On their surface, the racial stereotypes related to Asian-Americans appear relatively innocuous: "Nerdy." "Quiet." "Awkward." In reality, however, these notions have tremendous implications for the expectations young Asian-Americans have for themselves and that society has for them.
While many continue to push a menacing international picture of a Chinese-led 21st century, at home, Asian-Americans are infrequently regarded as leaders. As a result, the stereotype of the socially inept, meek Asian-American is one that desperately needs changing. That ultimately requires Asian-Americans to challenge themselves --- and society at large -- to rethink the place of Asian-Americans in our society.
Though Asian students are overrepresented in America's elite educational institutions (19.1 percent of Harvard's Class of 2013 identifies as Asian while Asians represent 5.6 percent of the American population), rarely do we hear of Asian-Americans leading elite institutions in other fields. With perhaps the notable exceptions of Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang or Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, Asian-Americans are more often viewed as skilled computer programmers rather than mold-breaking CEOs.
In 2010, Asians held only 2 percent of Fortune 500 board seats. This same dynamic is also present in the entertainment industry. There are few Asian-American stars in America's most popular sports -- baseball, football, hockey, and basketball. Aside from Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan -- and more recently John Cho and Daniel Dae Kim, we very rarely see Asian-Americans in Hollywood.
There is, of course, a cultural reason for this phenomenon. Young Asian-Americans are all too familiar with the pressures from parents who encourage a low-risk, high-reward, and disciplined career path and lifestyle. While this mindset certainly has value, brave people willing to serve as role models and break away from cultural norms have a particular power to change cultural stereotypes.
This is why, I believe, so many Asian-Americans are eagerly following the success of Jeremy Lin. Though the NBA has seen the likes of Yao Ming, never before have we seen a star Asian-American athlete, someone whose excellence would be far more expected in the classroom than on the court. Indeed, the Taiwanese-American Lin is remarkable for both conforming to a stereotype -- he graduated from Harvard in 2010 with a degree in economics -- and then defying it. His underdog story from the Ivy League to the NBA and electric play surely account for much of the support for him. But the potential he has to change attitudes about Asian-Americans is even more exciting.
Asian-Americans must dedicate themselves to becoming the Jeremy Lins of their respective fields. If you feel pressure to be quiet instead of speak up, consciously push yourself out of your comfort zone and share your thoughts. If you feel you've been overlooked, stand up for yourself. If you think you think you might have the skills do so something your boss may not see at first, fight to have the chance to prove yourself. We must take it upon ourselves to change stereotypes -- not just to change the minds of those we regularly encounter in our daily lives, but to change the minds of those we will never meet and, just as importantly, our own minds about the limits of our leadership. Society may not always be able to avoid stereotypes, but we all have the power to change them.
Daniel Arrigg Koh is a 2011 graduate of Harvard Business School. He holds a B.A. in Government from Harvard College. He can be reached at email@example.com.