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An Interview with Jennifer Lee: What is Stereotype Promise?

January 18, 2012

Jennifer LeeJennifer Lee is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and received her B.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University. Currently a Visiting Scholar, she is the co-author of Diversity Paradox, which uses population-based analyses and in-depth interviews to examine patterns of intermarriage and multiracial identification among Asians, Latinos, and African Americans. Find her essay on stereotype promise here.

Q: What is "stereotype promise"?

A: "Stereotype promise" is the promise of being viewed through the lens of a positive stereotype that leads one to perform in such a way that confirms the positive stereotype, thereby enhancing performance.

Q: How does stereotype promise differ from a self-fulfilling prophecy, the model minority stereotype, and the Pygmalion effect?

A: Stereotype promise differs from all three concepts in critical ways. A self-fulfilling prophecy begins with a false definition of the situation, evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true. In Ophelia’s case, she never believed that she was an exceptional student from the start; rather, teachers and school administrators made assumptions about her ability based on her race/ethnicity rather than her past academic performance. The stereotype promise then exerted an independent effect; Ophelia began to try harder to prove that she was a good student, which ultimately boosted her performance.

Stereotype promise also differs from the model minority; the latter is a divisive trope that pits one racial/ethnic minority group against another, and suggests that if all minority groups worked as hard and persevered, they would be just as successful as the model minority, in this case Asian Americans. The explicit comparison in the model minority stereotype is among racial/ethnic minority groups. However, stereotype promise does not necessitate comparisons with other racial/ethnic minority groups. Moreover, stereotype promises emerges in a diversity of settings, including predominantly white settings, and like stereotype threat, stereotype promise may operate with other groups and in other domains.

The Pygmalion effect refers to the work of Rosenthal and Jacobsen, among others, who found that teachers’ expectations influenced students’ performance; when teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from particular students, those students did, in fact, show improved performance. While the Pygmalion effect—or the expectancy effect—focuses on teachers’ expectations of individual students, stereotype promise refers to the way in which group-based stereotypes positively affect outcomes for members of a particular group.

Q: Would you say that stereotype promise is advantageous for Asian American students?

A: While some Asian American students benefit from stereotype promise, it is critical to note a number of unintended consequences. First, it places extraordinary pressure on Asian American students to academically excel. Second, it makes Asian Americans—an enormously diverse group—who do not excel feel like failures because they do not measure up to the high-achieving success frame. In some cases, the pressure to excel can lead to depression, and in extreme cases, to suicide.

Third, the success frame and stereotype promise can place Asian American students at a disadvantage during the university admissions process. For example, in their study of university admissions, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford found that Asian Americans need a nearly perfect SAT score of 1550 to have the same chance of being accepted into one of the top universities as Whites who scored 1410 and African Americans who scored 1100—reflecting what Mitchell Chang describes as the “Asian tax.”

Espenshade and Radford conclude that they cannot confirm that Asian American students face discrimination in the admissions process because there may be other variables that their study did not or was unable to measure. However, if we look back historically, we find the competitive disadvantage of Asian American students today is not unlike the discrimination that Jerome Karabel described in The Chosen when Harvard, Yale, and Princeton tried to resolve “the Jewish problem” in the 1920s by instituting quotas and other class-biased measures to restrict their admission—including personal interviews, essays, recommendation letters, and descriptions of extracurricular activities that disadvantaged “the wrong kind” of college applicant.

That Asian American students face similar barriers to admission today indicates that despite their educational attainment, race continues to remain significant, even for the most high-achieving members of today’s 1.5- and second-generation. Ironically, the success frame and stereotype promise that helps to promote educational attainment can have the unintended consequence of disadvantaging the most high-achieving Asian American students.