Asian and Asian American Sports Stars: Reversing the Stereotype
“If you are given a chance to be a role model, I think you should always take it because you can influence a person’s life in a positive light, and that’s what I want to do. That’s what it’s all about” – Tiger Woods. The influence of globally known, iconic, Asian and Asian American sports stars such as Tiger Woods, Yao Ming, Ichiro Suzuki, Manny Pacquiao, Dat Nguyen and Jeremy Lin have on the lives and culture of Asian Americans is the topic I chose for my research paper.
I chose this topic because of the sports aspect involved and I am going to look specifically at whether or not these athletes help to break some of the negative stereotypes and self-image issues experienced by Asian American men. I am also going to discuss the effect that the success of these athletes has on the model minority myth and whether or not it helps some Asian American men to break free.
I grew up idolizing athletes like Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Kobe Bryant, and Joe Montana and decided to see how elite athletes like these of Asian and Asian American decent impact Asian Americans and if it was similar to the way I was impacted. It is my belief watching the titans of sport whose ancestry can be traced back to Asia, sparks Asian Americans to believe they can break stereotypes, feel proud, and allow themselves to dream anything is possible.
A stereotype is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.
Asian American men may very well deal with the most stereotypes of any other group of Americans, but I am going to focus on the two stereotypes; being non-masculine and the model minority. Possibly the most pervasive and influential stereotype Asian American men face is the model minority stereotype. This stereotype comes with blanket statements such as Asian Americans are intelligent, academically and professionally successful, specifically in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields, hardworking, achievement-oriented, and relatively free from personal problems (Wong, Owen, Tran, Collins, & Higgins, 2012). With this stereotype many Asian Americans feel immense pressure to live up to these expectations. This undue pressure is due to racial and political tension during the cold war and as Lee (1999) talked about in his book it had more to do with the perceived failures of African Americans and Latinos rather than actual successes of Asian Americans. There are Asian and Asian American athletes who help to break the mold of this stereotype for young Asian Americans. Eric Liu, American writer and founder of Citizen University who served as Deputy Assistant to President Clinton for Domestic Policy at the White House between 1999 and 2000 said, “Jeremy Lin is the only Asian American in the NBA today and one of the few in any professional U.S. sport. His arrival is surely leading other talented Asian American athletes this week to contemplate a pro career.” I feel this is a powerful example of how the success of these athletes can lead to the dreams of the people who follow. When an Asian American boy, who feels the societal and family pressures for success through academics, watches Jeremy Lin succeed the way he has in the NBA it can open a whole other set of possibilities in this boy’s mind. One of the biggest drawbacks to the model minority stereotype is the perception that Asian Americans have it all together, all the time. This misconception can cause these Asian Americans to become isolated and feel invisible. For these Asian Americans struggling to find their place and identity beyond what has been placed on them, the athletic success of someone who they can relate to can be inspiring. For example, “Pacquiao’s success in the ring enables Filipino American nationalism and a sense of esteem and status not granted in other arenas of their everyday lives. For some, Pacquiao’s larger-than life persona serves as a critique of Filipino American invisibility” (Thangaraj, Arnaldo, & Chin, 2016, pg. 111). As you can see Manny’s success has let an entire subsection of Asian Americans feel like they are no longer invisible.
Attacking the manhood or masculinity of Asian/Asian American men can be traced back to the beginning of Asian immigration to the Americas. Basically, this stereotype started like a high school rumor where an insecure student (White America) tells a malicious lie about the new student (Asian Immigrants) in order to belittle them and sink their credibility. There were many factors leading to this harmful stereotype including discriminatory laws, and policies in the 19th and early 20th centuries relegating Asian American men to occupations thought of as traditionally feminine occupations such as cooking, housekeeping, and child-care. Other laws prohibited Asian immigrants from bringing their wives along to the Americas and anti-miscegenation laws prevented them from marrying white women once they were there. This separation led to bachelor-societies which led to the opinion that Asian American men are emasculated, asexual, effeminate, or gay and these stereotypes produce images of these men as deviating from heterosexual European American masculine norms (Wong, et. al., 2012). It can be argued that a stereotype of intelligence, solid work ethic, and professional success aren’t all bad. I would hear the argument for this view type at least. The stereotype about Asian/Asian American men being non-masculine is just simple nonsense. I had a great grandfather and grandfather of Filipino descent both serve in the military and these are two of the more masculine men I have ever met. The arena of sports has always been one of proving masculinity in a way. The original Olympics were just that. Today in professional sports the athletes at the top of the industry are considered excellent specimens of masculinity. “Asian men in popular sport presuppose and indeed attempt to produce Asian masculinity by inverting the bodily emasculation of Asian American men” (Chon-Smith, 2014, pg. 292). If athletic success leads to the perception of masculinity then the World’s all-time hit leader Ichiro Suzuki would lead the way in the category of masculinity, as would biracial athlete Tiger Woods, who has received the ESPY award for best male athlete a record 5 times. Asian American men can look to these athletes for inspiration and proof that this stereotype is just that and not a truth. American football may be the ultimate arena for display of masculinity in the world and ex-Cowboys linebacker Dat Nguyen excelled at the highest levels. “In the world of highly promoted, televised pastimes like football and basketball, Nguyen has blitzed his way to the top of a contact sport still dominated by African Americans and Whites. He debunks the stereotype of Asians only as super students and otherwise athletic duds” (Lum, 1999, para. 6). Another titan in Asian/Asian American sports is Yao Ming. At 7’6” Yao Ming shatters all of the non-masculine stereotypes put on Asians and Asian Americans. “Hailed as ‘the great yellow hope,’ Yao was quickly adopted by the Asian American community, thanks to a sense of racial proximity and afﬁnity, and was taken seriously as an Asian Paciﬁc American male icon. His ‘bigness’ will boost Asian Paciﬁc American male self-esteem” (Wang, 2004, pg. 265).
I am hopeful that any Asian American man who feels like there is some validity to this detrimental stereotype will look to these dominant athletes and realize it is entirely poppycock.
The model minority and non-masculine stereotypes placed on Asian American men throughout history are alive and well. However, the success of their people in athletics should serve as reminder of the lack of truthfulness in these accusations and provide a glimmer of pride and hope. My research has shown that these stereotypes are detrimental to the mental health of Asian American men but the success of Tiger Woods, Yao Ming, Ichiro Suzuki, Manny Pacquiao, Dat Nguyen and Jeremy Lin is a pillar for which Asian American men can stand upon a rebuke these stereotypes. A day where stereotypes are no more and all men regardless of race are seen as equal would be a welcome day, but until then Asian American men can look to the stars of athletics for hope and solitude.
- Chon-Smith, C. (2014). Yellow bodies, black sweat: Yao Ming, Ichiro Suzuki, and global sport. Journal for Cultural Research, 18(4), 1-24.
- Lee, R. G. (1999). Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture. The American Historical Review, 105(3), 946.
- Lum, L. (1999). Breaking Football’s Color Barrier: Texas A&M scholar/athlete Dat Nguyen faces his next big test this month, getting drafted into the pros. Black Issues in Higher Education, 16(4), 50.
- Thangaraj, S. I., Arnaldo, C., & Chin, C. B. (Eds.). (2016). Asian american sporting cultures. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
- Wang, C. (2004). Capitalizing the big man: Yao Ming, Asian America, and the China Global 1. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 5(2), 263-278.
- Wong, Y. J., Owen, J., Tran, K. K., Collins, D. L., & Higgins, C. E. (2012). Asian American male college students’ perceptions of people’s stereotypes about Asian American men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 13(1), 75–88. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022800