An indentity crisis precipitated by racial stereotyping can be the root of many teen problems. How to apply preventive medicine.

by William Kim


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A Positive Self-Image
for Your Pre-Teen


ho am I? That's a question that even well-adjusted adults, armed with all our years of comforting routines and soothing platitudes, find ourselves wrestling with all too often.
     For kids struggling to get through adolescence, the question can be a killer. It's the dark, scary mountain range looming squarely in their paths to adulthood. For Asian American kids, it's the Himalayas. In my experience, the need to build a healthy self-image, an identity, is the most urgent challenge facing Asian American kids of all ages, day to day, hour by hour.

     What makes the challenge so treacherous is that it's invisible to all but the most perceptive and caring parents. Yet, all too often, the demands of trying to meet or avoid that challenge is the source of the troubles that parents find themselves forced to confront -- falling grades, obesity, drug use, teen and pre-teen sex and pregnancy, withdrawl from social contact and, in growing numbers of cases, juvenile crime and violence. These are merely the symptoms about which more than enough has been written and spoken. Strangely little attention has been devoted to what I believe to be their most important root cause, at least for Asian Americans.

     To me what's remarkable isn't the number of Asian American kids who go wrong. It's how many become productive, apparently well-adjusted adults. But before we break out the champagne over the legions of bright young Asian Americans marching through top colleges and into business and professional success, let's take a look at the ones who fall by the wayside and, to be brutally frank, let's take a second look at the ones who make it on every level but the most basic -- achieving a genuine sense of self.


     The issue of identity is an issue of parental guidance and education. Why parental? Can't the kids educate themselves on it?

     Yes, it's possible for a young Asian American to come to satisfactory grips with her identity after she has muddled through adolescence and young adulthood. I believe many Asian Americans have done just that. But they have often paid a high price in the form of social, educational and professional opportunities missed as a result of identity-related conflicts. The price is also paid in the statistical sense of having survived the risks of not making the adjustments well enough or in time.

     From birth Asian American boys are told they have no hope of growing up to be strong, sexy and admired. Asian American girls are told that they will be accepted only if they are dumb, desperate and sexually submissive. In short, young Asian Americans are forced to choose between being accepted according to the standards laid out by the American society as embodied in the media and perceptions and becoming the attractive, confident and successful human beings they would like to be.

     Asian American kids with the strongest self-image inevitably find themselves slamming up, time and again, against the hateful expectations and, by their adolescence, come to feel a degree of alienation from American society. The fortunate ones ultimately find a way to resolve the conflict between their own self-image and stereotyped social expectations. The less fortunate either succumb to the stereotypes or reject their racial identity, society, or both. Often parents are included in this rejection if they are perceived as contributing in some way to the conflict, either by the their unwillingness to acknowledge the effects of racism or by themselves having fallen victim to its effects.

     The less fortunate outcomes can be avoided if parents understand the psychological pressure points that precipitate identity conflicts for young Asian Americans and provide timely counter-programming against the insidious effects of racial stereotyping and other subtle forms of institutionalized racism. It's important to note that even TV programs or shows bearing the earmarks of being educational or otherwise well-intentioned often subtly reinforce the assault on a child's self-image. For example, the disproportionate numbers of Asian females and dirth of Asian males on kids' programs tend to reinforce the subtle and insidious message that Asians are a race of women without men.

     What follows are the six pernicious psychological pressure points that have the strongest negative impact on Asian self-image, the telltale signs of their effect on your kids, and my prescription for applying counterbalancing education, "preventive medicine". It's important to begin the educational process from early childhood, typically the age of three or four because that's when kids first become conscious of the racial component of their social interactions. The education should certainly begin well before the age of seven or eight. By the age of nine or ten, I believe most kids have internalized the conflicts between their preferred self-image and the one pushed on them by racial stereotypes and social expectations. At that age they are likely to be far less receptive to efforts at education. PAGE 2

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"What makes the challenge so treacherous is that it's invisible to all but the most perceptive and caring parents."