Tuesday, June 30, 2015

When "Smart" Is a Bad Thing for People of Color

[image source]

By Sharon H Chang

Nowadays it's on the table. And let me be clear I think that's a VERY good thing. We ruminate, debate, question, call out, piece apart and break down this pervasive stereotype - this idea that Asian/Americans are somehow a magic "model minority". The thinking goes: if you have to be a person of color, at least be an Asian one cause Asians are smart, they'll listen, work hard, won't act out, blah blah blah.

Briefly, in case you're not already aware, this stereotype or myth as many prefer to think of it was conceived in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement by elite, controlling whites to counter the efforts of Black activists and protestors. Narrative went basically like this, "See, non-white people can be successful in America if they just pull themselves up and try. So why can't you be more like those Asians and stop causing so much trouble?"

If you don't know this history, make sure you do. I'm not going to go into depth here because tons of great folk have already written great stuff on it and deserve ongoing acknowledgment. Suggestions (cause I'm always looking to elevate Asian diasporic women's voices): start with Rosalind Chou's Myth of the Model Minority (2008), Ellen Wu's The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (2014), Soya Jung's The Racial Justice Movement Needs A Model Minority Mutiny, and then keep going.

It's this tired stereotype that has positioned Asian/Americans today as what's called a wedge minority "dividing Asians from other people of color while maintaining white dominance." It's a tactical maneuver, it's political, and often damn confusing for Asians themselves. "My students sometimes aren't sure how to feel about 'positive' stereotypes of Asian Americans," writes Professor David Shih in You're the Model Minority Until You're Not, "What's wrong with being known as educated, hard-working, and law-abiding?" Shih says the problem is that all racial stereotypes, even so-called positive ones, remain dictated by the dominant group.

For sure, for sure. I agree with all this. Like I said. Great writers, great thinkers, great stuff. But despite all these great discussions I've found over time (you know me) there still always seems to be an annoying thorn in my side I can never get out.

It's this word, smart.

We object to being made into racial models at the expense of non-Asian people of color. We critique being positioned as wedge minorities. We admit there are Asian/Ams who "outperform" other students but protest that those Asian/Am youth are then too pigeon-holed, stressed by the pressure to succeed, and/or face dominant group pushback because of their success. We question our parents for buying into assimilative practices. Moreover we argue while the model minority myth uplifts said achievements belonging to certain Asian/Am groups, it also dangerously veils the severe suffering of more marginalized Asian/Am groups.

But then we still don't talk about this word, smart.

I'm gonna go out on a limb here. It seems to me almost as if we're saying, "Okay we are smart BUT..." And that's where I need to take great pause. Are we smart? What does smart even mean? I wonder, do we look at this one word and all its loading enough if at all? Twitter user @cheuya posted a thread back in April:

I agree. Here's what I observe "smart" frequently means to the vast majority of people:

Performing well on standardized tests (standardized testing is a hugely profitable industry owned by private companies which are mostly, if not all, run by whites)

Getting good grades in school (schools still predominantly use white-centered curricula benefiting whites and taught by teachers who are predominantly white)

Going to a reputable college or colleges (colleges and universities to this day remain also almost entirely headed and lead by white men)

Working a stable high-paying job for some big reputable company, institution, corporation, etc. (labor that profits most the CEOS, high level-execs, and investors of these companies who are, yet again, overwhelmingly white men)

This point, people, is soooo important. I seriously can't emphasize it enough. I too was what they called booksmart all the way through grade school and undergrad. Reading and writing were my favorite things do to as a kid. I took a bunch of AP classes my junior and senior years of high school and even courses at a nearby university. I graduated top of my class. I started at UCLA in 1996 with a bunch of credits already under by belt. I graduated cum laude with two degrees in four years - something very difficult to achieve in the UC system at the time. And after all that -- I was burnt out, couldn't find a job, knew nothing about how this country really works, didn't have a clue about my own history, oppression and liberation, or the history, oppression and liberation of others.

Being mainstream "smart", while empowering for whites, is assimilative and deeply damaging for people of color.

I think it's a big problem that we buy into the idea being smart is a positive stereotype. We don't know what to do with that in the context of a racist society. So we quickly push it aside to focus on the problem as primarily being wedged. But in doing so we neglect putting much-needed attention toward the fact that being mainstream "smart", while empowering for whites, is assimilative and deeply damaging for people of color. Being smart by dominant norms sucks because its assignment is used to discriminate against non-Asian people of color but also because it oppresses Asians themselves. Bottom line being this. Smart isn't always a good thing. We'll never get to an Asian American revolution that works in alliance with the struggles of all marginalized peoples if we can't reclaim and redefine what education really means; on our terms and in our way.

Let's make sure our smart, is the kind of smart we really want.

1 comment :

  1. As a mixed race girl (Chinese Malaysian/white) who is often perceived as being completely white by the majority of the population both Asian and white I have come to resent this stereotype of "smartness". Upon discovering that I am mixed Asian, one comment that I get quite often (once again from both the white and Asian community) is: "No wonder you're so smart". I feel that this comment while meant as compliment is in reality a discredit to my actual intelligence. When we attribute characteristics to a stereotype rather than the individual it downplays the individuals achievements while creating a pressure to uphold the ideals of a certain stereotype. Furthermore, I feel that it many ways this stereotype actually breeds animosity within the Asian community. I just graduated from a high school where there was a very large Asian population especially in the IB program (for context in many of my classes I was the "whitest" person in the room) and I have seen that there was a lot of competition between students regarding marks. One could sometimes sense a bitter feeling towards those in the top of the class and disdain towards those who were at the bottom or who opted to take lower level classes. I feel that this shows that while this stereotype may have begun as a method of control by the white elite it is now being perpetuated within the Asian community. Until changes are made within our community I don't believe widespread change will occur in mainstream society.