The Dark Side of Positive Stereotypes

The Dark Side of Positive Stereotypes

The Jeremy Lin storyline has inspired millions, but it also has a cost
Published on May 8, 2012 by Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D. in Between the Lines

This is a guest post by H. Wenwen Ni, J. Oliver Siy, and Sapna Cheryan, PhD

Basketball’s favorite underdog story came to a temporary halt when Jeremy Lin announced on March 31st that he would be out for the rest of the regular season due to knee surgery. Lin’s rise into the public consciousness over the last few months has been shaped by two main storylines about race in American sports. The more negative storyline proclaims that the racist insults that Lin has endured are proof that there is deep-seated racism against Asian Americans in this country. The second, and seemingly more positive, storyline celebrates Lin’s accomplishments through the lens of his cultural roots. While it may seem charitable to promote Lin’s heritage as the key to his success and thus extend praise of Lin to the entire Asian American community, this latter storyline has a dark side to it.
Asian Americans are often thought of as the “model minority”—smart, hardworking, obedient and humble. Lin is only the fourth American-born basketball player of Asian descent to make it to the NBA, and all of these “positive” stereotypes have been invoked to explain his success on the court. His intelligenceis frequently noted (e.g., ESPN’s Hubie Brown referencing Lin’s “high basketball IQ”), as is his diligence and proclivity for hard work.  Lin’s successes have also been framed in terms of his obedience, citing his ability to follow orders and execute former Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni pick ’n’ roll system, and his interest in interpersonal harmony with his teammates.Although these may seem like compliments, both to Lin and to Asian Americans more generally, positive stereotypes are not as positive as the name implies. Psychological research shows that positive stereotypes, just like their negative counterparts, have a host of harmful effects. According to our recent research, many people (including Asian Americans) dislike positive stereotypes because these stereotypes make them feel like they are only being seen for their race and not for the unique characteristics that they may possess. Lin’s success, instead of being attributed to his natural talent, fearlessness and athleticism, is attributed instead to traits seen as inherent in his race. Positive stereotypes can also perpetuate discrimination against other groups who are blamed for not achieving the same standards (“If they made it, why can’t you?”).

People have a tendency to view the world through a frame – a specific point of view or a series of filters through which we interpret events. Due to the novelty of an Asian American in the NBA, much of the coverage on Lin has been framed through his Asian heritage. This framing is largely unintentional, and people who use stereotypes probably do so due to a lack of knowledge rather than a desire to offend. But recognizing that stereotypes exist, and that they may be a part of the filters through which we view the world, is the first step to talking about race in an unbiased way. The Asian American Journalists Association’s guidelines on news coverage of Jeremy Lin are a good starting point. The AAJA’s suggestions include understanding the cultural distinction between Lin (who was born in the United States) and foreign-born players like Yao Ming, not making assumptions about Lin based on his race, and avoiding the use of Asian stereotypes when discussing Lin. Keeping these suggestions in mind will help us celebrate this classic American story, without stripping the story’s protagonist of his American identity.

H. Wenwen Ni is a research assistant and J. Oliver Siy is a graduate student in Professor Sapna Cheryan’s social psychology lab at the University of Washington.