Are Positive Stereotypes Racist, Too? Can positive stereotypes — like "Latin lover" and "strong black woman" — be just as harmful as racial slurs? Farai Chideya talks with Carmen Van Kerckhove, co-founder and president of the anti-racism training company New Demographic and L'Heureux Lewis, assistant professor of sociology and black studies at the City College of New York.
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Are Positive Stereotypes Racist, Too?

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Are Positive Stereotypes Racist, Too?

Are Positive Stereotypes Racist, Too?

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You might have heard phrases like, she's a strong black woman. She's so funny and good with money. Or, he's a Latin lover. Now, some people might see these as compliments, but are these positive racial stereotypes and how do they affect the way we communicate?

For more, we've got Carmen Van Kerckhove. She's co-founder and president of New Demographic, an anti-racism training company. And L'Heureux Lewis. He's assistant professor of sociology and black studies at the City College of New York.

Welcome to you both.

Professor L'HEUREUX LEWIS (Sociology and Black Studies, City College of New York): Thank you. Thank you. Glad to be here.

CHIDEYA: So Carmen, what is a positive racial stereotype? When is it not a compliment?

Ms. CARMEN VAN KERCKHOVE (President, New Demographic): Well, a positive racial stereotype is some of the things that you mentioned - the idea of a strong black woman or the idea that all Asian kids are really good at science and math. And the problem with these positive racial stereotypes is that they also suggest that the opposite is true of another group.

So if Asians are smart then the implication, the unspoken implication is that blacks and Latinos are not. If black women are strong, then the implication is that maybe white and Asian women are weak. And so, you know, even though they are, quote/unquote, "positive," there is always a negative spin to these stereotypes.

CHIDEYA: Who's being hurt then? You raised the idea that other groups could be demeaned when one group is being complimented. But what about the group that - and I use this phrase, you know, with a little caveat, complimented, like the black women and the strong black women quote.

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: Well, it can be just as restrictive for the group that is being, you know, the target of the positive stereotype. And for example, it becomes very restrictive because if you are a black woman and you need help, you're in a difficult situation, you need help and you ask for help, does that mean that you have lost some racial authenticity?

Or in the workplace, very often, what you see is people get pigeon-holed according - influenced in part by these racial stereotypes. So because there's this idea that Asians are really good at science and math, they may have a harder time breaking into client-facing positions because people feel that they would be better suited in the back office crunching numbers.

So I definitely think that there are negative aspects to even the group that is supposedly benefitting from the positive stereotype.

CHIDEYA: Professor Lewis, how does this play out in terms of how people get opportunity? Carmen was just talking about ways in which these people might steer people in certain career directions. What else might happen?

Prof. LEWIS: Well, one of the things that happens is that it severely limits people's opportunity to have choices. If we assume that certain groups are good at math, or certain groups are really self-perseverant, we tend to miss the things that shape that opportunity.

The original things that happen that make the strong black woman have to happen, the ability of not having social resources to support you so you're forced to raise children on your own. You're forced to work extra large hours. So opportunities are restricted before these stereotypes come along, and by using positive stereotypes we miss the original conditions that produce them.

CHIDEYA: Carmen, you're Asian American. How did you first start experiencing these stereotypes? Did you experience them personally?

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: I have definitely experienced them personally. And I think it happens in ways that you're not even aware of. And sometimes, I think, in my case, it just happened in the sense that I never really faced any problems at school. It seemed like teachers really liked me, and I wasn't a troublemaker. And so I just sort of skated along, and I wasn't really particularly all that outstanding as a student, but I think, you know, automatically, people always assume that I was.

CHIDEYA: So that's interesting. It sounds like people, in a way, left you alone because they said she's got to be fine. She's Asian American.

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: Absolutely. And I think that you see this dynamic quite a lot, and unfortunately, what happens is that, you know, when you are benefiting from this positive stereotype, you may not get accurate feedback as to your performance, whether that's at school or in the workplace.

And so a lot of people, for example, Asian Americans will often receive, you know, what they call a halo effect, which is the idea that they just can do no wrong, regardless of whether their performance is actually good or not, there's this idea that they're doing really well, and they're actually not getting accurate feedback on where the areas they need to improve. And so in the long term, it can actually be a hindrance to people's career.

CHIDEYA: Now, Professor Lewis, there's been a lot of talk of the negative stereotypes about black men. And but what about - and again, using the phrase, with a caveat, the positive stereotypes, particularly comparing brains versus brawn.

Prof. LEWIS: That's one of the most common ones. We get the notion that African-Americans show really great proclivity towards sports, which is symptoms that we don't have proclivity towards academics or other types of things that go beyond physical labor. This stereotype comes out of slavery and things that even Jimmy The Greek said in the 1980s. So we actually limit what African-American men are able to do.

And then, alternatively, when African-American men are intelligent and articulate, to first come is that you speak very well, which assumes that African-American men aren't able to communicate in meaningful ways, which couldn't be further from the truth.

CHIDEYA: So in your work as a sociologist, what stands out to you overall as we think not only about these - what we're calling positive stereotypes - but in general how stereotypes drive, how people communicate?

Dr. LEWIS: I think what's important about stereotypes is we have to recognize that they're gross generalizations. They may have a colonel of truth base on some social reality but, ultimately, they limit the choices and limit the opportunities and limit the things that people can do.

We as individuals every day use shorthand to process who people are and what they can potentially do. But we should be especially careful to make sure the images that we carry in our heads don't affect the way that we act towards each other.

CHIDEYA: And, Carmen, you're running New Demographic, an anti-racism training company, what do you do? I mean, so much of what happens in our brains is so beneath the surface, sometimes even to us, certainly to how we project to other people, how do you get people to think about these issues?

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: Well, I'm a big believer in linking some of these issues to pop culture because I think the media is just incredibly powerful in shaping our perceptions of race. And very often, I will, you know, start pointing out some of these, quote, unquote, "positive stereotypes" and how they're played out in the media. And once people start recognizing them, then they start seeing them over and over again. And, then, that becomes a way that you become very aware of these ideas. And once you are able to actually see the stereotype, then you become more aware of your own response to it, you know, are you personally believing in it even a little bit? And I think that that is really the first step to overcoming those beliefs.

CHIDEYA: Give me one concrete example from movie, TVs, anything in pop culture.

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: Oh. I would say just a pretty much - usually when Asian women are portrayed in the media, they are often seen as quiet and submissive. And, you know, that - to some people, certainly some men, is considered a positive stereotype. And so you definitely see that over and over again. "Memoirs of a Geisha" is obviously a big one.

CHIDEYA: And, Prof. Lewis, what about for you? What stands out maybe as - you mentioned Jimmy the Greek. That was a case where he talked about slavery producing the big black bucks who went on to become running bucks. Is that something that stands out for you?

Dr. LEWIS: Yes, that definitely stands out in pop culture. And every day, when we turn on the television, the limited ways in which we see African-American men, it's usually related to sports and then when we do see African-American men such as Barack Obama, the conversation shifts to, well, he's the exception to the rule. We have to really push beyond seeing people as seeing as an exception and understand that there's a wide range of humanity in all people.

CHIDEYA: Carmen, any final words, any thoughts on how to take a look at this?

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: Well, I just want to share a quick story that happened to a friend of mine, and she was an Asian American. And in high school, she noticed that her - she was always treated much better than her black and Latino schoolmates even though they were academically kind of the same.

And so one day, she actually decided to test her theory out. And so she took down a painting that was hanging on the hall and she walked down the hallway with it thinking to see if she could get away with stealing this painting. And along the way, the principal said, oh let me hold the door open for you. Then she got to the parking lot and a teacher held-open her car trunk for her so that she could, you know, put the painting in the car and nobody ever questioned what she was doing…

CHIDEYA: So, Carmen…

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: …and that's completely because of her race.

CHIDEYA: All right. A great place to end. Carmen Van Kerckhove, co-founder and president of New Demographic, and L'Heureux Lewis, an assistant professor of sociology and black studies at the City College of New York.

That is our show for today, and thank you for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit

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