Asians exist outside your stereotypes

Authors: Geli Luna
  • Reading time: 5 min.
  • Posted on: May 24, 2021

Asian people make up the majority of the world’s population. So why are we still seen as outsiders in the Global North?

It’s a strange shift when you come from a country where you look like everyone else and move to a white-dominated city and suddenly find yourself as a minority. As a dark-skinned person from the Philippines, I knew what prejudice felt like in a colourist society. But it wasn’t until I moved to the UK that I learned what it felt like to ‘look different’ and to fear what that might bring — especially now.

Anti-Asian crimes have risen 300% in the UK since the pandemic began. That’s terrifying — and the fact that recent violent crimes against Asians haven’t all been considered as hate crimes makes it even worse. But while, after far too many violent incidents, #StopAsianHate has started to be widely recognised, anti-Asian racism isn’t new and you’re more familiar with it than you might realise.

The stereotypical depiction of Asians – specifically East Asians – is so deeply-rooted in the media that it’s sometimes hard to recognise as problematic. But with every East Asian character we see on TV being good at math and speaking in a strong Chinese accent, Asians in real life continue to be asked, “Why is your English so good?” Meanwhile, Asians with their natural accents are poked fun at for being “fresh off the boat”, and those who seem more culturally assimilated constantly hear the unending question: “But where are you really from?”

For a while, some Asians might have laughed along to the “ching chongs” while shrugging off the meek and sexualised portrayal of Asian female characters. But when an elderly Filipino woman is repeatedly kicked on the street while her assailant yells out, “You don’t belong here”, and then, soon after, a group of innocent Korean women are shot by a man with a ‘sex addiction’ he blames on them, the laughter stops.

This spike in violence against East Asians post-COVID is as infuriating as it is unsurprising. It’s reminiscent of the rise in attacks against South Asians post-9/11, where many Sikhs and Hindus, together with Muslims, became targets of Islamophobia in America — three different communities who’ve been collectively discriminated against for how they look.

All these are reminders to the Asian community that white-dominated countries still see them as outsiders who don’t belong, which is slightly ironic given that there are more Asians across the world than any other race. That elevated sense of not belonging also contributes to the issue of stereotyping. When people immigrate to a country where they are presumed to be outsiders because they look different and speak another language, often their true personalities don’t fully shine through in their new environments. I’ve seen it in my own experience — instead of people seeing you as yourself, you are reduced to the stereotypes associated with your ethnicity. And while this might not seem like a big problem, we’ve seen the damage that can cause for people of colour, especially when major global disasters arise.

There is a common argument that stereotyping against Asians “isn’t technically racism”, because unlike other minorities, most of the stereotypes against Asians are deemed positive. Why should we complain when society sees us as meek, hardworking, business-minded people? But this myth of Asians being the “model minority” is a racist problem. It’s not only damaging to other communities of colour who are compared against a so-called “better” minority, but it minimises the identity of all Asians into one image that hardly applies to the billions of Asians around the world. As explained by author Ijeoma Oluo, this invalidates the struggle and the lived experiences of the Asian immigrants who are not as successful as the perceived Asian model, and therefore experience the reality of systemic racism in our societies.

Putting that expectation on Asian communities doesn’t lift them up — all it does is divide communities of colour by having us compete against a white supremacist standard, rather than unite against the racial oppression we all continue to face.

What needs to change is visibility — expand our knowledge of Asians from just referring to Chinese, Japanese and Koreans and learn more about the diverse communities of East Asia: Bruneians, Burmese, Cambodians, Indonesians, Filipinos, Laotians, Malaysians, Mongols, Singaporeans, Taiwanese, Thais, Timorese, and Vietnamese. Recognising the voices of South Asians and Pacific Islanders: the Bangladeshi, Bhutani, Indians, Maldivians, Nepalis, Pakistani, Sri Lankans, Fijian, Guamanians, Hawaiians, Marshallese, Samoan, Tongan, and many more. Asia hosts such a wide and beautiful diversity of cultures and what we’re collectively familiar with is truly just a fraction of what’s out there.

An increase in Asian media representation is a good start. Asian names are slowly getting worldwide recognition in Hollywood. In Western films and TV, we’ve started seeing Asian men defy the geeky stereotype by having fit (and sometimes dim) Asians as leading men. Even the portrayal of Asian women as submissive, one-dimensional characters has the potential of fading away with the assertive, multi-layered female characters seen in box-office romcom Crazy Rich Asians and Canadian TV series Kim’s Convenience. These media portrayals aren’t perfect, but for Asians to see their stories told on screen by people who look like them is a step in the right direction to #representasian.

Of course, media visibility is far from a be-all-end-all solution to racism. As a society, we all play an important role in how we treat Asians in the real world. 

Accept the reality of all Asians existing and succeeding in the Global North. Allow Asians to take up space in the creative, financial, medical, academic industries – and not just those living in developed countries, but expanding our worldview to the global, diverse talent we have access to through the internet. Support Asian-owned businesses. Speak up when someone makes a joke with underlying anti-Asian sentiments. Educate yourself on the history of Asian communities to better understand their cultures. Learning more about these diverse communities can help us finally appreciate all Asians as humans and not as the stereotypes society has come to know.

In order to strive for racial equity, Asians need to be included in conversations surrounding systemic racism and discrimination. Acknowledge the racial trauma we’ve endured and allow our voices to be heard when discussing oppression against communities of colour. While the experience of racism differs for every ethnic group, it is by recognising one another’s stories and coming together that we can fight for our intersectional right to an anti-racist society.