“Why do you work here?”
(Part 1 of 3)
Throughout my career serving predominantly Black and LatinX students, I have been asked this question repeatedly though rarely explicitly. I culturally identify as Chinese American, and I politically identify as Asian American. As such, this question feels similar to another question I am familiar with: “Where are you from?” Both questions begin with a presumption that I do not naturally belong, and that I owe some qualifier to justify my presence in a shared space. To be fair, by the standard of my own convictions, I have not always been in this work for the right reasons. I grew up steeped in and conditioned to forward the model minority myth. For my immigrant parents, promoting my assimilation was an act of love in the context of a new society they knew would not accept me as they were. My parents arrived in this country with $400 in cash, 2 suitcases of belongings, and a baby. There was no time or energy to consider the impact of their survival strategy on our souls — that kind of privileged talk was reserved for those who had money and social status, which we were here to work for (and thus the great American trade of the wholeness of our humanity for the protection of our bodies began). While I am deeply committed to forwarding a different mindset for my three sons, I find it important to recognize the context in which my parents and many Asian Americans made and continue to make choices to appeal to White standards. I sometimes find the discourse around Asian Americans as model minorities overly simplistic in its criticism of Asian American complicity while neglecting to account for the White dominant culture, structures, and systems that compel acts of assimilation as a means of survival. After the shootings in Atlanta in March, R.O. Kwon’s article provided a heartbreakingly resonant insight into how assimilation can still feel necessary to being Asian in America in 2021:
“Yesterday, after a prolonged delay, I finally did talk to my mother, and I asked her to please take extra care when leaving the house. I was trying not to cry, and of course I failed, and of course my mother immediately tried to reassure me. She listed all the reasons she felt okay going to the store — she had this list ready, she’d been thinking it through — and then she started trying to convince me, the one in less danger, not to leave my apartment. If I did leave, she proposed I talk more loudly than usual in English, the hope being that racist white people would know I belonged.”
When I started my career in education as a science teacher in East Los Angeles, I worked from a place of genuine love but also misguided charity. Had I been forced to reflect back then, I might have uncovered a belief that my academic and relative economic success (that is, if you consider my first-year teacher’s salary of $30K to be economic success — my parents considered it economic betrayal) meant that my life was something of an example for LatinX and Black students. (Incidentally, I was told as much by the White, Asian, and Latino men who interviewed me for this position). As I progressed through different positions and observed patterns of working in and with organizations that aimed to forward educational equity, I eventually developed a nose for identifying off-putting whiffs of saviorism in myself and others. In parallel, I also gained more clarity on the need for self-appointed heroes to be saved from themselves. As James Baldwin wrote, “The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks — the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.” Through an ongoing journey that includes a fair dose of self-reckoning, pain, and regret, I continue to confront how, despite all the ways American life reminds me every day that I am not White, I have ingested, and deeply so, White schemas for understanding success and progress for myself and others. Even more, I continuously mourn the many subtle but profound losses that were the costs of my so-called success. As such, I have shifted my mindset from one of charity to one of change. My charity mindset was focused on how to help students climb the existing ladder. My change mindset is focused on exposing the illegitimacy of this ladder and everything I have learned about how to climb it. As an educator, this entails rethinking, quite fundamentally, the purpose of schools and the function they serve in creating our shared future. As Paulo Freire states in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
“This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.”
Inspired by and in support of the Movement for Black Lives, I have spent the past year in an accelerated and deepened process of self-reflection and learning about my place in this “humanistic and historical” task. Unsurprisingly, my place has largely been dictated by how I am perceived by the White gaze as “proximal to White” or “White-adjacent.” More painfully, I am also frequently perceived this way by non-Asian people of color despite the fact that no White person I’ve ever met can meaningfully relate to how Wesley Yang describes, and piercingly so, my experience as a professional and as a citizen:
“Was this a real condition or just my own private hallucination? By this I mean something that has in recent years escaped from the obscurity in which it was once shrouded, even as it was always the most salient of all facts, the one most readily on display, the thing that was unspeakable precisely because it never needed to be spoken: that as the bearer of an Asian face in America, you paid some incremental penalty, never absolute, but always omnipresent, that meant you were presumptively a nobody, a mute and servile figure, distinguishable above all by your total incapacity to threaten anyone; that you were many laudable things that the world might respect and reward, but that you were fundamentally powerless to affect anyone in a way that would make you either loved or feared.”
In some respects, I understand why a conception of Asian Americans as proximal to White is popular. America is, after all, the world’s preeminent church of money. Money is our religion. We believe in money. We struggle to understand value in other terms. We say things like, “How much is that person worth?” and intuitively expect to hear a number. As such, when Asian Americans are measured against White Americans, it is predictable that we look at average income. As far as I can tell, the purpose of most schools in America, even schools that seek to forward equity and justice, is to prepare students to increase their future earned income. We may talk of students’ dreams and empowerment, but the predominant conception of success follows an overly simplistic logic of college attainment leading to increased income, which we presume leads to manifested dreams and empowerment. Perhaps this is why it is becoming more and more common to bucket Asian students with White students. To be sure, money matters in profound ways and has life or death consequences for entire communities of color, including many Asian communities. (And for me personally, I do believe a lifelong journey of unpacking my relative privileges is central to my human development and my ability to contribute toward a worthy vision of our future.) My point is simply that, as Audre Lorde says, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” A strategy entirely focused on money will not suffice in our “humanistic and historical task” of liberation, and some data on Asian American outcomes provides evidence to this point:
- Asian Americans outperform White Americans with respect to every measure of academic achievement
- Asian Americans proportionally earn more money than any racial category in the United States
- When educational attainment is factored in, Asian Americans make significantly less than White Americans. For example, White American men with a bachelor’s degree earn $72,599 on average, while Asian American men with the same degree make $56,921 on average.
- Asian Americans have the lowest chance of rising to management positions when compared to Black, LatinX, and women in spite of having the highest educational attainment among all groups including White Americans.
- Asian Americans are the least proportionally represented in congress compared to Black and LatinX populations, and obviously, the White population (when comparing percentage of seats in congress with percentage of total U.S. population).
- Asian Americans are the least represented in media, and even when we are, the qualitative nature of that representation is often a net negative. Forget about depicting us in our complexity as human beings — we are still trying to overcome being the last frontier of casually overt racism.
The rarely considered punchline here is that Asian Americans are the least proximal to White Americans with respect to positions of societal power and social belonging, demonstrating for all to see that educational attainment and increased income alone will neither lead to empowerment nor liberation. And so I offer that if we are to engage at all in this idea of “proximity to Whiteness,” we should at least see our reality from a multi-dimensional, “humanistic and historical” lens and not from a purely capitalistic lens. As such, I encourage us to broaden our thinking through analyses such as Claire Jean Kim’s work on racial triangulation, Lisa Marie Cacho’s work on social death, and exploring more comprehensive frameworks for understanding White supremacy such as this offering from Chanequa Walker-Barnes.
And now I am compelled to preempt a potential response that I am feeding an “oppression olympics” dynamic that is counterproductive to an anti-racist movement that must center our most impacted groups. To this, I ask, how do we measure that impact? And if we limit ourselves to an overly narrow definition of what counts, will it lead to liberation or just shifts in competitive advantage? Does appropriately attending to the impact of racism on Black and LatinX communities truly require sidelining other marginalized groups? Doesn’t that notion sound like the philosophical replication of an old pattern rather than our liberation into a new one? I find this approach to equity work uncomfortably resemblant of a capitalistic mindset driven by assumptions of scarcity and an associated need for competition. I find it uncomfortably complicit with how White society continually pits Asians against other marginalized racial groups to distract us from focusing on the larger constructs that impact all marginalized groups; I find it forgetful of the shared history of solidarity and cooperation between Asians, Black, and LatinX communities against White supremacy.
And yet, this competitive approach is intuitive to me — I am, after all, also an American. As Wesley Yang writes: “‘The loudest duck gets shot’ is a Chinese proverb. ‘The nail that sticks out gets hammered down’ is a Japanese one. Its Western correlative: ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease.’” As Americans, we are conditioned to compete in order to have our needs met. Part of American equity work often entails making noise and teaching marginalized individuals and groups to self-advocate in order to be seen above the fray. In contrast, the Chinese and Japanese proverbs allude to an underlying idea that togetherness matters more than getting ahead, and that togetherness matters with life or death consequences — togetherness is how we ensure we all get enough to eat. My deep hope is that oppressed groups would vigilantly resist temptations to battle each other for attention (and for the attention of the White gaze) and work together to comprehensively understand the many dimensions of this house in which none of us, including our oppressors, can be free. (When I look past the privileges of Whiteness, as attractive as they are, I see a profound emptiness of purpose, a deep poverty of connection, and a soul-crushing lack of imagination — the more I expand my lens from money and comfort to wholeness and humanity, the more my heart also breaks for people who blindly or intentionally embrace Whiteness.) History informs us that, even with the noblest of intentions, reproduction of the same patterns of oppression in different forms is easy to slip into and devastatingly probable. We need each other’s eyes. Only with the clarity possible from our togetherness can we avoid replication and truly reimagine and recreate.
I draw again from the wisdom of Audre Lorde:
“I have learned that oppression and the intolerance of difference come in all shapes and sizes and colors and sexualities; and that among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchies of oppression.”
As educators, aligning on a shared vision for the future and connecting our mindsets and strategies to that vision is a critical and soul-shakingly consequential task. In the words of Paulo Freire, “When education is not liberating, the dream of the oppressed is to become the oppressor.” There is an existential difference between a vision for moving into the master’s house and a vision for co-constructing a new dwelling in which we can all be free. And as Adrienne Marie Brown teaches us through the concept of “fractals,” it is the small everyday moves that tip our hand to reveal and manifest our future — if our liberation strategy today requires my exclusion or second class citizenship in the process, I am going to have a hard time seeing myself (or anyone else for that matter) as truly free in our future. Erasure and general invisibility are nothing new to my experience. Like many other Asian Americans, I expect to be racialized in this way in the larger context of a society rooted in White supremacy. What is truly heart-breaking is having this same experience in the context of equity and justice work. In part two, I will offer a personal story from my career and provide my answer to the question I started with…