The Ascription or Denial of Intelligence Based on Race

Society Teaches Us to Assume a Person’s Intelligence Based on Race, Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

My friend’s daughter once told me that she figured a relatively new, Asian classmate was intelligent just by looking at her. She then followed the statement with, “I wonder if I made that assumption because of her race,” and proceeded to analyze her thought process.

Undoubtedly, as a parent, an educator, and as an equity-minded blogger, I was impressed by the child’s self-reflective analysis.  Ascribing intelligence or assuming the lack thereof based on race is the second micro aggression among the ten I teach about in my social justice workshops.  (The first is forever alien in one’s own land.) This young lady was analyzing her own propensity to commit this micro aggression and could serve as an example for all of us when it comes to examining our own responses to the biases taught to us by society.

Microaggressions are seemingly small statements or actions that indirectly or subtly insult or harm others based on race (or other identity factors).  When it comes to Asians, it is not easy to see why assuming intelligence is harmful.  The model minority myth is the assumption that all Asians are highly intelligent and hardworking, therefore, successful in educational settings, especially in math and science.  An extension of this myth is that Asians are only doctors and engineers.  While this micro aggression sounds like a complement, (I mean who doesn’t want to be considered intelligent), it is harmful because it reduces an entire race to a caricature.  It prohibits individual differences and can potentially mask an Asian student’s need for academic intervention, especially in math and science.  Because this intelligence is most often narrowly associated with high paying STEM fields, Asian students who have a passion for liberal arts, creative fields, or sports often feel pressured to fit in and therefore, have to put aside their own passions and enter more ostensibly lucrative fields in which they have little to no interest.  The pressure to fit into this myth is likely one of the causes of higher than average suicidal ideations among American-born, Asian American women compared to other races. Statements such as, “I expect better from you” to an Asian American student who may be struggling in school, or “Are you going to become a doctor or engineer when you grow up?” are examples of statements that can pierce at Asian students’ identities.

The flip side of this micro aggression is the assumption that a minority individual is not as intelligent as someone who is White simply because of race. All students of color can be victims of this stereotype (even Asians), but this stereotype tends to impact Hispanics, Native Americans, and African Americans more.  Using the term “achievement gap,” in itself is a micro aggression that suggests that the gap in test scores between White and minority students is in someway the fault of the minority student for “not achieving” whether due to a supposed lack of innate intelligence or hard work.  Such negative stereotypes, especially when espoused by the teacher, gives rise to the internalization of self doubt on the part of minority children, which in turn leads to poorer performance.  Furthermore, when teachers embrace the pobrecito mentality, a term I use to describe the teacher who “loves” their students but feels sorry for them and therefore, lowers their expectations, students are not given the same opportunities to learn.  They are not given the same level of feedback, the same push forward, the same phone calls home when not performing up to par, etc.  Finally, when examining data, minority students’ data are often not disaggregated and when they are, excuses are made rather than a deep analysis of how instruction can be improved.  Statements such as “You are a credit to your race,” “It’s okay if you don’t understand,” or “Wow!  You’re so smart!” (with a tone of surprise) are examples of micro aggressions that message to students that people of their race are not expected to be smart.

Finally, when it comes to language acquisition, you can also see at play these small, seemingly harmless actions related to the ascription and/or denial of intelligence based on race.  Students who speak another language at home are often pushed into monolingual, English classes, and encouraged not to embrace their home languages.  Through my career, I have heard many administrators and teachers at various districts say that an Emergent Bilingual child is not “intelligent enough” or “high achieving enough” to handle learning two languages at a time.  Of course, through research, we know that denying students the opportunity to develop their mother tongue perpetuates the opportunity gap Emergent Bilinguals experience, which in turn perpetuates the “lack of intelligence” myth students of color face.   On the other hand, many districts with predominantly monolingual English speakers often give all their students multiple opportunities to take World Language classes.  In fact, White, monolingual English speakers account for most of the nation’s Seals of Biliteracy.  In a largely monolingual society where the ability to learn multiple languages is associated with intelligence, we can see how the micro aggression of ascribing or denying intelligence based on race is thus, playing a role even in language opportunities public schools provide for students.  Rather than giving the opportunity of bilingualism to our already Emergent Bilinguals, thereby growing the skills they already come to school with, we, as a country, preferentially (rather than equitably or even at a bare minimum, equally) give these opportunities to monolingual (largely White) students and then, characterize the latter as more intelligent than our largely racially minoritized, Emergent Bilinguals.    

So what can we do?  Like the student I described above, let us watch ourselves to see if we too are making assumptions, statements, or decisions based on racial stereotyping of intelligence or lack thereof.  If you are, don’t beat yourself up about it.  We are after all victims of the implicit bias around us.  Instead, let’s, like my friend’s daughter, work on undoing those stereotypes within us and wherever we see them around us.  And for sure, when students come in speaking a Language Other Than English (LOTE), let’s assume they are intelligent enough to maintain their language and give them all the opportunities in the world to do so.


  1. when I was asked to describe the children in our school to a group of middle class elementary school children, I fell into the trap of painting a drab picture of poor children. this group was getting ready to donate clothes to our program. oops, it is never too late to learn. por mi culpa…


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