When I was in middle school, we had to attend a back-to-school assembly about inclusion and compassion and other touchy-feely topics that made our pre-teen selves shudder in disgust. One issue they covered was “nice” stereotypes, which were still stereotypes so we shouldn’t believe them — not all tall people are good at basketball, you know? (I personally wouldn’t know; I’ve always been the shortest in my class, so everyone else on my basketball team was both taller and a better player than me.)
It took me years to realize the underlying hypocrisy in the system.
My hometown has a significant Asian immigrant population, some of whom were what you might call “tiger parents,” and consequently my middle school had a high percentage of — shall we say — very academically-driven students.
In other words, if you and/or your parents spoke to your teacher about your grades, all too often the teacher would automatically assume you were “grade grubbing” and refuse to hear you out. (Because Asians want good grades, so we’ll fight for every point. That’s the stereotype.)
Being a fairly confrontation-averse person, I usually just accepted the grades I got — unless, of course, there was an obvious grading error. Which was the case with a social studies project on which I’d worked very hard, and on which I lost exactly one point for not capitalizing the phrase commander-in-chief.
“It’s not capitalized in the textbook,” I pointed out, showing my teacher the relevant page.
“Oh, you’re right. But it’s just one point, and your score is already so high; it doesn’t really matter, does it?”
It did matter. Though that one point of course had no real impact on my GPA — or the rest of my life for that matter — as a matter of principle, I deserved that point back. I’d spent hours writing and proofreading my project; I was so close to getting a perfect score, and I had earned it.
However, I’d never been accused of grade-grubbing before. I had in fact actively avoided any semblance of it. So I let it go, because I didn’t want to prove the stereotype right.
As so many college freshmen do, I joined every student organization that caught my eye; some were focused on social justice and activism, which I’d encountered while learning about queer identities on Tumblr. (Say what you want about Tumblr, but I’m pretty sure it’s where I first discovered the term pansexual and wondered if it might apply to me.)
Two years later, I’m still involved with these groups, but despite our shared interest I often feel out of place. Literally — looking around the room at meetings and rallies, I don’t see many other Asian[-American] people.
To be clear, no one in these intersectional spaces has ever actively made me, as an individual, feel unwelcome. But in these conversations — and in online discourse, once I began to engage there too — I’m often unsure whether I truly belong to the community, or whether I should respectfully observe and amplify others’ voices. I feel like I’m perceived as an ally rather than a peer.
When I first heard the term people of color, it actually didn’t occur to me that Asians were included under this umbrella. The readings for my introductory Women & Gender Studies class were almost exclusively by Black or white authors, with a few biracial or Latinx writers. I couldn’t relate to many of the experiences that my classmates brought up in discussions. And, in hindsight, I can identify an alarming number of casual or outright racist comments from my (Asian) extended family and friends.
Being catcalled with “Konnichiwa” or having my accomplishments dismissed with “well duh, Asians are good at math/science/school” hardly compares to fearing for my life when I pass a police officer on the street.
But I’m not saying that the institutionalized racism faced by Asians and Asian-Americans is less important or damaging than what other PoC experience — they’re as different as oranges and water apples. (Which are one of my favorite fruits, by the way, and it makes me sad that I only get to enjoy them while I’m visiting family in Taiwan.)
I’m still learning how to be a good ally, but I’m simultaneously learning to be an advocate for myself and my community.
One dismayingly pervasive perception is that Asians are complicit in institutional racism against other marginalized communities; another is that Asian females, in particular, are meek and submissive. Remaining silent, I’ve realized, merely lets me avoid an uncomfortable situation — it doesn’t challenge the assumption.
And so I’ve vowed to speak up, because I am not your stereotype.*
* Note: The post title is inspired by C.B. Lee’s Not Your Sidekick, which not only has a great story line but also fantastic intersectional themes. Add this great Asian-authored books on Goodreads and purchase a copy via Amazon or Book Depository.
Augvocate for the Day
Having grown up Taiwanese-American, bisexual, and autistic, Isabelle is an advocate for intersectionality and inclusion. She started writing stories at a young age in part because she was tired of being told that of all the Disney princesses she was “most like Mulan” when she identified more closely with Belle, and wishes she had paid closer attention in Chinese school while learning about her family’s culture and language. Her go-to bubble tea order is oolong milk tea, half sugar, with tapioca pearls.
This guest post is part of a month-long collaborative series called Augvocacy, which is shorthand for August with an advocacy. Essentially, this project aims to bring together like-minded individuals — be it bloggers, authors, or readers — in actively forwarding a particular advocacy. All contributors to this project are referred to as Augvocates — and each Augvocate will share their thoughts on my blog from the 1st day of August until the 28th. Find the rest of the Augvocacy 2019 posts here.
For this year, Augvocacy hopes to discuss and encourage the importance of amplifying Asian voices in books and in media. While this particular call brings attention to the oftentimes-ignored demand for more authentic Asian representation, it also aims to debunk the bigoted view that Asian cultures are a monolith and to shed light on the nuances of struggle, privilege, and identity within and across our own communities. Learn more about Augvocacy 2019 in this post.
Pin this post on Pinterest!
I’d love to hear from you!
🌻 What are your thoughts on Isabelle’s article? Do you think “good” or “positive” stereotypes are still inherently problematic?
🌻 Do you think popular media has a role in perpetuating a culture of good and bad stereotypes about people of color, including Asians?
🌻 The post title is inspired by C.B. Lee’s Not Your Sidekick. Have you read this wonderfully written superhero novel? If not, do you have plans on picking it up?