Tufts researchers study experiences of adolescents to learn more about how young people deal with stereotypes
For some Asian American students, it’s almost inevitable that they are viewed as “good at math” based solely on their appearance. It’s a presumption that stems from the notion that all Asians are alike, and the stereotype of them all being a “model minority.”
The result is that many people in the Asian American community often feel marginalized and invisible, says Jayanthi Mistry, professor and chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. It’s an issue that she has been doing research on, with the goal of creating counter narratives, especially for young people coming face to face with these stereotypes.
In the past year, Mistry has published two research studies on these topics with Fuko Kiyama, AG19, who was a master’s student at Tufts and is now a Ph.D. student at UC Irvine. They focus on understanding the process of ethnic-racial identity development among Asian American children and examining Asian American adolescents’ awareness of marginalization and invisibility.
“Marginalization happens when you feel like you are being differentiated from a dominant group,” Mistry says. “You’re on the margins of the mainstream group with power. It can happen on the basis of sexuality, gender, national origins, race, socio-economic background—as well as other social identity categories.”
In the racial dialogue in the U.S., which focuses on the Black-white divide, “Asians, who have a different history of discrimination become invisible,” Mistry says. “They are often left out of the race dialogue—they are made invisible.”
It is important to have these conversations sooner rather than later about identity, ethnicity, and race, and how you experience it and process it—in whatever way is developmentally appropriate, but starting early on.
One study looked at Chinese American and Vietnamese American adolescents who were living in ethnic enclaves. Some of the Vietnamese Americans youth said, for example, that they are often called Chinese, says Mistry. “They have a sense of frustration that people don’t know that Vietnam is not China,” she says. “They are recognizing that they are invisible within a larger Asian group.”
The adolescents also have come to recognize their own marginalization in the wider community. That experience of "feeling othered sometimes gets generated by overt acts of discrimination, and sometimes it is based on the youngsters’ own observations of how their families are different,” she says. They might be Buddhist but not go to church, for example, while many of their friends do go to church.
Even though they are young, they have developed what Mistry calls a critical awareness of their difference, recognizing the social stratification they are subject to, she says. The plus side of that is that “making people aware of inequities or unfairness can empower them to fight against it, to challenge it,” she says.
“Understanding the differing ways adolescents reflect on their marginalization and become aware of societal inequities can inform how they can best be supported to enhance this emerging critical awareness to facilitate critical action toward social justice,” Mistry and Kiyama write in one of their papers.
The goal of her research is not just to help people cope with these situations individually, but “to raise critical consciousness so that more people are engaged in dismantling the inequities that create the setting where American society is very racialized,” Mistry says.
She suggests that schools are a good place for conversations around these topics and create counter narratives collectively. “It is important to have these conversations sooner rather than later about identity, ethnicity, and race, and how you experience it and process it—in whatever way is developmentally appropriate, but starting early on,” she says.