What We’re Reading: All Racial Stereotypes Hurt STEM Students

illustration by William Cleaves

I am an Asian man in STEM. That identity carries a stereotype in this society; I am expected to excel academically within the discipline, expected to have an almost monastic focus on research in exclusion of other aspects of my life, and expected to be passive in demanding recognition for my work and career advancement. Aspects of this stereotype have affected my journey through the field and my career.

As a race-conscious STEM educator, I have put some thought into and adopted strategies in my courses hoping to ameliorate the impact of negative stereotypes targeting specific groups of students in science, including Black, LatinX, and women in science. However, I must shamefully admit that I have given little thought to the impact of ‘positive’ stereotypes on the lived experience of my Asian students, despite my own identity and experience.

Dr. Ebony McGee’s paper “‘Black Genius, Asian Fail’: The Detriment of Stereotype Lift and Stereotype Threat in High-Achieving Asian and Black STEM Students” (2018) presents composite narratives of the impact of specific racial stereotypes on Asian and Black STEM students, and the ways in which high-achieving students navigate these different stereotypes.

The following narrative was particularly impactful for my understanding of these dynamics: It has been shown that Asians are over-represented in STEM careers, while Blacks are underrepresented. This difference (among others) feeds the stereotype that Asian students have a natural aptitude in STEM courses, and Black students do not. However, this ‘fact’ does not take into account the heterogeneity of Asians and Asian experience in the U.S; the data is almost never disaggregated to show the complexity of access and participation. Nor does this facile attribution take into account the structural racism that Black children are subjected to, including in the classroom. The perceived success of Asians is used as evidence that structural racism does not exist; after all, the Asian minority is able to succeed. As Dr. McGee points out, these stereotypes then situate Asian and Black students in conflict with one another in the classroom, and in STEM.

Through her interviews and subsequent composite narrative, Dr. McGee’s main argument is that, despite the difference between the stereotypes, each stereotype has an impact on how students and others perceive their academic performance. A strong academic performance from a Black student is perceived to be extraordinary, the work of “a Black Genius,” dismissing the hard work needed to achieve that performance. A strong performance from an Asian student is perceived to be underperforming, to be “an Asian Fail.” Dr. McGee goes on to describe how individual students react to these stereotypes, and the impact of these stereotypes on their academic performance, but also on their psyche and persistence in science.  

My heart went out to these students for the challenges they face; as well as admiration at their efforts to succeed, to fight back. I highly recommend Dr. McGee’s website, where she has posted edited videos of students whom she has interviewed. Every STEM educator should watch these videos.

Dr. McGee ends with a call to action, a need for Black and Asian STEM students to form and maintain coalitions that can help members of each group succeed in STEM and combat the stereotypes that affect their access and advancement. For me, I will continue to change my praxis and focus on how I can help facilitate coalition building across racial identities.