A new study has unveiled which group of Asian-Americans is perceived as more “American” — and it’s not what you think.
A University of Washington research study published in Psychological Science, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science, found that heavier Asian-Americans might be subjected to less racial discrimination than thin or normal weight Asian-Americans, which leads them to believe the former group is perceived as more “American.” They are also believed to less likely be in the country illegally.
Researchers believe this phenomenon is attributed to common stereotypes that Asians are thin while Americans are fat. So, if someone who is of Asian descent is overweight, they appear to be more “American.”
The UW study comes at a time when American identity is subject to debate and beliefs about race, religion and ethnicity factor heavily into the argument — and that’s the thing researchers said they wanted to explore.
The study used digitally altered photos of men and women (Asian, black, Latino and white) collected from online databases and showed them to over 1,000 college students. The photos were edited to create thinner and fatter versions of each subject and the students were asked questions based about the subject’s nationality and other attributes, including, “How likely is this person to have been born outside the U.S.?”
White and black Americans were perceived as significantly more American than Asian or Latino Americans. However, their weight did not affect how the users rated them. This supported the theories that people from countries that are stereotypically thin, like some Asians countries, are considered more American if they are overweight.
“In the U.S., there is a strong bias associating American identity with whiteness, and this can have negative consequences for people of color in the U.S.,” said corresponding author Caitlin Handron, a doctoral student at Stanford University who conducted the study while at the UW. “We wanted to see whether ideas of nationality are malleable and how body shape factors into these judgments.”
According to OECD.org, people in the United States are exceptionally overweight. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that around 70 percent of U.S. adults are on the heavy side. If broken down by race, 34.5 percent of white Americans are overweight as compared to only 11.7 percent of Asian Americans. Moreover, Asian immigrants are significantly less likely to be overweight than American-born Asians.
Sapna Cheryan, an associate professor of psychology at UW and the coauthor of the study, called the result “an unusual possible protective benefit of being heavier for Asian Americans.”
“People in the U.S. often encounter prejudice if they are overweight — they may be mistreated by a customer service person, for example, or a health care provider. Weight can be an obstacle to getting good treatment,” Cheryan said. “We found that there was a paradoxical social benefit for Asian Americans, where extra weight allows them to be seen as more American and less likely to face prejudice directed at those assumed to be foreign.”
The study also points to the future analysis of stereotypes and national identities. For example, if Asians are generally believed to be reserved while Americans are considered social, would an outgoing Asian American seem more “American” to the people?
This has potential impacts for minorities who are often excluded and vulnerable based on their physical features, the study said.
“I hope this work supports the push for ideas of ‘Americanness’ to be more inclusive and accurate,” Handron said. “This can happen both at the individual level, with people questioning some of their own assumptions and beliefs, as well as the structural level, with changes in representation in positions of power and in the media.”
Thumbnail/Banner: Reuters, Kevin Lamarque