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US Finally Accepts Asians as American — But Only When They’re Fat

Racism is still a bigger problem than many think
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skynesher / istockphoto.com

Who gets to be “American”? Based on the science, apparently it’s anyone who’s overweight.

Asian-Americans have struggled to stake their claim to “American” status for well over a century, and history is rife with examples of virulent anti-Asian racism. Consistent prejudice has meant that Asian-Americans may still appear to be “foreign” in the eyes of many Americans.

That is, of course, unless they display one characteristically American trait: obesity.

According to a recent study in the journal of the Association for Psychological Science, Asian-Americans who are overweight or obese are perceived as more American than members of the same ethnic group of an average or lower weight. Additionally, overweight Asian-American men were less likely to be assumed to be illegal immigrants than men of a normal weight.

If you thought all this was bad, here’s the kicker: Overweight Latino and African-American individuals did not receive the same conceptual benefit (if we can even call it that) as the observed Asian-Americans.

It’s true that there’s plenty of reason to associate “American” with “overweight.” According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 70 percent of American adults are overweight or obese.

In a way, Asian-Americans may have a potent incentive to gain weight: It could mitigate prejudice against them. “In the U.S., there is a strong bias associating American identity with whiteness, and this can have negative consequences for people of color,” said Caitlin Handron, one of the authors of the study. Her cohorts agreed. Sapna Cheryan, another author involved, went on to assert, “We found that there was a paradoxical social benefit for Asian-Americans.”

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Yet at the same time, there is a strong, caustic bias against people of a higher weight in the U.S. The stigma has resulted in an increased prevalence of eating disorders, depression, and (paradoxically) obesity. So Asian-Americans are evidently forced to choose: Which bias is worse? Being thought of as foreign, or thought of as fat?