“Asians have great skin. That’s why they look so young! You’ll love that when you’re older.”
I became self conscious of how young I looked when I was sixteen because that was when people started to make me aware of it. Their comments were meant to make me feel good about myself. Instead, I grew uncomfortable with how I looked, wondering if my perceived immaturity affected what people thought of me. As a twenty year old today, I’m surprised when someone says I look my age without any makeup on. The comments that people thought were harmless and flattering actually made me sometimes wish I was not Asian. Then, maybe I would not be infantilized. Thinking that Asian women looked younger than other races is an example of a positive stereotype that has negative consequences for both the stereotyped person and the person perceiving it as a compliment. Positive stereotypes do more harm than good to everyone involved.
A positive stereotype is a subjective “belief that attributes a favorable characteristic to a group” and implies an advantage because of your association with that group (Czopp, Kay, and Cheryan 2015; Lombrozo 2015). Negative stereotypes differ in that they associate negative traits with a group. Here are some common examples of both:
Positive Stereotypes vs. Negative Stereotypes
Asians are good at math vs. Asians are socially awkward
Women are nurturing vs. Women are emotional and irrational
Positive stereotypes do not seem so bad next to explicit prejudice. But positive stereotypes categorize an entire group of individuals based on an external characteristic, showing that even with a “positive” connotation, a stereotype is still a stereotype (Czopp, Kay, and Cheryan 2015).
Being positively stereotyped can lead to various negative unintended consequences. Because your identity is reduced to racial stereotypes, positive stereotypes can lead to feelings of depersonalization (Czopp, Kay, and Cheryan 2015; Siy and Cheryan 2013). When you feel as if your individuality is taken away, negative emotions such as hostility, anger, and annoyance result (Siy and Cheryan 2013). Another consequence is that the stereotype target is likely to think the other person also has negative stereotypes about them, and therefore will think that person is prejudiced (Czopp, Kay, and Cheryan 2015; Kay, Day, Zanna, and Nussenbaum 2013). The scary thing about positive stereotypes is that they can actually make this true.
Changing stereotypical beliefs requires knowing that they are incorrect and biased. But if you perceive positive stereotypes as compliments, you may continue to believe in them (Czopp, Kay, and Cheryan 2015; Kay, Day, Zanna, and Nussenbaum 2013). Additionally, thinking about positive stereotypes triggers the brain to think of other stereotypes, including negative ones. It also contains an implicit understanding that differences between your group and another’s is biological. Basically, even though positive stereotypes seem like compliments, they can actually lead to negative judgments about the target group and even discrimination, which is why they can be so damaging to society. (Kay, Day, Zanna, and Nussenbaum 2013; Medlyn 2013).
Although positive stereotypes seem relatively harmless, they have subtle, detrimental consequences. The next time you want to compliment someone on something you think is due to their race, instead try saying something positive about their individual features. I guarantee they will appreciate that more. The bottom line is, it is always better to attribute a positive aspect of someone to who they are as an individual, rather than saying they were born with it. Hopefully, being aware of how stereotyping makes someone feel will make the next person refrain from saying that I’ll appreciate their stereotypical comment when I’m older.