“Ophelia” was never a very good student.
The second generation Vietnamese American described herself as “not very intelligent,” someone who got straight Cs. She failed the exam to qualify for Advanced Placement classes at the end of Junior High.
But for reasons beyond her understanding, she was placed on the AP track when she got to high school. There, surrounded by ambitious peers and high expectations, “something clicked,” she told researcher Jennifer Lee.
“I wanted to work hard and prove I was a good student,” she said. “I think the competition kind of increases” the desire to “do better.”
Ophelia graduated with a 4.2 grade point average and an acceptance to a prestigious pharmacy program.
Lee, a sociologist at the University of California at Irvine, is an author of the new book “The Asian American Achievement Paradox,” which examines how stereotypes based on race can determine students’ chances for success. For their research, she and co-author Min Zhou surveyed hundreds of students like Ophelia — children of Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants who felt they were treated differently because of their race.
“Teachers and guidance counselors and peers assumed that they were smart and disciplined and high achieving,” Lee told The Washington Post. “So they were more likely to be placed on advanced tracks, more likely to be directed toward selective colleges. Some admitted to getting grades they didn’t feel like they deserved.”
Paradoxically, though, this was one stereotype that served its targets well. Lee said students who were subject to irrationally high expectations usually rose to meet them. Surrounded by brainy classmates only happy with “As,” they adjusted their own notions of what it means to do well. Assumed to be a “smart Asian,” as Lee put it, they put extra effort into their coursework in order to live up to expectations of their ethnicity.
“What you have is a self-fulfilling prophesy where initially what is untrue becomes true,” Lee said. She calls it the “stereotype promise.”
Lee’s findings are the inverse of social science we’ve heard about before. For the past two decades, researchers have been investigating the “stereotype threat” — how negative assumptions about certain groups can undercut their performance. It’s been used to explain why high-achieving African American students sometimes struggle when they get to college, why talented women may underperform in STEM fields.
Social psychologist Claude Steele, who coined the term in 1995, explained how the stereotype threat affects members of groups that are seen as less able or intelligent.
“They know that they are especially likely to be seen as having limited ability,” he wrote in the Atlantic in 1999. “Groups not stereotyped in this way don’t experience this extra intimidation. And it is a serious intimidation, implying as it does that they may not belong in walks of life where the tested abilities are important — walks of life in which they are heavily invested. Like many pressures, it may not be experienced in a fully conscious way, but it may impair their best thinking.”
In the Los Angeles area, where Lee and her colleagues surveyed 4,800 first-generation Americans, the children of Mexican immigrants were most likely to be affected by the stereotype threat. These respondents told Lee that they were rarely taken seriously as students. They weren’t offered help preparing for the SAT and weren’t advised to apply for four-year colleges. If Mexican American students wanted to get into a selective school, they had to be their own tutors, their own guidance counselors.
“One of the questions it raises is how many students aren’t given the opportunity to meet their potential,” Lee said.
Lee’s finding challenges the assumption that gaps in achievement are purely cultural, that “tiger moms” and community regard for education entirely explain Asian American students’ success. The perception of a culture can be as influential as the culture itself.
That’s not to say that culture isn’t a factor — Lee has previously studied how raised expectations within the Asian American community drive high achievement. But when we adopt stereotypes about Asians and education, we’re crediting the wrong culture, she said. It’s not necessarily Chinese people who value education so highly (only 4 percent of China’s population has a college degree), it’s the highly educated Chinese immigrants who come to the United States, more than half of whom went to college.
“It’s not culture reduced to a certain ethnicity,” Lee said. “It’s about who immigrates to the U.S. and what sort of norms they’re bringing.”
Chinese and Korean immigrants are “hyper-selected,” as Lee put it. They are more likely to be highly skilled and more likely to hold an advanced degree than almost any other immigrant group. In fact, they are almost twice as likely to be college-educated than the general U.S. population — only 28 percent of Americans have graduated from college. Since parents’ level of educational attainment is one of the best predictors of their children’s achievement, it’s hardly surprising that academically successful Chinese immigrants will have academically successful kids.
Teachers’ assumptions about Asian culture — misplaced though they may be — affect how they perceive Asian American students. And Asian American students internalize those perceptions. They wind up achieving more than they normally would have based on a stereotype that isn’t even completely true.
“We think that grades and test scores and who gets into what colleges is objective, that it’s all about individual effort,” Lee said. “But our work reveals the hidden ways in which biases and stereotypes operate that make certain outcomes more possible for certain groups.”
Most of the students Lee spoke to said that the stereotype promise was a good thing. It helped them do well in school and get into good colleges.
But Lee warns that it can be a “double-edged sword.” Asian American students are also likely to feel a form of the intimidation Steele described in writing about the stereotype threat.
While black students may worry that their failures will reinforce negative assumptions about African American achievement, Asian American students who didn’t meet the high expectations set for them “didn’t feel Asian,” Lee said. One man told her that he was “the whitest Chinese guy she’ll ever meet,” because he didn’t fit the stereotype of a high-achieving Asian. The pressure can lead to mental health issues, like anxiety and depression.
And the positive stereotypes that serve Asian Americans well in school can act against them once they’re in the workforce. They have a harder time attaining leadership positions because they’re seen as diligent and thoughtful, rather than bold and creative, according to Lee. She noted that Asian Americans made up 6 percent of college students (slightly more than their proportion of the U.S. population) but 2 percent of college presidents. In Silicon Valley, Asian Americans are 27 percent of the workforce but just 14 percent of executives.
The stereotype promise may help Asian American students get a degree, Lee said, but the “bamboo ceiling” stops them from achieving as much as they could with it.
Correction: An initial version of this story misidentified the researcher who coined the term “stereotype threat.” His name was Claude Steele.