Making the Best of Stereotypes — Page 2 of 2

Stereotyping is merely a first-draft effort at putting a handle on someone with whom we’ve had little firsthand contact. Generally we aren’t even conscious of doing it. Someone whose only knowledge of Asians was gleaned from old movies may unconsciously ascribe to real Asians the characteristics she saw Asian characters exhibiting in the movies. The next time someone else does it to us, avoid taking it personally. Remind yourself that in a multi-cultural society we’re all in the same boat. Understanding that no one is immune from the annoyance and frustration of being streotyped lets us avoid taking every instance of it as a direct assault on our personal dignity. That’s an important bit of insight. Had Elise Chun kept it in mind, she would likely have taken a different approach to her situation.

Get in Your Input

As silly as stereotypes are, they continue to control perception until replaced by clear and convincing alternatives. In Chun’s case she simply assumed that her manager had a fixed image of her based on conscious racial bias and never provided input about her actual talents and ambitions. She was so peeved by the perceived racial insult that she simply withdrew. By doing so, she may have reinforced her manager’s perception that she wasn’t suited for dealing with clients. Had Chun told her manager about her desire for more client contact, she may have begun changing her perception. Chun merely expressed a final vote of no confidence in her manager without giving her a fair chance to reconsider her preconceptions.

Turn Stereotypes Into Springboards

We Asian Americans are acutely sensitive to prevailing stereotypes. We know all too well that we’re assumed to be quiet, self-effacing, non-verbal. Those aren’t advantageous traits in the professional world, and we understandably want to distance ourselves from them. On the other hand, we also know that the very same stereotypes portray us as being reliable, hard-working and technically proficient. Those are positive qualities that employers and clients prize highly. In fact, ambitious professionals of other races knock themselves out to prove that they possess those qualities.

Yet in our eagerness to reject stereotyping, we often reject the entire package. We go overboard to show that we’re gregarious, pushy and possess more flash than substance. Those of us who have tried that approach know that it doesn’t take too much of it before superiors and clients are turned off. You may succeed in shaking off the stereotype and become the life of the watercooler, but you may also succeed in losing your valuable credibility as a productive worker.

Remember that your first goal at work is professional advancement not becoming a social gadfly. The life of the party is rarely the most trusted employee. That’s especially true in the first five years of your career when you have little reputation to leverage. That comes only after you’ve proven your ability to roll up your sleeves and do reliable, quality work. In that regard, the Asian stereotype provides us with a big advantage early in our careers when we need it most. (What it may do further up the management ladder is a different issue to be addressed in another article.)

In the perfect world there would be no stereotypes and we would all be judged purely on our merits. That would be wonderful! But we don’t work in a perfect world. We never will. In the real world, smart people get off to the best start possible by exploiting whatever advantages have been provided by nature, nurture and social conditioning. How many Whites do you think set out to reject the advantages conferred by racial prejudices and bias just to prove how high-minded they are?

That’s precisely what Elise Chun did. She suffered the disadvantages of stereotyping but denied herself the advantages. That’s a losing proposition all around. As a sales engineer her technical ability is an important if not critical aspect of her professional competence. But she viewed her assignment as merely frustrating her desire for client contact. Others in her situation might have welcomed the opportunity as providing a valuable chance to prove technical proficiency. By choosing to see the glass as half empty rather than half full, Chun effectively deprived herself the benefits she might have gained by taking advantage of the valid opportunity to prove her value to her company. She also closed herself off from the possibility that she might have excelled in and even enjoyed the technical work. There are worse ways to make your fortune. Ask Bill Gates. By prematurely drawing an arbitrary line in the sand, she suffered the worst possible effects of stereotyping — she put herself on a reactive downward spiral rather than seizing the opportunity to proactively advancing her own agenda.

Her boss’s thinking in assigning her a technical role may well have been based on stereotyping, but had Chun seen it as a valid opportunity, she could have established her technical competency, earned the manager’s trust and been in a better position to influence future assignments. Prev

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