Who is American?

Look around the U.S., and it becomes clear that Americans are racially and ethnically diverse. Yet when asked to picture an American, many people immediately conjure up the image of someone White (Cheryan & Monin, 2005; Zou & Cheryan, 2017). As a consequence, non-White immigrants and their children are seen as less American and have their identities as Americans questioned on a regular basis (Cheryan & Monin, 2005). Asian Americans are not passive in the face of such threats to their American identities but react by altering their behavior, sometimes to their own detriment. For instance, Asian Americans who were confronted with a question indicating that their American identity might be in doubt (i.e., “Do you speak English?”) spend more time recalling American cultural knowledge to prove their American identity (Cheryan & Monin, 2005). In contrast, White Americans, who fit the image of a prototypical American, do not change their behaviors. These concerns are especially problematic for second-generation (i.e., US-born) Asian Americans (Wang, Minervino, & Cheryan, 2012), who grow up in American environments and engage with American people throughout their lifetimes and are more likely to have relationships with Americans as an essential part of their development.

Asian Americans’ attempt to assert their American identities in response to a threat to their American identity may result in negative health consequences. Asian Americans who had their American identities questioned consumed more American, and subsequently unhealthier, foods (Guendelman, Cheryan, & Monin, 2011). Trading a traditional diet and lifestyle for a prototypical American one may thus provide a way, albeit a potentially harmful one, for Asian Americans to assert to others that they belong in America. Indeed, overweight Asian Americans are perceived as more American and are less likely to face prejudice directed at foreigners than their thinner counterparts (Handron, Kirby, Wang, Matskewich, & Cheryan, 2017).

In our Racial Position Model, we demonstrate that racial and ethnic groups are stereotyped along two major dimensions: perceived inferiority and perceived cultural foreignness (Zou & Cheryan, 2017). This model reveals that the four largest racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. are located in four distinct quadrants: Whites are seen as superior and American, African Americans as inferior and relatively American, Latinos as inferior and foreign, and Asian Americans as relatively superior and foreign. This model captures groups’ real-world experiences with prejudice and reflects group stereotypes in U.S. society (Zou & Cheryan, 2017). These two dimensions operate to constrain the opportunities of people of color and shape race relations in the U.S.


Huffington Post discusses our findings on weight and American identity, People see heavier Asian-Americans as more American, study shows (August 2017)

The New York Times writes about our study on weight and American identity, Overweight Asian-Americans are seen as more ‘American,’ study finds (August 2017)

The Vancouver Sun summarizes our findings in their article, Does this green card make me look fat? Immigrants pack on the pounds in America (May 2011)

Time Magazine summarizes our findings in their article, Do immigrant kids get fat to fit in? (May 2011)

United Press International features our findings in their article, Immigrants eat high-fat food to fit in (May 2011)

U.S. News and World Report summarizes our findings in their article, Immigrants eat American junk food to fit in (May 2011)

NBC News described our findings in their article, U.S. immigrants get supersized (May 2011)

The New York Times mentions our findings in their article, What We’re Reading (May 2011)

The Telegraph describes our studies and findings in their article, Immigrant groups change diet ‘to fit in’ (May 2011)