In 2017, Pusan National University Professor Robert Kelly and his family went viral as his daughter burst into the room during a live TV interview regarding the situation in North Korea. However, the televised interruption was brief as his wife Jung-a Kim quickly came to the rescue and took the toddler away. The incident itself, a “family blooper,” became the talk of the internet as the unsuspecting toddler contrasted ever so humorously with the suit-clad image of academic authority. One particular point of controversy arose as people were quick to point out the “nanny” who pulled the child away.
Who is this “nanny”? Wife Jung-a Kim.
Asian women are often stereotyped in domestic roles: nannies, housekeepers, maids, and cleaners. Perceived as quiet, soft spoken, and easily commanded, Asian women seem to fit perfectly into the docile domestic narrative. Many see Jung-a Kim as the “nanny” instead of the mother because of one simple fact: her race. To many outsiders, the power dynamic appears obvious: a white male academic as the head of household and an Asian female as the hired help. She is not seen as his partner or his equal because of her ethnicity, but rather an extension of his social and economic status. Not to say that those who assume are explicit racists or outright ignorant; the implicit assumptions, biases, and stereotypes that pervade western society are the culprit of this role misidentification. This simple internet incident leads us to a bigger discussion about the implications of stereotypes surrounding Asian women: how do such stereotypes and assumptions shape the Asian American female experience?
It’s all been heard before: Asian women cannot speak up or stand up for themselves. They lack assertiveness and confidence. They are submissive, docile, and easy to command with little initiative of their own. They are factory workers, housekeepers, secretaries, or trophy wives.
Stereotypes hold social value. Stereotypes simplify into labels, and society use labels to cluster individuals into groups. Wearing the stereotype lens blurs our vision of what a person is and can be, rather oversimplifying the individual into their gender and the color of their skin. For Asian women, ever-present stereotypes of docile femininity permeates into every aspect of life, from the family into the workplace.
The implications of such stereotyping follows the girl throughout her whole life. From a statistical point of view, the racial gap is bigger than the gender gap for Asian women. Being Asian is 2.91 times the disadvantage of being a woman, according to a study published by the Ascend Foundation. Asian women are the least represented group in upper management, meaning that they are the least likely to rise above the ranks into executive positions (Ascend Foundation). From a personal point of view, this projected false image marrs self-image and lowers self-confidence; because others do not believe in their success, they in turn lose confidence in their own ability. The two viewpoints are closely linked: Asian American women face both internal and external bias, impeding their ability to reach their full potential. Pressure from many sides to conform to the stereotype, from within Asian culture, from internalized self-doubt, and from mainstream American culture, is critically damaging to the Asian female experience in America.
Within many Asian cultures, there exists the pressure to conform. Within traditional Asian culture, conformity is valued whi’le outspoken individual stances are discouraged as conformity is praised as harmony (Kim and Markus 6). In many homes, conformity is taught as a value. Remaining silent, not drawing attention to oneself, and listening to one’s elders are core values of many traditional Asian households. While this model of upbringing fits well into contemporary Asian societies such as Japan, the ideal of conformity clashes with the American mainstream of rampant individuality and puts many at a disadvantage.
From the outside, Asian women are seen as much less capable than their male or white female counterparts. As previously discussed, there is little representation of Asian women in leadership. However, Asian women are often missing in the discussion regarding the glass ceiling, or an invisible “ceiling” of institutional bias that prevents individuals from reaching the upper echelons of his or her career field. According to data analysis by former Silicon Valley executives Bruce Gee and Denise Peck, due to the prevalence of the model minority myth, Asians are almost left out of the glass ceiling conversation entirely, despite being the group least likely to be promoted to managerial positions. This lack of conversation regarding the topic hides it away in plain sight, as if the issue did not exist. The lack of upward mobility in the workplace for Asian women is a complicated issue that can be attributed to many factors, but most of all to the institutional and individual bias that exist in American society. This bias ties directly back to the stereotypes of Asian women’s lack of assertion and leadership ability as they are seen as less competent leaders than others. Asian women are not seen as equal partners in the workplace, similarly to how Jung-a Kim is not seen by the internet as an equal partner to her white husband.
The internal pressure, exuberated by the outside bias, also impede Asian women in that they begin to doubt their own ability and retreat into the background. Performance is often psychological: as Asian women internally push themselves further back, the outside stereotypes are seemingly validated and reinforced in vicious cycles.