MAXWELL:  The good type of stereotype

5/25/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Some racial and ethnic stereotypes are to die for. I began to appreciate this fact while reading a recent Newsweek essay in which Ted Gup laments that most Americans jump to conclusions about the academic gifts of Asians.

A former Fulbright Scholar to China, Gup adopted Korean brothers David and Matthew. His distress over ethnic stereotypes flared when David, then 5 months old, arrived in the United States from Korea. Immediately, Gup’s friends predicted that the infant, who, as Gup tells it, “could not yet sit up, speak a word or control his bowels,” would be a great student _ most likely a famous mathematician.

Gup was indignant that people automatically presumed that David was destined for academic brilliance. And never mind, he acknowledges, that “disproportionate numbers of Asian surnames appear each year among the winners of the Westinghouse science prizes or in the ranks of National Merit Scholars.” Gup was still outraged.

But Americans are not alone in stereotyping Asians. They see themselves as brilliant, many walking “an uneasy line between taking pride in their remarkable achievements and needing to shake off stereotypes,” Gup writes.

Asians have, in fact, a vast repertoire of jokes about the brilliance of their children. Here is one: When the child brought home a test score of 99, the demoralized mother asked, “Where is the other point?”

Jokes aside, Gup was offended one day when he and David, the boy still in diapers, entered a Korean-owned convenience store. The Korean behind the register was staring at David. The man asked if David was Korean. When Gup answered affirmatively, the man said, “He’ll be good in math.”

“It was preposterous,” Gup writes. “It was funny. And it was unnerving. Embedded in such elevated expectations were real threats to my son. . . . I resented the stereotypes and saw them for what they were, the other side of the coin of racism.

“It is easy to delude one’s self into thinking it harmless to offer racial compliments, but it is an inherent contradiction of terms. Such sweeping descriptives, be they negative or positive, deny the one thing most precious to all peoples _ individuality.”

For many Asian students, Gup says, the real sin is that such stereotypes ignore the possibility their success in the classroom “might be a reflection of parental influences, personal commitment and cultural predilections, not genetic predispositions.”

He explains: “A decade ago, as a Fulbright lecturer in Beijing, I saw firsthand the staggering hours Chinese students devoted to their studies. Were my students in the United States to invest similar time in their books, I would have every reason to expect similar results.”

Gup might be right. But, speaking from his privileged perch in Chevy Case, Md., he protests far, far too much. And too seriously.

Yes, expecting Asians to be whiz kids is prejudicial, but it is not, as Gup argues, the “other side of the coin of racism.” If it is racism, I can show him millions of black males who would trade places with Asian victims as fast as Michael Jordan can say “Nike.”

Does Gup not know that being seen as a brain is a good stereotype _ one that magically opens the doors of opportunity?

If he really wants to appreciate the perniciousness of racial stereotyping, Gup should meet Ronnie King, a 17-year-old African-American at Armwood High School near Tampa. Recently featured in a St. Petersburg Times story, King, an honor student in the gifted program, is also a star varsity basketball player. His dilemma is that he wants to be seen for more than his athleticism. He also wants to be seen as a brain.

“It’s tough,” he said. “I mean, you know, just trying to prove yourself constantly is a battle and trying to show everybody that, you know, you have as much ability as any other student out there.”

At the same time, though, King plays into the hands of those who stereotype him as a mere jock. When the Elks Lodge honored him as “Teenager of the Month” last December, news accounts did not mention basketball nor the fact that he dreams of playing for Georgia Tech. Instead, the articles focused on his academic achievements _ his having the second-highest grade point average in the junior class.

Even his close friends were surprised to learn that King is smart. Why? Because he clams up about his intellect for fear of being ostracized by other black males. Listen to his friend, classmate and fellow black Rashad Freeman: “As high as he is, second in the class, he’s never talking about it. But whenever he does something in basketball, you’ll hear him bragging.”

King should know that, as a black male, he cannot have it both ways. If he wants to be respected for his intellect, he must start bragging about it. He needs to initiate a new stereotype, one showing that black males, like Asians, can be whiz kids.

Because academic prowess has inherent value, Gup and his Korean sons have no real reason to fret. But because athleticism only has ascribed value and no practical usefulness in the real world, blacks like King should worry.

Of course, the problem can be solved for both groups: Gup could advise Asian whiz kids to take up basketball. And blacks? Well, they could start hitting the books _ and bragging about it. After all, being a brain is a stereotype to die for.