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Living Under The Bamboo Ceiling: One Asian American Student's Struggle Against Model-Minority Discrimination

Sandhya Bhaskar |
August 11, 2015 | 7:04 p.m. PDT


(Vera and Jean-Christophe/Flickr)
(Vera and Jean-Christophe/Flickr)
As an Asian American growing up in suburban Sacramento, California, I have encountered subtle and blatant forms of stereotyping all my life. Teachers imposed westernized nicknames on me like “Sandy” with the explanation, “We speak English here in America!” Students taunted me, yelling gibberish while pretending to meditate, claiming they were speaking “Indian.” In high school, my classmates gave me the bulk of the work on team projects because I “just seem good at school stuff.” Students I’ve never met ask me for help with their math and science homework. Others tell me, “I’m not Asian like YOU, so I won’t get into Harvard.”

The stereotypes Asian Americans face in schools and the workplace seem countless. In middle school I shrugged off these racist typecasts because standing up for myself never seemed to work. “I’m just playing around” and “Why are you taking it so seriously?” were often the responses to my attempts to ask people to stop. As I entered a predominantly white high school, I became an expert at tuning out ignorant comments made about my race and assumptions that I am a calculus superstar.

Recently I realized avoiding confrontation is the wrong approach. By passively allowing people to impose their preconceived notions about my race, I gave them a “free pass” for it to continue. Letting these racist assumptions slide encouraged racial typecasting. Some of the stereotypes may have positive connotations, like “hardworking” and “technically orientated,” but these “model minority” stereotypes create problems. They contribute to holding back Asian Americans in the workplace.

READ MORE: Asians Might Vote Left, But The Model Minority Is Still Pretty Racist

The “Bamboo Ceiling” is a term describing the cultural and individual barriers Asian Americans hit when climbing the corporate ladder. It combines the ingrained stereotypical view of Asian Americans, along with a conflict of values between cultures. I spoke with Dr. Vishakha N. Desai, former president and CEO of the Asia Society, who shed light on the difficulties that Asian Americans face in the workplace.

“Asian American men do very well going into Fortune 500 corporate jobs, they actually don’t do so well climbing up the ladder to senior executive positions. So while they don’t have the same problems as African American men in getting jobs, their problem is that they get stuck in the mid-ranks…and therefore there is a huge disappointment, because even though [they] may have done well academically, [they] will not be able to crack the perception that they will not make a good leader.”

Asian American women face an additional challenge, dealing with sexism in addition to the barriers posed by the bamboo ceiling.

The numbers illustrate the problem. Jane Hyun, author of The Bamboo Ceiling, reports “As of 2011, less than 1.5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs were Asian, though they make up 5 percent of the population and 52 percent of them are college graduates (compared with national average of 29 percent).” Wesley Yang, author of the article Paper Tigers, cites a study showing that Asian Americans women only make up 0.29 percent of the 13 percent of women in 10,000+ corporate officers of Fortune 500 companies.

Cultural differences aside, Asian Americans are too often excluded from high-ranking positions because the stereotypes do not include leadership qualities. The submissive, dutiful image assigned to Asian Americans can block leadership opportunities that involve creativity and assertiveness. The model minority stereotype is the perpetuation of a false narrative of Asian American lives. From looking at the generic “whiz-kid,” who is a math and science nerd, to the unhinged and crazy “tiger mom,” pop culture produces a false image of Asian Americans. It is so prominent that attempting to correct it seems almost impossible.

READ MORE: What Makes Asian American Men ‘Undateable?’

Experiencing this ingrained racism is very painful. In my freshman year of high school, my geometry teacher passed back a monthly progress report. Math has never been my best subject, so it was no surprise that I did not receive top marks. A student next to me glanced at my report with a sympathetic look and said boldly “Wow, is your mom going to, like, ground you?” When I said no, she responded “Well, it wouldn’t matter, because do Asians have social lives?”

I found the comment unsettling, but I did not realize the impact this mentality, if I allowed it to go on unabated, could have on my future. When I enter the workforce, will my co-workers prematurely think I am “anti-social?” Will I be held to a higher standard of achievement? Will promotions pass me by because of assumptions about my personality and work ethic? Especially for Asian Americans of my generation, cultural difference and language barriers are not as much of an issue. Yet, even as more Asian Americans pursue careers in liberal arts fields and shatter the model minority stereotype, I have not noticed any absence in the “whiz kid” typecast.

Society seems to expect Asian Americans to overachieve academically and economically. Issues of discrimination are ignored because success is a sort of revenge. But this is not the way it should be. As Jane Hyun says, “Yes, there are segments of Asians who have done very well but there are other Asians that struggle, whether it be economically or to get ahead, Asian Americans come from all different backgrounds…so it’s very important that we continue to have conversations about [the model minority] instead of stereotyping people to be one way or another.”

The model minority stereotype feeds the Bamboo Ceiling. It comes down to America’s image of a leader. It must be someone who is personable, outgoing, innovative, and can motivate and speak to employees. This clashes with the model minority stereotype. As Wesley Yang, author of “Paper Tigers” says, “[Asian Americans] are seen as the products of a timid culture, easily pushed around by more assertive people, and thus basically invisible.” Many people like to look at Asian American success as validation that minorities can achieve the “American Dream” without racial issues interfering. The reality is that anti-Asian sentiment is prominent. The fundamental failure to recognize these forms of racism in America continues to fuel the model minority stereotype.

In many ways, I do not embody the Asian American “model minority.” I am not a straight-A student nor am I a Mathletes champion. I do not plan on pursuing a career in math and science. I do not have hopes of attending Harvard. And I am not timid anymore. I am determined to succeed in spite of any labels that come with my race. I am not “culturally programmed” to conform to any stereotypes that have defined Asian culture. I can say with certainty that the model minority negates aspects of my individuality. We face a grave danger in typecasting children by racial groups.

As a society, all Asian Americans deserve the opportunity to achieve leadership positions. We all need to do our part to shatter the Bamboo Ceiling.

Sandhya Bhaskar will be a senior at Rio Americano High School in Sacramento this fall. She wrote this essay during a high school journalism class at USC this summer.



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