting someone because of who they actually are or because of what I think they are?

You can become more open-minded by being mindful of the language you use. Avoid using absolute statements and jumping to conclusions based on a characteristic even if you think it is a positive one. For instance, remind yourself when you see a picture of a celebrity or a stranger on the street that what they look like doesn’t determine how they should or should not behave. 

Lastly, meeting new people from different cultures, and approaching them from a place of respect and consideration allows you to understand their personal experiences, unique characteristics, and stories that shape them as an individual.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Czopp AM, Kay AC, Cheryan S. Positive stereotypes are pervasive and powerfulPerspect Psychol Sci. 2015;10(4):451-463. doi:10.1177/1745691615588091

  2. Siy JO, Cheryan S. Prejudice masquerading as praise: the negative echo of positive stereotypesPers Soc Psychol Bull. 2016;42(7):941-954. doi:10.1177/0146167216649605

  3. Cheryan S, Bodenhausen GV. When positive stereotypes threaten intellectual performance: the psychological hazards of “model minority” statusPsychol Sci. 2000;11(5):399-402. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00277

By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine is the author of three books (How To Deal With Asian Parents, A Brutally Honest Dating Guide and A Straight Up Guide to a Happy and Healthy Marriage) and the creator of 60 Feelings To Feel: A Journal To Identify Your Emotions. She has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system.