Skip to main content

The surprising racial bias against Asians

By Helen Wan
updated 2:38 PM EDT, Tue May 20, 2014
Why is there an achievement gap for Asians in the workplace?
Why is there an achievement gap for Asians in the workplace?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A Wharton study shows high level of racial bias against Asians and Indians
  • Helen Wan: The "model minority" stereotype of Asians is pernicious
  • She says even though Asians do well in school, in the workplace they fall behind
  • Wan: One way to help Asians is to improve mentor and sponsor programs

Editor's note: Helen Wan is an author, frequent speaker on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and former corporate and media attorney. Her new book, "The Partner Track" (Macmillan), is about an Asian-American woman lawyer navigating race, gender and class dynamics at a prestigious law firm. Follow her on Twitter: @helenwan1 The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- So we thought Asian kids did great in school. Think again.

A new study suggests that women and minorities are less likely to receive early support from potential academic mentors. Researchers from Wharton, Columbia and NYU ran an interesting field experiment: Pretending to be students, they e-mailed more than 6500 professors at top U.S. universities admiring each professor's work and asking to meet. The e-mails were all identical except for the senders' names.

Helen Wan
Helen Wan

Names that one can associate with a gender or race -- like Brad Anderson, Meredith Roberts, LaToya Brown, Juanita Martinez, Deepak Patel, Sonali Desai, Chang Wong, and Mei Chen -- were used.

The researchers found that faculty were most likely to respond to e-mails from white males. But more surprising was the high level of racial bias against Asians and Indians -- professors were likeliest to ignore e-mails from these students.

One of the researchers noted, "We see tremendous bias against Asian students and that's not something we expected. ... A lot of people think of Asians as a model minority group. We expect them to be treated quite well in academia."

The study highlights the pernicious nature of the "model minority" stereotype of Asians, and the fact that Asians are still viewed as the most foreign "other" in our American culture -- perhaps the biggest outsiders in the politics of "not like us."

A common refrain I hear from well-meaning friends and colleagues is: "What's so bad about the Asian stereotype? Seems to me Asians have done all right." I get it. As a woman of color, I'm keenly aware that on the spectrum of bias, there are plenty of worse things to be called than good at school. It doesn't sound so terrible to be thought of as hardworking or quiet when there are so many more obviously sinister racial myths out there to bust.

Subconscious racial bias in children
2012: Comedian Margaret Cho Talks "Linsanity"

But the flip side of the model minority myth is an assumption that Asians do just fine and don't need any mentoring or help in the academic or professional world. Whether due to bias or mere lack of interest, the professors in the study treated Asian and Indian students differently despite their reputation for academic achievement.

And this lack of mentorship while in school may lead to an achievement gap in the workplace. There's still a huge disparity between the percentage of Asians graduating at the top of their class from the best schools in the country and the percentage of Asians who go on to achieve top leadership positions in their chosen fields.

Disturbingly, I have heard thoughtful colleagues wonder aloud whether the underrepresentation of Asians in senior leadership roles is due to systemic, external factors that should be addressed with reform in the workplace, or whether it's Asians who are responsible for taking themselves out of the C-suite pipeline because "they're just happy being the worker bees."

Is there any truth to the perceptions that Asians are passive, lack leadership skills and assertiveness, are unwilling to take initiative or risk, and even unable to have fun or a decent sense of humor? Some people definitely think so.

I'm not the only American of Asian descent who has been told, in the form of a compliment, that I'm surprisingly outgoing, funny, or sociable -- for an Asian. I still get friendly compliments on my "very good English." And at one of my very first legal job interviews, one judge put it succinctly: "I've always thought your people were very bright."

It's the very benignity of these model minority stereotypes that render them so persistent and difficult to eradicate.

So, what can we do about it?

We can start by improving mentor and sponsor programs. Mentors and mentees are too often arbitrarily paired in the corporate world. Employers should consider the real affinities that may actually exist within their workforce and offer employees the tools, training and access to identify, cultivate and maintain their own meaningful mentor and sponsor relationships.

At one law job early in my career, I was assigned to a "mentor" who himself had only been at the firm a few weeks. Why? He was from Seoul. I'm from California and grew up in D.C. And I'm not even Korean-American. Meanwhile, I went to a college that graduates about 400 students a year, and a white male senior partner whose office was down the hall had gone to this same small college, yet no one at the firm had stopped to think that perhaps I might have something in common with him.

Sure, it's also incumbent on people to take initiative and simply walk down the hall and introduce themselves to potential mentors. But it would be incredibly helpful and transformative for the gatekeepers -- in academia, the corporate world, public service, media, entertainment and the arts, whatever path talented young people might choose -- to recognize the subtle, unconscious biases that sometimes prevent Asians from achieving their true potential.

Maybe then Asians in America can be recognized for bringing more to the table than just being good at school.

Q & A with author Helen Wan about 'The Partner Track'

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT