You Can Be Anything You Want To Be . . . Well, Maybe Not

When I was in Kindergarten, I had high aspirations for myself. I knew how to read, my mother praised every single piece of art I brought home, and I had just become an American citizen. I was destined for greatness. At one point in my early elementary school career, I stated that later in life I would become a firefighter, doctor, police woman, artist, teacher mom (I was ambitious, I know). When I decided that perhaps one job would be enough, I obviously chose to most prestigious position in the country: the president of the United States. I marveled at the idea of leading the U.S., living in the White House, and making my very own fantastic rules. My parents bought me books about presidency. The one I remember very clearly is So You Want to be President? by Judith St. George. After I had read enough pages in my books, I learned about Section 1, Article 2, Clause 5 of the Constitution:

“No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”

Natural. Born. Citizen. Despite every “You can do whatever you set your mind to” sign that hung on the walls of my school, those three words created a very large problem for my goals in life. Suddenly, becoming president didn’t seem so easy anymore. I would first have to change the constitution. I griped and I groaned to my teachers and willing ears. I was on the front page of our local newspaper with some other adoptees when I was 9 in celebration of the 4th of July (but in my little brain, in hopes of challenging this amendment), and I won a county-wide persuasive essay contest in middle school with a piece titled, “Open Oval Office Door to All Americans.” Amending the constitution proved to be harder than I had originally imagined, but by that time I decided that presidency wasn’t for me anyway.

During my first semester of college, I took an Asian-American Psychology course where I was again reminded of the set backs Asian-Americans face in the professional setting. In this country, Asians are often perceived as the “model-minority.” This racist train-of-thought is a huge topic on its own, but it is interesting to note that Asians become a “model” only to a certain extent. Similar to the glass ceiling experienced by women, Asian-Americans face the challenges presented by the bamboo ceiling. While most Asian-Americans aren’t in blue-collar jobs, very few advance past white-collar managerial roles. Asian-Americans are not as likely to receive promotions and are assumed to be non-creative, non-risk takers in a professional setting. Asians hold just 2.1% of board seats in Fortune 500 companies, according to the Alliance for Board Diversity Census. Three-quarters of board members are, not surprisingly, white men. According to a New York Magazine article by Wesley Yang, “Part of the insidious nature of the Bamboo Ceiling is that it does not seem to be caused by overt racism. A survey of Asian-Pacific-American employees of Fortune 500 companies found that 80 percent reported they were judged not as Asians but as individuals. But only 51 percent reported the existence of Asians in key positions, and only 55 percent agreed that their firms were fully capitalizing on the talents and perspectives of Asians.”

In these past couple of days, I have been disheartened by the Mirai Nagasu situation at the U.S. Figure Skating Championship. She’s a 20 year old, talented, California born, Japanese-American figure skater who placed third in this year’s Championships, which is typically a huge indicator of who will make the Olympic team. Ashley Wagner came in a distant fourth place after she botched both her short and long performances, fell down twice during her free skate, and stumbled slowly through her routine. Wagner called her performance embarrassing, and via Twitter apologized to her fans. Despite Wagner’s errors, in a decision that is considered “a significant deviation from the precedent,” she was chosen to join the U.S. Olympic team over the flawless performances given by Mirai Nagasu. Thus, the U.S. will be sending three porcelain skinned, blonde haired beauties to Russia.

While Nagasu placed fourth in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, this is the second Olympic year that Wagner has given a shaky performance. Wagner didn’t complete a triple-triple combination jump in either her long or short programs, which is the minimum requirement to have a shot at the Olympics. The U.S. Figure Skating rules allow the past year and resume to be looked at in consideration. This combined with her NBC promotions allowed Wagner bypass Nagasu.

With several endorsements from companies such as Nike, Covergirl, BP, and Pandora, Ashley Wagner has been placed as number 7 on a list of the top ten most marketable athletes in the 2014 Olympic games. But marketability is not the same as talent. Wagner, herself, hinted at some hesitation in her ability to perform in the Olympic games. “A clean program will do a lot, but it will not win the Olympics,” Wagner said. “And it most likely will not get me onto the Olympic podium. I, myself, don’t think I’m talented enough to get on the podium without a triple-triple. I’m just trying to be as realistic about the triple-triple as I possibly can be.” Though no one can be sure, in the end, it looks like this year’s Olympic team decision came down to marketability over talent, at Nagasu’s expense.

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It is imperative that we recognize the blatant and subtle racism involved in keeping Asian-American achievers from reaching their dreams. When I was little, “If you can dream it, you can do it” quotes encouraged me and filled me with excitement with all of the possibilities for my life. As I grew older (and I suppose more jaded), these same signs began to frustrate me, as I learned the impracticalities behind those supportive words. We either need to change our attitudes towards Asian-Americans and those not born in the U.S. or change the expression from “you can be anything you want to be” to “you can be anything you want to be as long as it’s not President of the country, CEO of a company, or an Olympic level athlete” so that we don’t continue to give eager children false hope.

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4 responses to “You Can Be Anything You Want To Be . . . Well, Maybe Not

  1. I believe that while there has been progress related to racism in the US during the past two centuries, that progress, like the TSA, is largely window dressing. Your example of the Nagasu case could not be more precise in describing the lingering subliminal racism that exists..

  2. I don’t know anything about the Nagasu situation. But given the thrust of your piece, I am surprised that you have not even mentioned Tiffany Chin, Kristi Yamaguchi, or Michelle Kwan.

    • The main point of this post was to highlight the ways in which Asian Americans are discriminated against and the obstacles they face in high achieving positions. There will always be exceptions, and people will always highlight this exceptionalism to justify the status quo, but it doesn’t negate the fact that a serious problem exists.

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