Over the weekend, the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick exploded on Twitter, trending for more than 24 hours, with over 45,000 tweets in less than a day.
This hashtag, started by writer Suey Park (@suey_park), inspired Asian Americans and others to share their thoughts on the multiple ways Asians are marginalized.
People tweeted about diversity within the Asian community, language, stereotypes, body image, immigration, media representation, and other topics. Although the conversation was initially about Asian American feminism, the hashtag clearly had global appeal and tweets poured in from around the world.
On Monday, a counter-hashtag #AsianPrivilege appeared. Twitter users deployed this hashtag to claim that Asians experience relative privilege as compared to other people of color. Many of the people behind this counter-hashtag appear to be trolls tweeting from new accounts. Nevertheless, the sentiments behind these tweets are widely shared as many people believe that Asians and Asian Americans do not face discrimination.
As a sociologist, I think it is best to turn to the evidence: Do Asians face discrimination? The labor market is one of the best places to take this question because this is where many people believe Asians have reached parity with white Americans.
Asian Americans have among the highest earnings in the United States. In 2013, Asians’ median weekly earnings were $973, as compared to $799 for whites, $634 for blacks, and $572 for Latinos. It seems as if Asians do not experience discrimination. However, these aggregate numbers hide many disparities.
First of all, Asian men earned, on average, 40 percent more than Asian women. The gender gap between Asian men and women is the highest of any racial group. Secondly, these numbers hide the diversity within the Asian community: the 2000 U.S. Census reports Hmong women had an average weekly earnings of just $389 per week – putting them far below average. Whereas Chinese and Indian men earn more on average than white men, the opposite is true for Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Hmong men. In sum, some Asians earn more than whites, yet this is the case for only some nationalities – those that have, on average, higher levels of education.
Chinese and Indian Americans have higher educational attainment than their white male counterparts. This helps explain some of the earnings disparities.
Studies that take into account educational achievements find that Asian men earn less than their white male counterparts. Sociologists ChangHwan Kim and Arthur Sakamoto found that if you compare white men to Asian men with similar characteristics, the white men often earn more. In other words, if an Asian American man and a white man both live in New York, both went to selective universities, and both studied engineering, we could expect that the Asian American man would earn, on average, 8 percent less than the white man.
The fact that Asian Americans do not earn as much as white men with the same qualifications points to the fact that Asian Americans face labor market discrimination. In other words, there is a real monetary cost to being Asian American. Over the course of one’s career, this disparity can amount to significant amounts of money.
Labor market discrimination against Asians is not unique to the United States. A study conducted in Australia also uncovered labor market discrimination against Asians. Alison Booth and her colleagues conducted an audit study where they sent 4,000 fictitious job applications out for entry-level jobs, where they varied only the last name of the applicant – thereby signaling ethnicity.
The results were that the average callback rate for Anglo-Saxons was 35 percent. Applications with an Italian-sounding name received responses 32 percent of the time – with only a small statistically significant difference. The differences were starker for the other groups: indigenous applicants obtained an interview 26 percent of the time, Chinese applicants 21 percent of the time, and Middle Easterners 22 percent of the time. According to these findings, Anglo-Saxons would have to submit three job applications to have a decent shot at getting a callback whereas Chinese applicants can expect to submit five.
This labor market discrimination – both in hiring and in compensation – stems from stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans. These stereotypes were frequently mentioned on Twitter over the past few days.
People on Twitter pointed out the perpetual foreign-ness of Asian Americans:
My answer to the popular question "Where are you from?" is "My mother's uterus." (People must not understand biology.) #NotYourAsianSidekick
— Amber Ying (@diabola) December 16, 2013
Others pointed to the exoticization of Asian Americans:
I need Asian American feminism because we're constantly reduced to being exotic and fetishized. Stop diminishing us. #NotYourAsianSidekick
— Maureen (@maureen_ahmed) December 15, 2013
Many of these stereotypes are perpetuated by mass media.
Darrell Hamamoto analyzed representations of Asians and Asian Americans on television between 1950 and 1990. He found that Asian men were often represented in US media as asexual or effeminate, whereas Asian women were often portrayed as hypersexual. Hamamoto contends that network television negatively influences popular perceptions of Asians.
Although Asians make up five percent of people in the United States, in 2011, they only accounted for two percent of all television representations. The combination of few representations of Asian Americans in mass media along with stereotypical representations work to feed these stereotypes.
The hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick clearly struck a chord with people around the world both because of the discrimination people of Asian descent face as well as because of the fact that this discrimination is rarely discussed in public forums.