I had the talk with my parents when I started high school. No, not that talk you are thinking of right now.
They wanted to talk about institutional racism in America. Specifically, they thought it was imperative for me to understand the bias against Asian applicants during the college application process.
You see, as a naïve middle schooler, I expressed the ambition of attending an Ivy League school. I wasn’t yet aware of just how difficult this goal would be, and to be honest, I still wonder why I set my sight on these particular schools. I suppose they were my green light across the bay.
My parents were thrilled. They understood more than anyone else the transformative power of a good education. Born right as the Culture Revolution began, my parents saw the dreams of an entire generation of Chinese students dissipate before their eyes. Being highly educated—a longstanding symbol of prestige—suddenly drew an onslaught of political persecution.
But my parents were lucky. The end of the Revolution, and the restoration of the Chinese higher education system, coincided with their graduation from high school. My dad left for college a few months after he turned sixteen, leaving behind his family in search of a better future for him and his future family. They had hoped that someday, their son would have a future brighter than they could have ever imagined.
Fear and paranoia, however, soon overtook any joy my parents had felt. They have seen the numbers, read the stories, heard the rumors—the admissions process at elite colleges and universities is heavily stacked against Asian applicants. I would need to score much higher and put forth a much more diversified resume, just to separate myself from a pool of highly talented Asian applicants. Years later, my parents admitted that they feared the families of other Asian students at my high school would sabotage me—a rather unfounded fear and undoubtedly the worst premise for an espionage movie.
As I’m about to enter an industry where minorities have historically been underrepresented, I couldn’t help but to remember the talk I had with my parents. Despite being the “model minority,” Asian Americans still seem to struggle to move into the upper echelons of many professions. NALP statistics show that Asians account for 10.8 percent of all law firm associates and half of all minority associates. However, at the partner level, those numbers drop to 2.74 percent and 37.4 percent, respectively. Within Silicon Valley companies, Asians account for 29 percent of all professionals, but just 19 percent of managers and 14 percent of executives. For those who don’t fit the model minority stereotype, being Asian leads others to assume that they do not confront the ugly abyss of racism on a regular basis—an assumption that cannot be more wrong.
When I read Professor Randall Kennedy’s piece on the politics of respectability, the conversations he had with his parents struck a deep chord with me. He wrote, “In competition for advancement, I would have to clearly outdistance my white peers. ‘Tie-tie, you lose,” my father said repeatedly…” My mother had told me something similarly blunt, “You need to be twice as good as your white peers to receive the same level of recognition.”
What she said on that day motivated me throughout high school and college, and probably still drives me even today. My parents had imparted on me a “gift”—a conscious awareness of the dark reality behind the glamour of the American dream: there are limits on how far I can advance. The game is rigged. The highest economic and social echelon carries a sign that says, “White only.”
My parents, however, never displayed any bitterness or resentment toward this injustice. Their perception of racism culminated in a paradoxical view of social mobility: a combination of distrust, pragmatism, and optimism. They were deeply skeptical that I would ever truly be on equal footings with my white peers. At the same time, they firmly believed that the obstacles of racial discrimination were not insurmountable. Upward mobility remained a possibility; there is just a ceiling on how far I can advance. My parents tacitly accepted racial bias as an unpleasant but immutable fact, the price that I would have to pay to be part of the American society.
Relative to African Americans and Hispanics, Asians have undoubtedly fared best in professions such as law. However, this fosters a false sense of accomplishment. To argue that Asians should be satisfied with the progress they have made not only ignores the struggles that they deal with regularly, but also unfairly portrays other minorities in a negative light. My parents are guilty of this. I’ve heard them frequently attribute the struggle of minorities to laziness and lack of effort—perhaps because of their belief in the upward mobility possible in America—but I fear their failure to recognize the damning impact of racism on all minorities only serves to legitimize an oppressive system.
The bias against and stereotyping of Asian Americans has a corrosive effect on the young generations. My mom always told me that not only do I need to outwork the people around me, no one will ever acknowledge the time and effort behind my accomplishments. The intense pressure to succeed creates an immense mental strain. There were nights in college when I sat in front my desk working, listening to my suitemates getting ready to go out, and felt the loneliness eating away at me. Every once in a while, I would wonder to myself whether this tiresome lifestyle is truly worth it.
I know the unwavering need to succeed affects others like me, and the mentality of success-at-all-cost exerts tremendous pressure on Asian students. While I think this mentality has served me well so far in life, I’ve seen friends in high school and college struggle with the expectations of their families, friends, and most importantly, themselves. Moreover, the cultural taboo in many Asian communities on talking about mental illness often means that my peers struggle in silence. Racial prejudice increases the likelihood of dealing with emotional disorders by lowering Asian Americans’ perceived social status in society. All of these factors combine to foster a culture of silent suffering. According to the American Psychological Association, Asian Americans college students were more likely than white American students to have had suicidal thoughts and to attempt suicide.
All of these issues deserve serious attention, both from Asian American communities and mainstream media. I’m thankful that Harvard Law School has given a powerful voice, and the confidence to let that voice be heard. My parents’ “gift” has enabled me to thrive.
The last year, however, has led me back to the question of whether the elite higher education institutions in America are denying an equal opportunity to Asian applicants. Harvard’s affirmative action program has come under judicial scrutiny again—a topic that I have kept track of for this blog. I fear that the invisible barriers that the elite institutions erected only dilute the panoramic diversity that defines the Asian American experience. With Fisher v. Texas being reheard by the Supreme Court in the upcoming term, it’s time to rekindle the conversation on how Asian American communities deal with the convoluted role that race plays in their lives. Some Asian American groups have written briefs in support of Fisher, but I’m not convinced that overturning affirmative action would solve our problems. The battle against the vestige of racism will not result in a definitive resolution. As we move forward, the conversation on race must necessarily evolve with the circumstances.
I began to understand my parents’ reluctance to speak out the summer before law school. We went on a family trip to my dad’s hometown, an idyllic village in southern China. The shale stone path led me to my family’s ancestral shrine. The black wooden gates swung open to reveal the platform where theatrical performances took place on traditional holidays. As I stood next to my dad, he said quietly, “During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards would drag my grandfather onto that stage whenever they feel like it and publicly denounce him as a capitalist in front of the whole village.” I saw in my father’s eyes a lingering trace of sorrow, as if the persecution of my great-grandfather took place just yesterday.
My dad had never shared this story with me before. What he had told me were stories of a carefree childhood: catching fish in the stream flowing through the village, stealing candies from the communal kitchen on New Year’s day, and getting lost after chasing a neighbor’s pig through the surrounding mountainside. But not the story about my great-grandfather. The trauma of watching someone so close to him persecuted must have instilled in him a reluctance to speak out and to challenge the orthodoxy. While stability has served my parents well, I now recognize that my parents’ acquiescence of racism and discrimination only perpetuate a system built upon inequities. My education will no longer allow me to passively accept the status quo.
I hope that my education and my career will give me the power to eradicate the fear that had plagued my parents and me for years.
I hope that by the time I have my own family, I would no longer need to have the talk with my child.