As the leaves on the trees begin to drop, signifying the change of seasons, I am reminded of the joy and learning that comes with autumn and the beginning of the academic calendar. I was an avid learner and an overachiever who attempted to complete every extra credit opportunity. With school also came much stress revolving around changing and sometimes drifting relationships, difficult classwork, and of course, grades.
I watched a movie earlier this year in which the twelve year old daughter was trying to impress upon her mother the competitiveness of ivy league colleges these days. She exclaims, “I mean, they even turn away Asians now!”
This line from the movie immediately brought me back to my high school days, when guidance counselors and teachers talked to us constantly about college applications, activities that would look impressive, and strategies for academic success. I was a smart student who had to work hard to earn A grades but always did well in school. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I hit my first academic wall.
Honors Chemistry proved to be a bigger challenge for me than any other honors labeled class I took in my high school career. I realized early in the semester that the material was difficult, and I wasn’t grasping it as quickly as other students in my class. As a determined student, I asked for additional help: before school, during lunch, after school, as well as from the other Honors Chemistry teacher. Despite these efforts on my part, my Honors Chemistry grade dipped, and with it my confidence.
I remember the shame I felt in not understanding the material. I would hide my quizzes and sulk back to my desk, dreading the inevitable “how did you do?” from chipper-looking friends. Solemnly admitting my B or C or just saying, “bad,” I anxiously awaited the next inevitable comment: Asian fail!
This remark was often delivered with misguided humor, simply as an effort to lighten the mood. Though there was no malintent, the effect it had on me was huge. After years of hearing “asian fail” directed at me and other Asian peers when we performed below expected or lower than an A, I internalized the stereotype that Asians were naturally academically gifted, smart, and successful. When I hit my academic wall with Chemistry, I not only struggled with the course, but I struggled with my identity as an Asian. I remember asking myself if I could still consider myself an honors student and wondering if this new academic challenge made me less of an Asian because my grades weren’t as high in this class.
It took me years to figure out that my fifteen year old self didn’t Asian fail; society failed me as an Asian student when it tried to cast a generic mold onto my unique person. It doesn’t matter that the stereotype of Asians being intellectually gifted is a positive one, because the thought process is functionally consistent with unflattering stereotypes. My academic struggle in this particular subject should have had no bearing on my racial identity, but the fact it did indicates that we are in no way a post-racial society. Racism, subtle and explicit, permeate the walls of our schools and institutions everyday, and it is our responsibility to recognize these racial biases, or we will continue to fail students of color.