American society demands men be a certain way—know football scores, change a flat tire, and seduce women. Although seemingly learnable, masculine traits are deeply tied to race. For example, Asian American men are assumed to be smart whereas African American men are perceived as athletic. Consider common stereotypes of Asian American men—model minority (nerdy, shy, compliant), perpetual foreigner (culturally awkward, heavily accented), and body image (short, weak, small penis). Most stereotypes of Asian American men do not project an image of masculinity…quite the opposite!
We wanted to understand how Asian American men react to racial stereotypes and expectations of masculinity. How are the experiences of Asian American men stressful? Using an internet survey, we asked participants to describe their personal experience as men by completing the sentence, “As a man ____” ten times. Participants then identified which responses they felt were most stressful and explained why.
First, we found that Asian American men experience stress from trying to fulfill an idealized form of masculinity—a man who is tough, physically attractive, unemotional, and a ladies man. However, stereotypes about Asian American men make it very difficult for them to conform to this ideal. Imagine an Asian American man trying to date and maintain his self-esteem when stereotypes as nerdy, culturally inept, and having a small penis abound. Regardless of their inaccuracies, these stereotypes cloud others’ perceptions about Asian American men. Participants experienced stress trying to overcome racial stereotypes and successfully project a masculine image.
Second, participants prioritized achieving and providing. Unlike domains such as sports, work falls within the boundaries of the model minority stereotype. This allows Asian American men to focus on achieving and providing without resistance. The self-esteem gained from successfully achieving and providing helps overcome the difficulties of conforming to American ideals of masculinity, but makes failing to fulfill these roles particularly stressful.
Our study shows how racial stereotypes and expectations of masculinity reinforce prejudice and discrimination against Asian American men. Asian American men perceive their masculinity-related experiences as stressful. Similarly, our findings extend to other minority men who experience stress based on stereotypes that challenge their masculinity.
By Alexander Lu on his co-authored article “Stressful Experiences of Masculinity Among U.S.-Born and Immigrant Asian American Men,“ published in the June 2013 issue of Gender & Society.