Podcast: Disrupting the “Asians Are Good at Math” narrative

January 6, 2020

While stereotypes about the academic success of Asian students may seem harmless, those false narratives dehumanize Asian people, argues University of Washington College of Education Professor Niral Shah.

In a new podcast, Shah discusses his article “‘Asians Are Good at Math’ Is Not a Compliment: STEM Success as a Threat to Personhood,” recently published in Harvard Educational Review. 

“The academic success of certain Asian ethnic groups and increasingly on the political scene convinces most Americans that racism is not a problem for Asian people,” Shah said. “But, Asian people in the U.S. have always experienced racism — what most people may not realize is that this is also happening in seemingly unlikely places like mathematics, a subject that is often considered neutral and race-free.”

Being falsely positioned as inherently good at math, Shah said, renders Asian people as human calculators. In part, that has to do with how society perceives STEM ability.

“STEM ability has come to signify general intelligence, but not necessarily in humanizing ways,” he said. “In movies and pop culture, mathematicians are often portrayed as socially awkward and deviant. So, while it seems like a compliment, the ‘Asians are good at math’ narrative actually undermines Asian personhood by positioning Asian people as androids with too much intelligence.”

To counteract false narratives about Asian learners, Shah encourages STEM teachers to explicitly resist racist narratives about who can and can’t be good at STEM.

“Teachers need to be able to put these narratives in historical context,” he said. “Not just saying that they’re false and racist, but historically, how we’ve gotten to this place with these narratives.”

Another step STEM teachers can take, Shah said, is to monitor biases in the kinds of learning opportunities they make available to Asian learners.

“For example, do Asian students only get to do rote, procedural kinds of tasks, or do they get to be group leaders? Do they get to speak and present in front of the class? There needs to be balance in the kinds of learning opportunities that Asian students get.”

STEM education is often focused on issues of economic access for racially minoritized students. But Shah argues that a broader perspective is needed.

“Schools and teachers need to attend to students’ racialized experiences in STEM classrooms,” Shah said. “If nothing else, students of color — including Asian students — need to feel like full human beings in STEM spaces.”

Subscribe to the UW College of Education on SoundCloud to listen to more interviews with researchers, practitioners, community leaders and policymakers who are working to transform inequitable systems of education and make learning come alive for all students.