The pressure to perform well, whether in school or at a new job, is a feeling that most people are familiar with. For some people, though, those feelings are magnified by reasons beyond their control, such as the racial or ethnic group that they belong to. In a recent report funded by the National Science Foundation, a researcher looked into how labels and stereotypes may influence high-achieving Black and Asian college students’ lives.
Published in the journal AERA Open, the study focused on minority STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) students in particular. Black and Asian college students were chosen as they often encounter “opposite” racialized experiences: stereotypes like the “model minority” tend to uplift and generate “pro-Asian sentiment” in the STEM field, while Black students more often experience “stereotype threat” due to negative racial associations regarding their perceived intelligence.
The research paper uses the labels “Black genius” and “Asian fail” to illustrate these racial disparities when it comes to stereotypes. “Black students who achieved grades superior to those of their White and Asian classmates were referred to as ‘freaks of nature,’ ‘the smartest Black person I have met,’ ‘Mensa-worthy,’ or ‘cheaters,’” Ebony O. McGee, study author and associate professor of education, diversity, and STEM at Vanderbilt University, wrote in the report. Asian students who scored comparably or slightly lower than their classmates of any racial descent (including other Asians) were perceived as getting “a grade seen as failing by Asian standards,” she wrote.
“Both racial groups expend a lot of energy — materially and psychologically — as a result of being stereotyped and marginalized,” noted McGee in the statement.
It should be noted that the study drew from a small sample size: McGee assessed the college experiences of only 61 Black, Asian, and Latinx STEM undergraduate students through interviews. The students came from six American postsecondary institutions and all had 3.0 GPAs or higher. But the interviews indicated that “high-achieving Black students are working to defy stereotypes of intellectual inferiority, while Asian students are trying to uphold the ‘model minority’ stereotype about their intellectual superiority,” said McGee in a statement.
Asian students reported feeling additional stress and pressure to perform due to their peers’ expectations of them, while the interviewed Black students recalled experiencing skepticism or exaggeration when they outscored white and Asian peers. The report concluded that despite how stereotypes about the two groups differed, both groups were burdened and generally reacted with additional stress and strain, “enduring sometimes debilitating consequences even while they are praised for fulfilling or defying stereotypes.”
“Racialized labels foster marginalization, which can have negative effects on the body and the mind,” McGee wrote in the report. “I argue that both of these racial groups endure emotional distress because each responds with an unrelenting motivation to succeed that imposes significant costs.”
The research findings may also have implications for the life of minority STEM students once they’ve entered the workforce. Black workers are underrepresented in STEM fields: while Black people comprise 11 percent of the total American workforce, they make up only seven percent of college-educated STEM jobholders, according to Pew Research Center. Asians, on the other hand, are overrepresented in STEM fields, comprising 17 percent of college-educated STEM workers. The Pew report also indicates that Black, Asian, and Hispanic people with STEM jobs are significantly less likely than their white counterparts to believe that members of their own racial or ethnic group are treated equitably, especially in regards to promotions and other advancement opportunities. Roughly 62 percent of Black STEM workers reported experiencing discrimination at work, relative to 44 percent of Asian workers, 42 percent of Hispanic workers and 13 percent of white workers.
While more research on this subject needs to be conducted on a larger scale, this report highlights the continual need for ways to combat the harmful effects that stereotypes and labels can have on minorities.