Words by Samantha Pak
Perception may not be everything, but the way we’re seen, or whether we’re even seen in the first place, definitely affects how we’re treated.
This was something The Asian American Foundation (TAAF) wanted to know about Americans—how they view AA+PIs. While other organizations such as AAPI Data are doing great work gathering information from within the community, TAAF CEO Norman Chen says no one was really looking at non-AA+PIs’ attitudes toward us. So, the organization started its STAATUS (Social Tracking of Asian Americans in the U.S.) Index to answer the question, “What is our status?” he says.
Now in its third year, the most recent STAATUS Index was released May 2, and in this second part of JoySauce’s three-part series, we’re looking at the (mis)perceptions of AA+PIs, and the visibility and awareness of our community.
(You can read the first part in our series, about race relations, here.)
Can you name an Asian or Pacific Island country?
When asked what countries Asian Americans originate from, the majority of respondents thought of East Asia—specifically China (69 percent). Actually, Chinese Americans only make up 24 percent of the Asian American population in the country, roughly the same as the number of Filipino Americans and Indian Americans. Despite this, at 17 and 13 percent, respectively, the Philippines and India were among the lowest in terms of countries of origin respondents thought of for Asian Americans. Other countries included Japan (54 percent), Korea (31 percent), Vietnam (22 percent), and Thailand (16 percent).
The survey also asked people to name countries of origin for Pacific Islanders. More than a quarter (29 percent) named Hawai’i—which, thanks to colonialism, is no longer its own nation. Twenty-two percent said they didn’t know any countries, while others named Samoa (17 percent), the Philippines (14 percent), and Fiji (12 percent).
The stereotypes continue
Like last year, about 20 percent of Americans still believe that Asian Americans are at least partially responsible for COVID-19; this is troubling considering that number has actually increased from 11 percent in 2021. And as we’ve all seen, this belief has coincided with a spike in reported attacks against our community—especially our elders.
Furthermore, one quarter of Americans somewhat or strongly believe that Asian Americans are more loyal to their country of origin than to the United States, down from one third last year.
Despite these misconceptions about the community, the majority of Americans (87 percent) do believe Asian Americans should be involved in jobs related to national security. More white people (89 percent) believe this than Hispanic (85 percent) and Black people (75 percent). However, nearly one third of Americans believe if Asian Americans work in roles that are critical to the United States’ global strategic competitiveness, then they should be under greater scrutiny than their fellow Americans.
And while most Americans say they’re comfortable with Asian Americans in various social roles such as their friends (84 percent), co-workers (82 percent), or health care workers (82 percent), they’re not as comfortable with having Asian Americans in their family (77 percent), as their boss (76 percent), or as the president or vice president of the United States (66 percent).
The STAATUS Index also shows that the model minority stereotype continues to prevail. Similar to previous years, Americans still describe Asian Americans using adjectives such as “intelligent/smart/educated” (51 percent) and “hard working” (32 percent). The fields in which we’re seen as being the most influential and in senior roles are science and technology, health care, and business, while AA+PIs are less visible in sports, media and news, government/politics, and pop culture.
The top adjectives used to describe Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders were “kind/nice/thoughtful” (27 percent) and “good/great/awesome” (21 percent).
Although AANHPIs are seen in a positive light overall, the stats regarding loyalty and additional scrutiny are concerning because they reinforce the perpetual foreigners and yellow peril stereotypes that have plagued our community for generations. As Chen points out, many of us have been asked the question of where we’re really from, even if our families have been in this country for generations. He said this just further proves the need for more authentic and nuanced representation of our community.
‘AA+PI history is American history’
The STAATUS Index highlights how invisible AA+PIs still are, and how much the continued efforts to get AA+PI history taught in schools are needed.
When asked to name a historical event and/or policy related to Asian Americans, 30 percent of respondents couldn’t. Twenty-seven percent named the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
“Nothing else breaks 10 percent,” Chen says.
Fifteen percent mentioned the attack on Pearl Harbor and nine percent mentioned the Vietnam, Korean, and other wars, but as he points out, this is another example of people conflating our community of Asian diaspora with Asians from Asia, as these events don’t reflect the experiences of Asian Americans.
“AA+PI history is American history,” Chen says. “These are important stories.”
Jackie Chan is not American and Bruce Lee is no longer with us
Asian Americans continue to be invisible to other Americans.
As in previous years, when asked to name a famous or prominent Asian American, the most common response (26 percent) was that they couldn’t; this number is down from 58 percent in 2022, and 42 percent in 2021. And for the third year in a row, the top two names were Jackie Chan (12 percent) and Bruce Lee (six percent)—never mind the fact that the former is not American, and the latter died nearly 50 years ago. Vice President Kamala Harris came in third at five percent, replacing Lucy Liu from previous years, who now sits in fourth place with three percent.
The top Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders respondents named were Dwayne Johnson (23 percent), Don Ho (eight percent), Jason Momoa (five percent), and Barack Obama (three percent). While Johnson and Momoa are Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian, respectively, Ho was of Native Hawaiian ancestry, but had died in 2007. And the former president was only born in Hawaii.
Chen says the fact that Chan and Lee continue to be the top responses shows this is not a temporary phenomenon. Americans also still think of Asian Americans in stereotypical roles in TV and films. When asked what types of character roles Asian Americans typically play in TV and films, the top roles named for men were martial arts experts (28 percent) and criminals (25 percent), while the top role named for Asian American women was sex worker (15 percent), behind “I don’t know” (18 percent).
Chen says this type of representation is damaging, and it’s why we need more authentic stories in the media, with AA+PIs in leading roles, playing the heroes, and everyday Americans, adding that films such as Everything Everywhere All at Once, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and their success show we’re heading in the right direction.
Published on May 16, 2023
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.