Even positive stereotypes can create limits and barriers

Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor
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When I was younger, I watched a lot of high school sitcoms and television shows where the only Asians I’d see were students that were pointed out for their ridiculously good grades, who were not just good at every subject but also math — the hardest and most difficult subject for students, because, apparently, numbers were hard.

And, yes, not only was I one of those students who got A's on all her English papers, I was one of those students in my high school who attended AP Calculus BC alongside seniors while everyone else was still struggling with Pre-Calculus. During free periods, I’d be the person my classmates consulted for help with a math problem. I was known for being smart in my high school, and I loved it. So naturally, I prided myself (and still do) on being a member of Ravenclaw, one of Hogwarts’ four main houses.

According to the lore of Harry Potter, Ravenclaws are known for their wit, intelligence, and wisdom. They’re characterized as “the smart House” as opposed to “the brave house” (Gryffindor), “the loyal house” (Hufflepuff), and “the cunning house” (Slytherin). As any Harry Potter fan knows, the two most well-known members of Ravenclaw are the quirky Luna Lovegood and Cho Chang, the most prominent Asian character in the entirety of the series. Since Luna was white, it seemed that J.K. Rowling could have put her in any house she wanted. But, it only seemed natural to her, at the time, that probably the only Asian featured in any of the Harry Potter franchise’s nine movies would be in “the smart House.” God forbid if Rowling had made her brave.

In a way, Hogwarts houses are comparable to these positive stereotypes. They are largely defined by dominant character traits. There is an immense history behind each one and an even larger amount of pride supporting it. However, you can choose your Hogwarts house, or at the very least, you can take a quiz that strongly recommends your Hogwarts house and rebel against your answer if you don’t like it when you took a newer, second version of said quiz. But, you can’t choose your race.

Just like your Hogwarts house, it seems that your race comes with built-in, distinct, and defined traits, skills, and a personality. Mostly, we associate these things with positive qualities: Asians are known to be smart, driven to succeed, and great at math. Black people are supposed to be great at sports or great at rapping. Latinos are great at dancing. Furthermore, it’s not only different racial groups that suffer from positive stereotypes but also nationalities and genders. Italians are known for loving their family and being great cooks. Women are considered to be natural nurturers.

But, these positive traits also lead to restrictions and barriers. Since they were smart, Asian kids weren’t supposed to be popular; they were just supposed to be nerds, holed up studying all day. Because black people are great athletes, it is assumed that they struggle in school and have poorer grades. Because women are natural nurturers, they’re “not strong enough” or “too emotional.” Positive stereotypes allow people to judge books by their covers and give them certain expectations going into reading them that can sometimes be hard to change, never giving the book a chance to prove them wrong. Phrases like “Of course she aced that test; she’s Asian,” or “That’s pretty smart, for a black guy,” or “You’re pretty tough, for a girl” are micro-aggressions that contribute to the constant nagging doubt that we will never be more than our race or live up to our race.

Positive stereotypes also bring about the concept of what it means to be part of the “true race” in culture, or what it means if someone is “not Asian enough” or “not black enough.” If someone is not so-called "enough" of their race, it means their personality didn’t check off enough boxes to fit a stereotype. It hints at a lack of knowledge, experience, and understanding of the complex and diverse experiences undertaken by members of the same racial group. In America, this is an element of the diaspora, or the broader distinction between groups like “Asian-American” and “Asian,” emphasizing on the “American” to the point where it almost engulfs the “Asian,” pulling them further apart, creating more estrangement on the former side and depicting the “Asian” as an esteemed, exclusive group of people that Asian-Americans can only hope to join one day.

When I was a young teenager, I began questioning myself and comparing myself to other people of my race. There were fewer than ten Asians in my entire high school, and my hometown was known for being distinctly white, suburban, and middle and upper-class. I’d compare my experience to those of my Filipino cousins, and envied their Tagalog and Filipino History classes and their experience of not just growing up around the extended family, but around other Filipinos. I’d know basic Chinese traditions but would grow up eating “Americanized” Chinese food. Even when I’d visit my extended family in Manila every other year, I am defined by the fact that I am from America.

It forces people to pick a side. Do you belong to the country where you were born in, or where your family is from? Furthermore, is there a difference between those two?

Carnegie Mellon has allowed me to be more prideful and knowledgeable of my Asian-American experience. It has also shown me how large and overreaching the diaspora is. It has shown me the difference between being Asian-American and Asian, and how they’re sadly two different things separated by differences in style, culture, perceptions, and personality. But, Carnegie Mellon has also shown me people that are much more than these labels, being able to bond despite their differences about their interests and passions.

Throughout our lives, we’ve each met a person who shatters the lid of the supposed box that our positive stereotypes place us in. And, if you haven’t met someone who does that yet, you’re likely to find someone in the two months left of this school year. College gives people an outlet to express themselves, or possibly reinvent themselves from their high school or their hometown. College gives students an outlet to break out of the norms that used to hold them back and break away from the small set of skills and values that their race imposed on them due to the pressure of society. Most importantly, college gives students a community of people who understand the changes that people are going through and support them, helping people to find others who value one’s own individuality above all else. Especially amongst a community with a significantly large Asian population, Carnegie Mellon students have matured from high school to understand that there is more to the “smart Asian” or “black football star” that they share their classes with.