Asian Racism and the “Robot” Stereotype

Asian Racism and the “Robot” Stereotype (Getty Images)

Yao Pan Ma, an East Asian immigrant in East Harlem, was pushing a cart of groceries to his car in April 2021. Suddenly, he was shoved onto the ground and his head was stomped on several times. Mr. Ma was rushed to the hospital and hooked onto ventilators as he fell into a coma. After battling at the border of life and death for months, he died several months later on New Year’s Eve. 

Unfortunately, Mr. Ma isn’t the only Asian falling victim to hate crimes. Anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States have surpassed the 10,000 mark since the beginning of the pandemic, and have only gotten worse. In 2020, they rose by 73% and in 2021, they rose by 339% in comparison to previous years. 

So, why are these hate crimes increasing? 

To answer this question, we need to travel back to the 1850s when many Chinese immigrated into the U.S. Their heavy accent and unique culture/traditions led them to be viewed as foreigners, or “outsiders,” who didn’t belong. They were denied basic human rights through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, such as the right to vote. Even worse were the Japanese Internment camps set up in the 1940s, similar to the Jewish concentration camps during the Holocaust — denial of necessities such as food and shelter, dangerous but mandatory labor and physical abuse in response to resistance. 

Not only were Asians viewed as “foreigners,” they were viewed as “illiterate, undesirable” beings. 

This view changed in 1965 when immigration laws gave preference to skilled and educated immigrants. Asian immigrants were 12 times more likely to graduate college than non-immigrating Asians. Asian immigrants started taking advantage of the educational opportunities available to them. They were twice as likely to have a college degree than the average American. As Asian immigrants started excelling in their jobs and careers, a stereotype was slapped onto them. They became the “model minority,” being known as “robots” or “worker bees.” A 2009 study reveals that whites read East-Asian faces as machine-like and carrying fewer human traits. 

They were stereotyped as performing excellently in STEM fields, especially math and math-related subjects. They became known as “too smart,” “too focused on academics” and therefore “lacking social skills.” Their hard work led them to be labeled as “robots,” doing whatever they are told to do. 

So if Asian Americans are known as “smart,” what’s the issue? 

For one, this unrepresentative pattern is slapped onto all Asian Americans. Those working in salons or as street vendors are often judged and insulted by other races. Corporate-working Asian Americans also face issues. They are viewed as unfit for leadership positions because of the stereotypical “one-dimensional personality.” In fact, Asian Americans are the least likely racial group to rise up to a management position. They also make, on average, 17% less than a white person for the same job. 

Clearly, racism is taking a toll on the Asian American community. So, what can we do to fix it? 

Well, prove the pattern wrong. The stereotypical Asian complies to whatever they are told to do, no matter how unjust, making discrimination against them easier. We need to have our voices heard and stand up for ourselves. Whether it’s filing complaints against unjust behavior or petitioning, any action helps move the boulder. If enough of us can stand up for ourselves and for our community, inch-by-inch, we will be able to slowly push the boulder until it reaches the top of the hill.

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