The Things They Say behind Your Back: Stereotypes and the Myths Behind Them

The Washington Post published in 1982:

In the section on blacks, Helmreich writes, “No group in American society has suffered as much from discrimination as Afro-Americans. The fact is reflected in the paucity of positive stereotypes about them.” In that section, stereotypes of hypersensitivity, sexual and athletic prowess and criminality are explored.

Here are some highlights from this 1982 book by William Helmreich:

* Among the most common explanations is that it is simply a very efficient way of coping with our environment, an environment so complex that we have to break it down into categories before we can understand it. It would clearly be impossible for us to function if everything that happened were dealt with on an individual basis. Without stereotypes everything would be treated as if it were taking place for the first time.

* The reader glancing through the Contents will find, for example, that almost all of the stereotypes attributed to Blacks, namely, lazy and shiftless, violent, stupid, and so forth, are negative. This does not mean that any of them are true or that Blacks possess no positive traits. Black people have made enormous contributions throughout history and have innumerable positive characteristics. But it is not the purpose of this book to detail them. Rather, the focus is on how others perceive (read: stereotype) Blacks.

* The story is told of a Jewish mother who went to the beach with her son and daughter-in-law. The son, a physician, swam a bit too far away from shore and began struggling in the water as he tried to make his way to safety. His mother, in an effort to attract attention to his plight, began running up and down the beach screaming at the top of her lungs, “Help! Somebody please help! My son, the Great Neck psychiatrist, he’s drowning!”

* In difficult economic times her role became even more important. When, as was the case with the East European immigrants who came to this country around the turn of the century, the husband was forced to work long hours away from home, the mother occupied a central place in the lives of her children. It is here that the guilt factor became important. Having made a major contribution to the upbringing of her offspring, she was able to gain not only their affection but also their loyalty and dependence. Her children were often imbued with a strong sense of guilt when they failed to measure up to the expectations of their mother, who “worked so hard so that you should be happy.” The values transmitted to the child were rooted in the strong sense of morality that permeated the culture. A mother said to her child, “Eat for the sake of your parents, who love you and want only the best for you. Study so that your parents will be proud of you.” Thus the biblical notion of responsibility for others became part of the secular belief system. If Jewish mothers (and fathers as well) pushed and fought for their children and taught them never to be satisfied (“So you got a 98. But who got the 100?”), it was in large part due to their perception of a world hostile to their kind. Since their names were not Stuart or Baker or Blake, it was necessary to give them strong egos. Only then would they have the confidence to offset the disadvantages of their religion. Unfortunately, this was sometimes carried too far, with the child brought up to think of himself or herself (the Jewish Prince and Jewish Princess syndromes) as number one.

* The general view held by many non-Jews (as well as Jews who seem almost proud of it) is that Jewish parents spoil their children. In one community study, the sociologist Benjamin Ringer reported the following attitudes of Gentile parents in a Chicago suburb toward their Jewish neighbors: “Jewish parents.. .let them [children] run wild in the stores without reprimanding them. They don’t care how much trouble they cause, they don’t punish them enough… they’re always M am a’s angel … [They] raise their children to feel superior to Gentile children either materially or else purely defensively… For example, my gun is better than yours. My house is better… My daughter came home from a Jewish home and asked why we didn’t have seven telephones.” (The Edge of Friendliness, pp. 71—72)

Such indulgence can perhaps best be understood in light of the heavy demands Jewish parents make upon their children in other areas. Because they expect so much from their children in terms of getting good grades, being admitted to the right school, marrying well, and so forth, the parents compensate in other areas, buying them what they want, letting them talk back, and generally pampering them. This often leads to overprotectiveness. The Jewish mother has therefore been immortalized in countless jokes and novels as the woman who asphyxiates her child in warm clothing, drowns him in chicken soup, and is constantly yelling at him to put on his galoshes.

* being brought up in this fashion must have some positive points if one is to judge by the considerable success enjoyed by Jews as a group. If nothing else, delaying independence in the child tends to increase the educational level of many children by increasing the amount of time they will spend in school. More fundamentally, the fact that the Jewish parent lets his children know how much he believes in them can often be a crucial factor in their ultimate success and confidence in themselves. Finally, the strong family structure gives the Jew a strong sense of family responsibility, thus giving rise to yet another Jewish stereotype—that Jews make good husbands.

* A Jewish agent in a Catholic insurance firm did exceptionally well for a number of years and was recommended for a top executive post. His religion posed a serious problem, however, because the company felt it would harm their relations with top members of other firms. After a good deal of agonizing, they decided to call in a leading priest to convert the Jew. A meeting was held in the private office of the company’s president, during which the clergyman attempted to persuade the Jew to accept the Christian faith. Finally, after almost three hours, the two emerged. “Well, Father,” asked the president. “How did you make out? Do we have a new Catholic?” “No, we don’t,” replied the priest, “but he did sell me a $50,000 policy.”

* In The Pawnbroker there is a famous scene in which Rod Steiger, who plays the Jewish immigrant pawnbroker, sternly lectures a young Puerto Rican boy who works for him about the importance of having and holding on to money. It is easy to see in this film the caricature of the Jew as a greedy, money-hungry man without taking into account the experiences sometimes responsible for such obsessions. Lacking a homeland for thousands of years, always dependent on the whims of others, never certain when persecution might strike, the Jew, perhaps more than any other nationality, has come to see money as a means of survival. In medieval times Jews often bartered their lives in exchange for money, which they gave to local overlords for protection from a hostile population. Unlike the Gentile, who could work the land and benefit from its use, the Jew owed his shelter, safety, food, and anything else of value he possessed to money. Small wonder that it became so important to many Jews. During the Nazi era, to take a case in point, many Jews survived because they were able to purchase protection from individual Gentiles in various occupied lands.

* An Italian comedian regaled his audience with story after story of Jews and their preoccupation with money. In one joke a Jewish watchdog was described as one who says to the burglar, “Take anything you want. It’s all insured.”

* In his book Anti-Semite and Jew, Jean-Paul Sartre says: “The anti-Semite readily admits that the Jew is intelligent and hardworking; he will even confess himself inferior in these respects… [for] the more virtues the Jew has, the more dangerous he will be.”

* This stereotype [that Jews are cheap] can perhaps best be answered with the following statement: Jews are more likely to be in business than any other ethnic group. It is a fact of economic life that the lower the cost of producing an item and the greater the sale price, the larger the profit. Any businessman, be he Jewish or a member of another group, seeks to maximize his profit. Since more Jews, proportionately, are in business, they are more likely to be accused of what is, in fact, a basic feature of capitalism.

* Perhaps the majority of businesses in which Jews are to be found involve retail trade. Examples are clothing, food, and real estate. This means that they are likely to have greater personal contact with the public than, say, those in businesses such as utilities, oil, or steel. Consequently, they will bear the brunt of consumer antagonism even though such hostility is probably a natural by-product of customer/store or management/tenant relationships.

* Jewish influence in banking today is virtually nonexistent. Several banks such as Bank Leumi and Republic National Bank of New York are under Jewish ownership, but the vast majority of banks are not only controlled by non-Jews but do not, in fact, employ Jews in high positions. For example, in New York City, where two million Jews live, there are almost no Jews among the top executives of the city’s seven largest banks. Elsewhere in the country the proportion is even smaller.

* There are, incidentally, almost no Jews at the upper echelons of major industries such as insurance, oil, steel, and the utility companies.

* the median income of Jews is significantly higher than that of non-Jews. Demographers have pointed out, however, that this is directly related to education. When Jews and others in the population with similar educational levels are compared, the differences are less than 10 percent.

* One major reason for the common perception of Jews as rich is their concentration in retail businesses ranging from grocery stores to large department stores. As a result, they must often deal directly with the poor and the working class, many of whom are apt to focus general resentment at their economic status on an easily identifiable scapegoat. The same is true in the housing area. It is much simpler to focus on the Jewish landlord (or slumlord) than on the impersonal gas or electric company, whose wealth is far greater. It makes little difference to a poverty-stricken ghetto dweller that his Jewish landlord is middle-class. Compared to his own economic plight, the Jew is rich. As long as Jews are heavily involved in highly visible occupations of this sort, such stereotypes are likely to persist.

* “I am super-conscious of being Jewish. I will overtip in a restaurant because I know people think Jews are cheap. I’ll order in a soft voice, and my taste in cars, clothes, and the furniture I buy for our home is very conservative because 1 know what others think of Jews.”

* “Persisting to this day is an attitude, shared by black and white alike, that blacks are inferior. This belief permeates every facet of this country, and it is the etiological agent from which has developed the national sickness.” (Grier and Cobbs, Black Rage, p. 25) These words, written in 1969 by two prominent Black psychiatrists, summed up the prevailing perception of Blacks in this country.

* “You know, all this reminds me of a joke I heard the other day while I was walking on the City College campus down Convent Avenue. There were students walking ahead of me and I heard one say to the other, ‘Wanna hear a good joke?’ ‘Yeah’ said the other. ‘What’s the easiest way to kill a Jew? Throw a nickel into the middle of the street.’ ” The entire class burst out laughing at this caricature of the Jew’s stereotyped preoccupation with money. “Now let me tell you another joke,” I said after the laughter had subsided somewhat. “I was in a store in Forest Hills, Queens, when I heard the following exchange: What’s the easiest way to kill a schvartzer said one man. ‘I don’t know’ replied the other. ‘Throw a bottle of Old Grand-Dad into the middle of 125th Street”. This time there was no laughter, only dead silence. The class appeared stunned as I went on. “Why isn’t anybody laughing? Why isn’t this joke as funny as the other one? Is it because it’s about your own people? Why is it that we fail to perceive that others have the same feelings that we do?”

* Black women of status may often reject Black men as sexual partners simply because their social status is inferior.

* By putting white women on a pedestal of purity and chastity, Southern white men set into motion a vicious cycle from which it was almost impossible to escape. Having designated their wives as chaste, they often succeeded in making them frigid. In response, they sought out Black women whom their society had debased. Forced by their own code to deny having achieved satisfaction in this manner, they were compelled to deny having initiated or even taken part in such liaisons. And finally, they suspected their own white wives of similar entanglements, reasoning “If I can, then perhaps she can too.” In this manner the white male was able to accuse the Black male of the “mongrelization” that was often his own doing.

* Interestingly, there is evidence that Blacks are more athletic and stronger physically than whites. In his doctoral dissertation anthropologist Robert Malina studied the growth, maturation, and performance of a sample of Philadelphia schoolchildren between the ages of six and twelve. Black children of both sexes had greater strength values in four measures of static strength. In another study on the nutritional status of adult Black women, researchers found them to have greater grip strength than white women. Although there are studies reporting no significant differences, most research on this issue suggests that Blacks generally have better muscle development than whites. The same is true for studies of athletic ability. For example, Blacks outperform whites in gymnastic tests of jumping ability, running (except for long-distance running, where whites seem to do better), throwing, and other areas. Because of the unpopularity of research on racial differences, and because of methodological problems in doing such research, conclusions on this matter cannot be drawn.

* Although recent studies point to a steady decline in anti-Black stereotypes, the depth of feelings expressed in this Newsweek article on prejudice indicates that association of Blacks with that which is unclean is deeply embedded in the minds of many whites. The color black has always had negative connotations in the English language. Some examples are: black magic, black as the night, a black day, black as the devil, and so forth. Conversely, white is seen as pure, clean, and chaste. As Dr. Jordan has pointed out in White Over Black, blackness as a synonym for dirt was transferred to the general perception of Africans from the time Europeans first came into contact with them. Indeed, even prior to that period the Oxford English Dictionary defined black as “foul, atrocious, baneful, deeply stained with dirt, soiled,” and so forth.

* The English think the Irish are dirty; the Poles in Europe held the same view of Jews; in America poor whites are called “white trash”; there are Polish jokes about dirt…

* Lazy and shiftless: Whites will often point to the number of unemployed Blacks to support this assertion. The ratio of unemployed Blacks to whites has been about 2 to 1 since 1954 and is even higher among Black teenagers. This is, however, due to complex developments in our society that have little to do with the willingness to work hard. Automation and other technological improvements in industry have rendered many jobs obsolete. Those most affected have been unskilled workers, many of whom are Black. There has also been a movement by industry to relocate in areas outside the center of cities, where most Blacks live, because land there is cheaper. In addition, the increased use of the automobile and greater highway construction since World War II have made such areas more accessible. However, because of their generally lower socioeconomic status, Blacks find it difficult to commute to the outer areas of the city.

* What many whites do not realize is that working slowly, feigning illness or incompetence, or quitting entirely can be a passive form of aggression, whether it is used consciously or unconsciously. This method of “one-upping whitey” was used in slavery days as well. Numerous studies have shown that slaves frequently engaged in sabotage (e.g., destroying farm implements or driving animals very hard) and in general did as little work as possible. Some even cut off toes and hands to escape the often unbearable conditions of plantation labor. Today quitting a job without notice can be a way of expressing hostility, as is coming late or pretending not to understand instructions. Needless to say, it is also engaged in by whites who find themselves in dead-end jobs.

* The “lazy and shiftless” stereotype is almost always directed at lower-class Blacks. Middle-class Blacks who work as business managers, teachers, lawyers, merchants, are rarely portrayed in this manner.

* Big Cadillacs and flashy clothes “Where do they get the money for all those fancy clothes?” a white person will ask. “If they’re so oppressed, how can they afford to drive around in a Cadillac while I’m making do with a Dodge Dart?” asks another.

Sociologists and psychologists refer to such behavior as “symbolic status striving.” When people are blocked from advancement or denied social acceptance, they will seek other means to attain their goals. Sociologist David Caplovitz calls this mechanism “conspicuous compensation.” The Black person who wears expensive jewelry in an ostentatious manner, who buys a two hundred-dollar pair of shoes despite a modest income, or who favors only expensive, showy automobiles is, in effect, compensating for being denied the opportunity to, say, purchase a nice home in a good (white) neighborhood. This pattern is not limited to Blacks, given the materialistic nature of American society; it has a high rate of occurrence among Jews, Italians, and other discriminated against groups, especially if they are new arrivals to this country. How much truth is there to the stereotype? A good deal, from whatever evidence is available. According to D. Parke Gibson, an authority on Black consumer behavior, “… being able to dress well carries some built-in status and he [i.e., the Black man] knows that above almost anything else his appearance as he moves about today must be smart.”

Citing figures on consumer expenditures, Gibson observes that the average Black spends 30 percent more on clothing than the typical white.

* Automobiles, long seen as both sex and power symbols, seem to have a special appeal within the community—and not merely to pimps and numbers racketeers. In a 1966 article by Ronald G. Shafer that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Leroy Jeffries, then Midwest advertising manager for Ebony, noted that status considerations were the most important factor when a Black buyer selected a car. Others in Detroit’s auto industry agree, and while no one knows precisely how many Blacks buy luxury autos, it is believed to be substantially higher than among whites.

* Tony Brown, a Black marketing consultant in Detroit, asserted: “With a big car a Negro is saying I’m as good as you are. Also many Negroes don’t own their own homes and they’re more comfortable in a big, quiet car than where they live, in some crowded, noisy, urban neighborhood.” (Wall Street Journal, December 2, 1966)

* Violent criminals: This stereotype has some truth to it only with regard to one segment of the Black American population—young, Black, poor urban males. This is confirmed by almost every study of violent crime in the United States. Even allowing for the fact that Blacks are discriminated against by law enforcement authorities, the figures are quite high. According to The Presidents Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, the Black arrest rate for murder in 1965 was 24.1, while the white rate was only 2.5 per 100,000 persons. Similarly, FBI statistics from the late seventies indicate that Blacks have much higher arrest rates for homicide, assault, rape, and robbery, though it should be noted that those who commit such crimes represent a small minority of the ghetto population.

In his book Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice writer Charles Silberman cites figures showing that in the period 1970-72, relative to population, Blacks in New York were arrested for violent crimes more than three times as often as were Hispanics. The disparities were equally great between Blacks and Hispanics in other parts of the country.

Silberman also notes that the homicide rate in Black Africa is not much different from that of Western Europe and is considerably lower than that of the United States.

In recent times the violence stereotype has gained greater credibility because of the over four hundred riots that occurred in Black communities between 1964 and 1968. In addition to its actual occurrence, Black leaders discovered that threats of violence (e.g., “You better give us jobs or it’s going to be a long, hot summer”) and the popularization of slogans such as “Bum, baby, bum” were very useful in intimidating whites. As they were used more frequently in this fashion, the stereotype became more prevalent. When one considers that just thirty years ago the stereotype of the “docile, obedient nigra” was very prevalent, this turnabout is truly remarkable.

Among the chief causes of the riots cited by the Commission on Civil Disorders were the rising expectations created by the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other laws barring discrimination. The idea that frustration leads to aggression was first developed by John Dollard and has definite applicability to the question of why violence occurs in the Black community. Though it is difficult to directly connect the two, Blacks interviewed in the wake of the riots cited frustration as a cause, while also indicating that violence was justified to redress legitimate wrongs.


* The sense of foreignness with which every new group was viewed by those already established here was heightened by physical differences. Their skin color, the shape of their eyes, and their short stature made them stand out. The 1920-45 period in Japan was characterized by extreme nationalism, and even though emigration from Japan to the United States had slowed to a trickle, those living here were seen as sharing such views with their mother country.

Even before Pearl Harbor was actually attacked, publisher William Randolph Hearst wrote in the Los Angeles Examiner: “Come out to California and see the myriads of little Japs peacefully raising fruits and flowers and vegetables on California sunshine, and saying hopefully and wistfully: “Someday I come with Japanese army and take all this. Yes, sir, thank you.” Then the Colonel [Colonel Knox] should see the fleets of peaceful little Japanese fishing boats, plying up and down the California coast, catching fish and taking photographs.” (Los Angeles Examiner, February 21, 1940)

The chief impetus for the chauvinistic stereotype was Pearl Harbor and the entry of Japan into World War II as America’s enemy. While it is clear that the stereotype existed long before then, the war greatly reinforced and confirmed earlier apprehensions. Even liberal leaders and spokesmen began to depict Japanese-Americans in this fashion. For example, Earl Warren, famous as head of “the liberal Warren Court,” who was then the California state attorney general, stated that “there is more potential danger among the group of Japanese who are born in this country than from the alien Japanese who were bom in Japan.” He went on to say that the country was threatened by “an invisible deadline of sabotage.” In a similar vein the great liberal columnist Walter Lippmann, the originator of the concept of stereotypes and a man who believed that they were inaccurate and undesirable, wrote in support of mass evacuation of JapaneseAmerieans from the West Coast: “Nobody’s constitutional rights include the right to reside and do business on a battlefield. And nobody ought to be on a battlefield who has no good reason for being there.” The “battlefield,” of course, was California.

Japanese conduct during the war fortified the chauvinistic image. They acquired a not undeserved reputation as fanatical fighters who were not afraid to die.

Asian historians seem to feel that Japan has always been a highly chauvinistic society. Although influenced by Korean and Chinese culture, Japan has, as an island nation, always been relatively self-contained. Until the nineteenth century Japanese society was not especially prone to outside influences. Its people were a rather homogeneous grouping both racially and culturally. As a result they developed a strong sense of national identity. In historical accounts, for instance, Japan was often described by its chroniclers as a special land, located in the center of the universe, whose sun goddess was the ruler of the world.

What was perhaps most interesting was the reaction of the Japanese themselves [in the USA during WWII]. Most co-operated with the authorities, hoping in this manner to prove their loyalty to America. Slightly more than 2 percent asked to be returned to Japan—a very low figure for a people stereotyped as extremely nationalistic. Moreover, those Japanese-Americans who were eventually cleared by the authorities and entered the Army compiled an exemplary record of service. A total of 33,000 (half from Hawaii) served, including two segregated units that fought in Europe and whose fame for bravery in battle reached epic proportions. One of these, the 442nd regiment, suffered 9,486 casualties, and individual members won 18,143 decorations. No other unit—white, yellow, or Black—did as well.

In the aftermath of the war stereotypes of Japanese-Americans underwent a radical change. They came to be viewed as exemplary American citizens participating actively in a variety of organizations, ranging from Christian churches to Rotary Clubs to Little League baseball. Although many maintained social ties with other Japanese, an equal number felt comfortable among Caucasians. With the passage of time, the stereotype of chauvinism has faded and has been replaced by other, more positive, attributes.

* Hardworking, ambitious, and competitive: Some years ago Dr. Giovanni Agnelli, chairman of Fiat, was asked what he intended to do about Japanese competition. “I’m sorry to admit it,” he said somewhat ruefully, “but they work harder than we do. It’s quite a problem.” Most foreigners who do business with Japan would agree with this assessment, but one distinction should be made before going any further: The Japanese concept of hard work is not the stereotypical American one of the rugged, driving individualist whose success story is frequently couched in Horatio Alger terms. Rather, it is one subordinated to the group. The typical Japanese employee is a company man first and an individual second. For instance, workers at the giant Matsushita Electric Corporation, which makes millions of TVs, radios, and other electronic products, begin each morning by singing the company song.

As opposed to the feudal period, Japanese immigrants to the United States were no longer locked into the position of farmer, military man, or merchant. They could, more or less, pursue the American dream. Yet they were still, because of their history, very status conscious. Writing in National Geographic, Bart McDowell observed that when strangers are introduced, they study each others professional affiliation, as indicated on their business cards, and then decide how to treat one another. Those on the boards of directors get the deepest bows and department heads the shallowest. In a society where status is so important, it is not surprising that people will work hard to attain it.

Another factor is the tolerance in Japan toward the coexistence of different religions. Dr. Kitano relates how he saw a pilgrim on his way to a Shinto shrine in Japan carrying a Protestant Bible and wearing a crucifix. In fact, the average Japanese will probably be blessed by a Shinto priest shortly after birth and buried in a Buddhist cemetery. When St. Francis Xavier sought to proselytize in Japan four hundred years ago, he had no problems gaining permission to do so. The generally open attitude toward different faiths—many Japanese will admit that they “like to touch all bases”—has led some to refer to Japan as a “museum of religions.”

* Japan’s tremendous economic growth in itself supports the truth of this overachiever stereotype, for it is only through hard work and ambition that such a relatively small country could have become one of the industrial giants of the world. Yet even among Japanese-Americans there is ample evidence that these patterns have been maintained in the United States. Most studies indicate that the Japanese are not only ambitious but are very highly thought of by their employers. One such survey of seventy-nine firms by sociologists Lee Rainwater and Alan Jacobson revealed that more than two thirds rated their Japanese-American employees very favorably—this despite the fact that the study took place in the early 1950s, a time when antiJapanese feelings were still quite common.

* “among persons aged 14 years or over in 1960, the median years of schooling completed by Japanese were 12.2 compared with 11.1 years by Chinese, 11.0 by whites, 9.2 by Filipinos, 8.6 by Negroes and 8.4 by Indians.” (The New York Times Magazine, January 9, 1966)

* by 1925 Japan was probably the most literate nation in the world. Ninety-nine percent of its children attended school and in 1927 all but 7 percent of the population could read.

* After World War II the treatment of women in Japan improved considerably. They were allowed to vote and even elected a good number of representatives to the national Diet. They attended college in greater numbers and the media paid more attention to them and their concerns as time went on. Nevertheless, as Jack Seward wrote in 1972 in The Japanese, most husbands today do not feel obligated to let their wives know if they are coming home late and, according to one study, almost two thirds of them stop off “somewhere” before getting there. Seward told a fascinating story about former Prime Minister Eisaku Sato that would seem to indicate that though Japanese women may have certain inalienable rights, their status is still very unequal by Western standards. In an interview with a national magazine, Mrs. Sato remarked, in response to a reporters query, that her husband had run around in his younger days, never sought her advice, and that he beat her. The Premier confirmed these assertions, observing, however, that he had stopped inflicting corporal punishment on her because “times have changed.” He then asked the reporters whether they still beat their wives and half of them admitted—somewhat embarrassedly, that they did.

* Japanese-Americans did very well in this country, quickly establishing themselves as efficient, reliable, ambitious, and hardworking. In his work The Economics and Politics of Racial Accommodation Dr. John Modell observes that Japanese fruit stands and floral businesses proliferated in Los Angeles because many whites believed that the produce and flowers of the Japanese were superior to those of their white competitors. The problem for prejudiced whites was how to explain the general success of this group of relatively new immigrants. Since their own bigotry prevented them from thinking of the Japanese as equal, whites were compelled to resort to other rationalizations, among them the idea that the Japanese had, by guile and deceit, managed to outwit their white counterparts. Americans, of course, would never stoop to such low levels. In addition, such charges often played into the hands of unscrupulous politicians, many of whom built entire careers by stirring up anti-Japanese (as well as anti-Chinese) sentiments on the West Coast. Differences in culture also contribute to suspicions and apprehensions of this sort. This is no one’s fault, yet it must be taken into account. For example, the Japanese smile not only when pleased or amused but also when they wish to indicate that a line of inquiry should not be pursued any further. The same smile can also be used to hide shame or anger.

* the Japanese are not the only out-group to have been perceived as two-faced and deceitful. Yet because of a need to explain their success—and the usefulness of the accusation for opportunistic politicians—as well as certain historical developments, the stereotype has long been associated with them.

* Like the Chinese, with whom they share many cultural similarities, the Japanese have one of the lowest divorce rates of any American subgroup.

* The Japanese-American family system is characterized by mutual obligations and responsibilities between parents and children, with the parents sacrificing for the children’s sake while at the same time expecting unquestioned obedience from their offspring.

* … an Issei would say: “Here are your eggs; eat them.’ in contrast to the more typical American motivational question: “Johnny, do you want eggs? How do you want them? Oh, please, you know eggs are good for you. If you love me you’ll eat eggs.”

* In addition to unswerving familial loyalty and respect for parents, children are taught that they represent the family name in everything they do. If they fail in school or at work, the entire family is shamed. Upon marriage, children are expected to take up residence near their families. This is part of a feeling of mutual dependence that is fostered by the Sunday outings, family dinners, and other activities centered around the family unit. The closeness of the family is due to several factors. First, both Buddhism and Confucianism emphasized the importance of family life, influencing, in turn, Shintoism, the religion native to Japan. Drawing upon religious values, the political system within Japan was founded on the concept that all Japanese belonged to one large family, the head or “father” of which was the emperor. By intertwining family with politics and religion, the importance of the familial unit increased to the point where it was seen as embodying such basic values of the society as discipline, self-sacrifice, loyalty, and unity.

* As we saw in our discussion of the Black family, extreme poverty often has disastrous effects on the family structure. The Japanese were able to avoid this situation in part because of a system that provided help for the indigent. A poverty-stricken individual was expected to ask members of his extended family for assistance. If this failed he could approach friends. When all informal appeals had been exhausted, he could appeal to the kenjinkai. These were associations whose members came from the same province in Japan, similar to the Jewish Landsmanschaften (immigrant societies). Their desire to help stemmed largely from the fact that it was considered a disgrace for a community to be unable to provide help for its own members. Such help, which usually consisted of either money or job assistance, enabled the Japanese to attain a near-perfect record of family stability and a corresponding lack of deviant behavior in the community.

* in 1948 12 percent of Japanese marriages in Los Angeles were to non-Japanese. By 1959 the figure had risen to 23 percent, and by 1972 it was 49 percent. Information from other cities with large Japanese-American populations confirms this trend. Clearly, any community where almost half or more than half of its members marry outside the group will have difficulty maintaining its cultural uniqueness.

* The Japanese themselves are not likely to be offended by charges of imitativeness, for such an approach was a matter of historical necessity as well as policy.

* Statistically the chances of being mugged, robbed, raped, or murdered by someone who is a Japanese-American are very small. According to FBI figures, Japanese-American arrest rates are lower than those of any group surveyed. Statistics in cities around the country confirm this pattern; in i960 arrest rates for non-Japanese-Americans in Los Angeles were more than thirteen times higher than for Japanese-Americans. Moreover, those crimes for which Japanese are charged tend to be minor offenses, usually drunkenness or gambling, both of which are viewed more tolerantly in Japanese society than in American society.

* Most of the standard theories put forth by criminologists to explain why members of certain groups commit crimes more often than those of others do not seem to apply to JapaneseAmericans. They certainly experienced a great deal of discrimination and were often frustrated in their efforts to get ahead. In the early period of their arrival here, the Japanese often lived in high-crime ghettoes, yet they were rarely involved in criminal behavior. In Seattle, for instance, only 3 out of 710 boys in a reformatory there between 1919 and 1930 were Japanese, and they came from families that had little contact with the JapaneseAmerican community as a whole. In a similar vein, sociologists have observed that the conflict between the immigrants and their children often leads to a general rejection of authority by children who are ashamed of their parents’ “strange” ways. The gap in the Japanese-American community between Issei and Nisei was a wide one, especially since the parents could not become citizens. Despite this and the other factors, the Japanese are, in fact, among the most law-abiding nationalities in the United States.

* “I knew these two brothers who were pretty wild. They would get drunk… were always fighting, always in trouble and were uncontrollable. Finally their father came to talk to my father and other Japanese families in the neighborhood… all agreed that these boys would hurt the reputation of the other Japanese and provide poor models for the younger boys… so even though the brothers were already young adults and out of high school, they were sent back to Japan in 1937. As far as I know, they never came back to the United States.” (Japanese Americans, p. 73)


“A Chinaman is cold, cunning and distrustful; always ready to take advantage of those he has to deal with; extremely covetous and deceitful.” (“China,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 7th ed., vol. 6 [1842])

There is no scientific evidence that the Chinese are any more cunning, sly, or dishonest than the rest of us. Moreover, this stereotype appears to be dying out.

* The New York Times ran an article in its April 30, 1905, edition about the efforts of female missionaries to rescue white slave girls held in captivity by Chinese “opium fiends.” The title was “Rescuing Angel of the Little Slaves of Chinatown.” Such articles routinely appeared in hundreds of newspapers throughout the country, with reporters occasionally admitting to exaggeration simply to get “some good copy” about “the yellow peril” into their editors’ hands.

Chinatown was depicted as a place of sin, with brothels and opium dens on every comer and sinister figures lurking in every shadow, waiting to corrupt the morals of the innocent and unwary.

* While there are many Chinese-owned laundries, they do not possess any innate abilities in this area; nor is it an especially popular occupation in China.

* Forbidden to own land by California law and denied entry into the unions, many became laundrymen, having discovered that the high ratio of men to women made this a relatively lucrative field.

* INSCRUTABLE: The answer to whether or not this stereotype (usually directed at Orientals in general) has some basis in fact would have to be a qualified yes. Among the Chinese there seem to be certain cultural restraints vis-à-vis emotional expression…

“You see, my parents were here illegally. Many Chinese came here illegally because the Chinese Exclusion Acts limited our numbers greatly, and as a practical matter we couldn’t afford to let the whites know about that. So I always heard in my home, “Don’t trust the white devils.””

* Among the Chinese, opening one’s eyes wide is often a sign of anger, while among Westerners it is more apt to reflect astonishment.

* This resulted in a good deal of concern about not losing face. As a result of their efforts to avoid embarrassing others, the Chinese developed an aversion to bluntness. Kenneth Latourette, the Yale historian and an authority on Chinese history, gives numerous examples of how this was achieved in Chinese society. One example he presents is that of the Chinese guest at a dinner who deliberately spoke in halting Chinese to his dinner companion so as not to embarrass him. Another is of the head of a household who told his servant “that the sugar under his charge was disappearing more rapidly than it ought.” The servant, realizing he was being indirectly accused, suggested a method of safeguarding it against theft by strangers even though both men knew that, under the circumstances, only the servant could have taken the sugar.

* Finally, there is even some evidence that this stereotype may have emerged because of some physical characteristics possessed by Orientals. Anatomical experts have noted that one of the facial muscles, the quadratus labii superioris, is pretty much fused together in the Oriental face, whereas among whites it is divided into three distinct parts, each of which can, to a large degree, be independently controlled. What this means is that whites are probably capable of a wider range of emotional expression than Orientals.

* The 1960 U. S. Census showed that Chinese-Americans were more than twice as likely to have completed college than whites. In the 1970 U. S. Census more Chinese males had completed four or more years of college than any other ethnic group.

Part of the education stereotype is the notion that ChineseAmericans gravitate toward professions in the sciences and related areas. This is true. In i960 more than half of all ChineseAmerican professionals were employed in the following fields: drafting, engineering, accounting, the natural sciences, and college teaching. Moreover, less than one quarter of those teaching at the college level were in the humanities or social sciences… There are several possible reasons for this. First, Chinese-American professionals chose these fields in the early 1940s and thereby established a pattern to be followed by others in the community. Second, these areas did not require as much proficiency in English as, say, law or management. Third, Chinese-Americans felt that skills in these areas were more easily measured by objective standards, thus enabling them to avoid discrimination.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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