Why do people think Asians are arrogant and White men make great leaders?

Hi everyone. Happy Wednesday!!! And Happy Thanksgiving.

I wanted to explore the topic of arrogance today–or confidence depending on who you ask. I’ve thought about this issue for quite a while, but never really knew how to best articulate it. A recent experience finally compelled me to write about this.

I was having lunch with a friend this week, who happens to be White. At one point in our conversation, my friend provided me feedback about my leadership and communication style. “You can be overly confident sometimes, which can come off as patronizing. You should tone it down a bit.” My initial reaction was “Awww, you notice me,” followed by “NUH-UH, YOU TONE IT DOWN!”

Let’s take a step back, because the purpose of this post isn’t to analyze whether I am confident, arrogant or a combination of both. I admit that I have been all of those things at various points in my life. Instead, I’m curious about the racial dynamics involved in these perceptions.

Here’s a football example: Seahawks vs 49ths in the 2014 Western conference playoff. It was the final play of the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. The winner would go on to play the Denver Broncos in the Superbowl. In the final play of the game, Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback, threw a last ditch pass to Michael Crabtree in the end zone. If he caught it, the 49ers would have scored a touchdown and likely won. However, the pass was tipped by Richard Sherman and intercepted by the Seahawks. Many of you may remember Richard Sherman’s postgame interview with Erin Andrews. “I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re going to get.”

Reactions were divided. Some people, most notably Seahawks fans, loved Sherman’s interview. Others derided him for being unprofessional and voiced their opinion in extremely racist ways. The criticisms of Sherman were way over the top. Here’s a snippet of some of the comments I found online.

I’ve noticed a terrible pattern of Black and other minorities being portrayed negatively when they are overly confident, while White players get much more favorable treatment.

Let’s look at Tom Brady. Not many people thought Tom Brady was going to be a great quarterback (we all know how that turned out). But Brady was once quoted saying “I’ve been playing this game my whole life…I’ve started a couple games now, and it’s the same game, man. It’s no different. I kid you not, it’s not that hard. I’m going to be a great one. I’m going to be one of the best at this game.”

Is that any different than what Richard Sherman said? I personally don’t think so; yet the reaction is so different. Sure, Tom Brady has also been called arrogant by some, but rarely have people brought up his race, or ethnicity, or gender, or sexuality.

This double standard exists for many people of color, including Asians. If you seem too confident, too assertive, or too passionate, you get called arrogant, or something worse. Similar to how athletes are single-mindedly focused on perfection, minorities also share the same drive to be the best we can be. Yet we’re told to tone it down; that we should be more humble.

This is incredibly frustrating for me as an Asian American. It feels like I have to celebrate my personal success quietly, and not be too vocal or expressive for fear of being called arrogant. This continuous self-monitoring is very exhausting. Sometimes, when I do something awesome (far and few, to be sure) I just want to “Richard Sherman” it and let the world know without being put down because of my race. It feels like Asians have to moderate our feelings and excitement, whereas most White men can boast about their successes freely and frequently. In fact, arrogance has been viewed as a positive, even advantageous trait, for some White men.

I’ve heard of similar frustrations among women too. There are many intelligent, strong women leaders who are called arrogant or abrasive when they exhibit the same confidence and leadership qualities as men: confidence, assertiveness, directness, and competitiveness. Hilary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer all come to mind.

The duality between being a minority as opposed to a White man is palpable. How come when White men exhibit these same qualities, they are perceived to be trustworthy, reliable, and great leaders? Am I judged by these same standards? Are people turned off because I don’t fit the stereotype of being a quiet, passive Asian? Does it cause resentment when I am vocal and assertive? Or when I challenge authority? Is Whiteness more positively associated with good leadership and confidence? As an Asian-American, does my overt confidence negatively impact how other people perceive me?

The answers to all of these questions are complex and multifaceted, to say the least. I don’t raise these issues and questions as a way to absolve myself of actually being arrogant. Arrogance is still a real thing; and I am totally guilty of it at different points in my life. Nor is my intention to single out or assign blame to old White men. I’m not pointing the finger at each and every single White men and saying “This is your fault. Look what you did to me!” Rather, it is important to recognize and acknowledge these biases and stereotypes exist and that some people benefit from them and others don’t.

There are so many strong, confident and vocal leaders in the Asian American community. We’re tired of being boxed into other people’s stereotypes. We’re not satisfied with the perceptions that Asians are weak and passive, but excellent at math! We don’t to be crappy leaders, but really great doctors. Our goal should be creating a more diverse and inclusive environment where everyone can put their best foot forward, showcase their amazing talents, and highlight their unique skills–without fear of being put down because of their race.

Can you be confident without being arrogant? Absolutely! But is it fair for minorities to be held to a double standard? Heck no. We need to challenge these implicit biases when we see them.

So when it comes to my work, my passion, my leadership and my career, I’ll put it out there. Just like Tom Brady and Richard Sherman: I’m going to be one of the best at this game. And when appropriate, I’m going to celebrate it–loudly!

***

How about other folks out there? Ever feel like you can’t be overtly confidence? Ever been told to tone it down? Leave a comment below, I’d like to hear about other experiences. Happy Thanksgiving everyone. And go Seahawks!

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