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  • Writer's pictureSam W. Govan

The Stereotype Threat

Sam W. Govan

When asked to describe how a racist stereotype might constrain someone’s freedom, people would generally describe overtly negative examples; groups experiencing inaccurate assumptions placed on them of innate criminality, lower intelligence or work ethic. Understandably, many people’s understandings of stereotypes concern ethnic groups being perceived as inferior to others. “Surely, a positive stereotype couldn’t harm someone right?” The truth is, it does not matter whether a stereotype is ostensibly praising a group for its perceived talents, stereotypes by default are harmful to those involved.

If you’re trying to find a stereotype’s origin by looking for material evidence, you’ve likely already misunderstood a key element of their nature; you might be satisfied with statistical data that one ethnic group demonstrates higher levels of academic attainment, or that another group constitutes a larger than average demographic in a particular field. The truth is, stereotypes function as a self-fulfilling prophecy; construction of a group finds its roots in seemingly observable but oversimplified phenomena, is reinforced by others who benefit from its existence, that over time is pushed further into a society’s subconscious until it becomes essentially a widely accepted but unprovable fallacy. Tragically, these stereotypes have been shown so pervasive that even educators have been documented believing in and reinforcing, with obvious consequences for everyone.

The Model Minority- “This i What You’re Supposed to Be”.

If you’ve watched a film or tv show in the past 40 or so years, you’ve likely come across the stereotype of the Asian “model minority”. Typically, characters from East Asian countries or with East Asian heritage are depicted as quiet, successful and academically brilliant. They’re portrayed as flourishing in subjects like maths, having a rigid extracurricular schedule at which they excel, and are often shown in conjunction with overbearing “tiger mothers” and demanding fathers.

When solely viewing statistical data without historical context, it is easy to see why this stereotype remains pervasive. Asian American 8th-grade students were found to hold the highest grade point averages of all ethnic groups, and have been recorded as having higher average SAT scores than their peers. 71% of Asian American students have been recorded attaining a bachelor’s degree within 6 years of commencing studies, compared to their white Latino and black counterparts with 67%, 47% and 46% respectively.

It is true, there is data that certain demographics of Asian parents place above-average pressure on their children to excel academically, and it is true, there is data that some subgroups of East Asian communities accrue higher than average test scores. But with stereotype comes stereotype threat; “what you’re supposed to be” is constantly presented to Asian heritage students by media, reinforced by expectation from peers and teachers, and creates a standard to which they become expected to meet regardless of individual needs.

Stereotypes do not exist in a vacuum; they cannot exist without external reinforcement through misinterpretation of data, creating a veneer of a perceived shared experience and erasing voices of those who don’t fit the model. Unfortunately, educators have been documented believing in and reinforcing stereotypes that curtail the freedom of their students by placing undue pressures on them to succeed; teachers have unfortunately been observed reinforcing parental expectations for academic greatness for some Asian students, with the snowball effect of accelerating the parents’ academic expectations even further. For Asian students who are academically talented enough to achieve the grades expected of them by parents and educators, they must contend with perpetually heightened expectations of excellence and the associated pressure not to fail. Underachieving Asian students contend with being perceived by teachers as an outlier to a model that constructs all Asians as academically brilliant, as opposed to an individual with their own needs and framework of what is achievable; teachers have been observed constructing underachieving Asian students as simply at a temporary disadvantage, instead of acknowledging a student’s potential limitations.

University faculty have been documented reinforcing the fallacy that Asian communities experience fewer mental health problems than others; university counselling service staff have been recorded assuming that “if [they] offer it [Asian students] will come” and failing to consider the traditional Asian culture taboo about asking for mental health help. Studies show that despite the lowest uptake of mental health services, Asian American university students have been documented as having the highest depression anxiety and suicide rates of all ethnic groups on campus.

The stereotype constructs an ethnically diverse group comprised of 30+ cultures and 300+ languages as being homogenous and academically brilliant; underachieving groups are held to standards of groups with completely different cultures and expectations, as well as not being given necessary academic assistance due to their perceived status as part of a “model minority”. How can students experience educational freedom if they’re continuously in the shadow of others?

The “African American Athlete” – “Naturally Athletic”

“Why black athletes dominate sport and why we’re afraid to talk about it” (Entine 2008). The title of a book, an inflammatory racist statement based on the misinterpretation of social factors, and a telling manifestation of the “African American athlete” stereotype. There is a pervasive belief that African Americans are athletically gifted and innately physically superior to other ethnic groups.

Just like the model minority myth, it is easy to see how raw statistical data can be divorced from historical context to perpetuate a myth. Black students constitute 20% of the athlete population in the “Power 5” institutions, a group of 65 elite college teams, but represent just 5% of their total student population. In college sports, African American athletes account for 67% and 44% of the athletes playing, and black athletes enjoy a large presence in three highly publicised US sports: football, baseball, and basketball.

An incredibly nuanced process has been reduced to the simplest and least accurate conclusion; that African Americans must simply be better athletes than the rest of us. This is the inalienable flaw of stereotypes; they reduce complicated social factors such as economic opportunity and incentive, cultural values and stereotype threat to a simplistic racial explanation. Historically pervasive racist beliefs such as the “law of compensation” underpin this stereotype; this belief that physical advantages of “primitives” automatically infers an inverse relationship with intellect and intelligence is a theory that African Americans have been subjected to for generations. Constructing African Americans as innately athletic and resultant disproportionate representation means they’re subjected more than any other ethnic group to the “dumb jock” stereotype, further reinforcing the racist beliefs of some regarding supposed genetic basis of intelligence.

Faculty and non-athlete populations have been consistently observed holding perceptions of black college athletes as more likely to engage in criminal activity and dishonest conduct in academic work and curtailing their academic progress by treating them primarily as athletes rather than students. For academically engaged black student athletes, priming their “athlete” identities before academic tests was found to cause them to perform significantly worse than their white counterparts. African American student athletes have also reported feeling staff and other students subject them to the “dumb jock stereotype” more regularly than white athletes, and reported feeling more pressure to contribute academically and prove they belong in the academic sphere.

Counteracting The Stereotype Threat

It is grossly unfair to expect students to simply “not care what others think of them” when their cognitive and emotional energy is being sapped by a battle between group identity, personal achievement goals and negative racial stereotypes. Educators must consider the role they play in shaping students’ self-perception in order not to play into racially oriented models of how students should perform. Educators must be given sufficient training to identify their own biases, to allow them to see each student as an individual. Efforts could be made to counter subconscious racial bias in educators by providing them with information that contextualises and challenges commonly held stereotypes, such as information packs about mental health statistics among Asian students or the impact of stereotype threat on African American students.

The uptake of counselling services in one university was found to greatly increase after an Asian counsellor was hired, which demonstrates the importance of hiring staff with cultural backgrounds that reflect the student body. Efforts to dispel the “model minority” myth by disaggregating academic attainment data from Asian groups into their respective ethnic demographics is another promising way that Asian students can begin to be judged not on the merits of others, but their own.

To better help black student athletes, educators should encourage students to understand intelligence as malleability rather than innate: a study into self-perception among African American students found the students were much more academically engaged and optimistic about their academic potential following sessions of conceptualising intelligence as possible to influence through effort, as opposed to set in stone by factors beyond their control that fosters in students a belief in their own ability to be able to learn from mistakes and continually develop.

The more stoic minded individual might say “don’t define yourself by what others think of you”; while good general advice, this ignores a key facet of what it means to internalise; it’s impossible to reject what others think of you if it’s also what you think of yourself, and more so if it’s reinforced to you by those in charge of your education during formative years. We as a society would do ourselves an enormous disservice to allow stereotypes to continue to constrain individual opportunities for developing not into who they’re expected to be, but who they want to be.

We can all be so much more than just a stereotype.


Sam W. Govan is a Social Anthropology Graduate from the University of Kent


This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 02 Issue 01 — March 2022


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