The Myth of Meritocracy

ETA: Apparently, this post has attracted a lot of attention. (Much to my surprise although Hapa Papa has graciously mocked me with, “Do you NOT know how the internet works?”) At any rate, if you are new to my blog, might I kindly steer you to my Site Disclaimer & Comment Policy? You don’t have to read it, but you are responsible for adhering to it. I don’t mind if you disagree with me – that is totally your right. Just like it is my right to not allow any personally insulting or attacking comments. Free speech is guaranteed by the government, not my blog. 

When Hapa Papa and I were first dating, he used to mock me for using big words in common, every day speech. He told me that I was being an elitist and that no one normal could understand me so I should stop showing off. I was greatly offended. I told him, “I had twenty SAT words drilled in my head every week from the 7th grade through Senior year in high school. I read over a hundred books a year. These words are a part of my vocabulary. What the hell were YOU doing in high school? Didn’t you study for the SAT?”

Hapa Papa just shrugged and said that he took the SATs once during his senior year. He didn’t study for it. Didn’t really know he could study for it. He just showed up to take the SAT his senior year. His parents had never spoken to him about college other than telling him he couldn’t go to an expensive one. He assumed he’d attend a community college or something like that. His parents didn’t encourage him to go to college. (ETA: For those of you who are new to my site, Hapa Papa is half Japanese and half German. I am Pro SCA5 even at the supposed detriment to my own children.) He knew nothing about college applications. No counselors told him what to do. He only took one AP class (he can’t remember which subject: English or History) and applied only to one school, Cal State LA (CSULA), and got in (along with some scholarships). That’s it.

I was astounded. More like incredulous. I thought his parents and school were horrible.

“They didn’t tell you anything? You didn’t study at all? You just, ‘showed up’ one day to take the test?”

“Yep.”

“Did you go to school in the inner city? Are LA schools really that bad? How is it possible you did not know ANYTHING?”

My sheltered little brain couldn’t conceive of a world in which the parents and teachers did not provide a united push for the sole goal of getting their kids into college. The thing is, Hapa Papa actually went to a pretty good school in LA. (The school where they filmed Grease.) College just wasn’t a big deal for him or his parents. Even now, I still have trouble processing this fact.

This scenario of his would have NEVER occurred in my family or my friends’ families. NEVER. As in IMPOSSIBLE. ZERO% chance.

By the time I was in 7th grade, the next six years of my educational life were geared solely to get into college. I had tutors. Bought SAT books. Took as many AP classes as possible. Joined extracurricular activities in order to look good on my college applications. Took summer school for “easy” throw away classes so I could make room for more AP classes. I had piano and voice lessons. I was in choir and marching band and the Colorguard. Took the SATs (both the original SATs and then the SAT I and II) multiple times in multiple years. Took PSATs. Took assessment tests for the standardized tests. Took multiple AP tests. Went to college fairs and information sessions. Our classes were geared to getting us into as well as succeeding at college.

All my friends were like me to varying degrees. My best friends made up the top 5% of my class and I rounded it out, the dumbest of all my super smart friends. And even then, my weighted high school GPA was well over 4.0. (I’d tell you the exact number but I really don’t remember.) College was NEVER not an option.

Another time, we were hanging out with Hapa Papa’s CSULA friends, (who incidentally, were mostly Latino), and they started reminiscing about college. Wanting to contribute to the conversation and bond with them, I started talking about the dorm life and how the cafeteria food was amazing and like restaurant quality when I realized his friends had all fallen silent and just kind of gave me a blank stare. Embarrassed, my voice petered out and never finished what I had started to say.

Later, Hapa Papa gave me shit for being completely tone deaf to the situation. His friends worked through school and either lived with their parents or in the super cheap fraternity house. Their dorms weren’t fancy and they didn’t have amazing restaurant quality cafeterias. He called me a spoiled little rich girl. I felt foolish and ashamed.

I remember a Latino friend at UCLA telling me how angry he was when he realized just how different his schooling was from the majority of other UCLA students. He felt constantly out of place and kept thinking he didn’t deserve to be at campus even though he was in the top of his high school. He had started to think he was stupid and slow at picking things up when he realized it wasn’t because he was stupid. It was because the other students had ALREADY learned these subjects in high school and were taking them again for an easy “A.”

I remember a black friend at UCLA who was clearly smarter than me, worked harder than me, came from a similar socioeconomic background and completely deserved to be at UCLA and yet, people always assumed he got in because of affirmative action. Even back when I was at UCLA, a time before Prop 209 killed affirmative action, at most there were one or two black students in my classes of three hundred. There were so few black people on campus, even though the student population in the late 1990s was approximately 35,000, they knew all the other black students by sight if not by name.

Where am I going with all this?

This past week, I have seen many of my Asian friends post “No on SCA5” on their Facebook feeds, linking articles on how the bill is racist and discriminatory and how it is a new version of the Chinese Exclusion ActSCA5 would repeal provisions of Prop 209 and allow the State of California to deny an individual or group’s rights to public education on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin. In layman’s terms, SCA5 would re-allow CA to use race as admissions criteria for UCs and CSUs. Basically, to re-allow affirmative action in UCs and CSUs.

According to UC data, the UC’s 2013 freshman class was 36% Asian, 28.1% white, 27.6% Latino and 4.2% black. At some campuses, including UC San Diego and UC Irvine, Asians are more than 45% of admitted freshmen this year. As of 2010, Asians made up only 14.9% of CA’s population.

If SCA5 passes and UCs and CSUs want to increase Latino and black student populations, due to the immutable properties of math, Asian and white student populations will decrease. And since Asians make up the predominant group, it is highly likely Asians would be the most affected. Understandably, many people (especially Asians) are up in arms over this.

I get why my Asian friends are angry and upset over SCA5. When I was applying for colleges, I remember debating whether or not I should tick off “Asian” when applying. After all, that could hurt my chances to get into school. And now, if SCA5 passes and isn’t repealed, when it comes turn for my children to attend university, their chances of getting into their colleges of choice will also be impacted.

It doesn’t seem fair. Why should blacks, Latinos, and heck, whites, get my kids’ spot just because of their race? They should work hard, get good grades and EARN their way – just like the rest of us.

But what is fair? On the surface, merit-based ONLY (the status quo) seems fair. But is it?

I want meritocracy to be true. I don’t want to admit that I did not get to where I am by myself – that I had help. But truthfully, I did. I benefited from tutors, better teachers, schools, and environment. I grew up without the expectation of violence. I had trusted advisors (who had already gone to college) show me what I needed to do in order to get into UCLA or similar institutions. Many of my extra-curricular activities were possible because my family had enough money so that A) I could do these things and pay for the materials they required and B) I wouldn’t have to work because I wasn’t expected to contribute to the family income.

In addition, I grew up in an environment where attending college was the rule not the exception. Being Taiwanese and the daughter of two MBA graduates makes it assumed that I would make good grades and go to a good school. Whatever you think of the “model minority myth,” society constantly reinforced the idea that I was smart, great at math and sciences, and would likely become a doctor.

I want to believe that I am singularly awesome and responsible for my success. I don’t want to believe that the black or Latino student who didn’t get into UCLA likely could’ve gotten in and done BETTER than I had they my advantages. Who wants to think that of themselves?

But when I honestly look at myself and my work ethic (or complete lack thereof), if situations were reversed and I was in an environment where succeeding at school was considered being a “race traitor” or I had few examples of academic success or all of society was telling me that I could only be successful as either a rap star or an athlete but never an intelligent human being and that I was most likely a thief, a thug, or a drug dealer and going to be knocked up at fourteen or incarcerated, I really don’t think I would have the mental fortitude or personal strength to overcome all of that. 

Even just from the anecdotes I included at the beginning of this post, without doing any research at all (which also backs up what I am saying), it is evident that there are huge differences in student backgrounds.

Money, neighborhoods, schools, race, and cultural expectations make it impossible to have a level playing field. 

Obviously, not ALL blacks and Latinos grow up in poverty. That is clearly false. However, at 12.6%, Asians have half the poverty rates of Latinos (23.6%) and African Americans (24.2%) in California. (Whites are at 9.8%.) So, even though not ALL blacks and Latinos have to overcome immense hurdles, many do. Besides, I’m not worried about the rich and middle-class black/Latino kids. They would get into the UCs and CSUs without affirmative action. But this helps blacks and Latinos who may not have the same grades (especially weighted grades) or access to AP classes, tutors, etc. and had to overcome overwhelming odds to get the opportunity to attend school.

Furthermore, even though Asian households have the highest median income in America, that fails to distinguish between different ethnic groups with different histories. When divided up by ethnicity, the majority of economic and academic success is concentrated in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian Americans. Cambodians (14.6%), Hmong (16%), Laotians (13%), and to a lesser extent, Vietnamese (26.1%), have college graduation rates lower than the US national average (28%). Additionally, one in five Hmong and Bangladeshi people live in poverty.

These are the Asians most likely to be hurt by SCA5. (Not the vast majority of Asians who are protesting on Facebook.)

There are no easy answers. There are limited spots. But sometimes, people in privilege have to give up some of theirs in order to allow other people a seat at the table. That is the burden and responsibility of being in a “majority” or in a seat of privilege. And in this case, I would consider Asians to be in the majority since they occupy a huge portion of spots at the UCs and CSUs.

Remember, Asians benefited greatly from the advocacy and rights of blacks and Latinos. We benefit from their fights for racial equality yet rarely do anything to help out their causes when we could. We Asians think that we achieved all our successes by ourselves when we wouldn’t even be in the conversation if it were not for blacks demanding their civil rights. We can’t have our cake and eat it too.

How hypocritical for Asians to demand opportunities in situations where we clearly benefit but not offer others that same opportunity where we would NOT benefit? Where would we be in other areas (bamboo and glass ceilings) if many whites did not give up some of THEIR privilege? Where would we be if blacks and Latinos had not fought for equal opportunities in employment, housing, and education?

Though much of our personal successes are due to our hard work, how much of that would have mattered if our rights were not secure in the first place? We Asians forget that we stand on top of the backs of our black and Latino friends as they paved the way and fought for our right to be here. 

What good does it do us if we succeed at the expense of blacks and Latinos? Who will come to our aid when we need it? (And believe me, we will need it.)

We are too afraid and pinning too much of our hopes and dreams on getting into certain schools. The truth is, there are so many opportunities out there. It SEEMS like a zero sum game where there is one pie and fuck it we’re losing some of our slice to blacks and Latinos. But in reality, our kids who would succeed at UCs and CSUs would succeed in many different schools. They will be fine. There are SO MANY pies. (Mmmm… pies…) UCs and CSUs are NOT the only game in town. There are many ways to succeed.

We do not need to fear.

Ultimately, is SCA5 fair? I don’t think so. But until I see Asians rallying with equal fervency against the unfairness of impoverished schools, the many Latino and black kids in underperforming school districts, living in areas of violence, drugs, broken families, and hardship, which, unsurprisingly, leads to it being much more difficult to do well in school (especially if you may be the first kid in your family to go to college), I am going to vote Yes on SCA5.

Suggested Reading:

Top 5 Anti-Affirmative Action Myths About SCA-5

NY Times: Asian Americans in the Argument

Civil Rights 101

14 Important Statistics on Asian Americans

Poverty in California

Reflections on the Rise of Asian Americans or Don’t Believe the Hype

Intelligence Squared Affirmative Action Debate (Hat Tip: Andrea Lee)

Myths and Realities of Affirmative Action for College Bound Students

Minorities and Whites Follow Unequal College Paths

A New SAT Aims to Realign With Schoolwork

Why Do I Always Ruin Things?

Before I get started, I just want to say that I know I am a horrible, ungrateful person. With that caveat out of the way, here we go.

My house has a giant tub of Legos (many of which are Star Wars sets) that I got used on craigslist. I have a hard enough time keeping track of those pieces so we don’t pull them out much. Besides, Cookie Monster is barely four. He plays just fine with the Duplos.

Well, I just pissed off my mom because she bought Cookie Monster this huge plane Lego set for $100+ and we already have a ton. Now Cookie Monster wants to build it and Hapa Papa has to cuz I sure as fuck don’t want to.

None of us want to.

And I’m annoyed because now I have to find room for this shit and she didn’t buy Gamera a birthday present but she bought Cookie Monster one!!! Good thing Gamera thinks it’s her Lego set too. (The benefits of me forcing them to share everything. My house is Communist central.)

My mom said I could return it. REALLY? How can I return it after she has shown the thing to him?!? She says I take all the fun out of giving gifts. Blargh. I know I’m an ass but wtf. Boo.

Then let’s say he actually builds the damn thing. There is no way he’ll let me take it apart. So wtf am I supposed to do with it?! I fucking hate Lego sets.

I am a horrible, ungrateful person.

She did this I bet because she feels jealous that Hapa Papa’s mom buys them crap every time she visits. She tried to justify it by saying Cookie Monster’s love languages are presents and time.

Really? So we have to give him even more stuff now? (Rants the person who has like a million toys stuffed away for the kids to share for Christmas.)

To top it off, Cookie Monster’s birthday party is this weekend and despite me saying “No Gifts,” about a third will bring gifts anyway. Which he will rip through with Gamera with great delight (as well as remember who gave him what with startling clarity).

All this to say I may have the kids give some of their Christmas presents to Toys for Tots before I give them anything. Thin the present pile out a little.

I know. My heart is apparently two sizes too small.

Wait, so am I the only person who hates Lego sets? I’d much rather they just play whatever and make their own designs. Or am I missing something? (Besides a soul.)

So, now that I’ve shot off my mouth ill-advisedly, I feel awful. I ALWAYS do this to my mother and my MIL when they get presents for my kids. I get annoyed and mad and instead of just SHUTTING MY GORRAM MOUTH AND SAYING, “THANK YOU.” I am a jerk and then feel bad. Then, I try to soften my criticisms with belated gratefulness, but really, that’s just like taking a fat shit on a cake and then complimenting the cake and trying to eat it but all the while, THERE IS SHIT ON THE CAKE. I’ve ruined the present and the giving and nothing I can do will fix what I’ve spoiled.

I am utterly selfish.

If someone else other than my mother or my MIL gave my kids these presents, I’d be over the moon to their face. Effusive in thanks and excitement. But instead, I rob my family of the joy of giving.

Even before I open my mouth, I feel a minor struggle about whether or not to say anything but before my common sense can intervene and help me be a good person, I barf out meanness. *sigh* Because I am a mean person, people.

Just by saying this, people may comment and say, “No, you’re not mean!” and perhaps cite all sorts of evidence. But truthfully, I am nice to people who are not my immediate family. They can choose to not be your friend in an instant and I want people to like me. But my mom or MIL? They’re stuck with me for LIFE, suckers! So, I don’t bother being kind at all. I am an ass of monumental proportions. A selfish, cruel ass.

*SIGH*

Sin is hard on a person’s ego.

Chasing that Status

An article on why poor people spend a lot of money on stuff they can’t afford has been making the rounds on the interwebs lately and I’m glad I finally read it. I’ve always wondered this very same thing and would make confused comments to Hapa Papa like, “If they don’t have money, why are they spending it on huge flat screens and name brand clothes and things that we, who do have money, don’t even spend on?” Hapa Papa‘s theory was that if you thought you were always going to be poor, why delay gratification? Get what pleasures you can when you can.

However, this article finally explained why in a way that I could understand and even identify with. The tl;dr gist can be summed up in this quote:

Why do poor people make stupid, illogical decisions to buy status symbols? For the same reason all but only the most wealthy buy status symbols, I suppose. We want to belong. And, not just for the psychic rewards, but belonging to one group at the right time can mean the difference between unemployment and employment, a good job as opposed to a bad job, housing or a shelter, and so on.

We’ve all heard of the expression, “Dress for the job you want to have, not the job that you do.” This is just a variant of the expression – except for your whole life. It never occurred to me that the poor might possibly be spending so much on these items because it helped them not be immediately lumped into an easily dismissed category. That they wanted to signify they belonged at a job interview or at a restaurant or a nice store.

It totally makes sense to me. I do the same in my own life – but perhaps not in this extreme. And the only reason it’s not as extreme is because my ethnicity, clothing, demeanor, and gender scream, “middle class housewife with lots of spending money.” I don’t need as many outward symbols of wealth because I already fit in.

I recall distinctly my mother telling me that when I go get a haircut, or makeup, or even shopping for nicer clothes, to always dress up. Not only would I get better service, but I would get a better haircut or clothing or makeup as a result. My mom explained that if I showed up looking the part, it would take the sales person less stretch of the imagination to put me in quality than if I had shown up in sweats and no makeup. I thought it was a horribly classist way to view the world, but in my own experience, I have found my mom’s statement to be completely accurate.

When I first started working as a financial advisor, it took me almost a year before I finally settled in on clothes that suited both the position as well as my personal sense of style. At first, I had purchased all these suits from a suit outlet, but I just looked so old and dowdy. I hated the clothes – especially when I went on a three week training session and there were young women there who dressed so fabulously. I felt insecure, unprofessional, and sadly, somewhat less confident. Thankfully, my personality is such that it didn’t affect my interactions too badly. All the same, when I got home, I went shopping.

I would work with men who got custom made suits and spent ridiculous amounts of money on monogrammed shirts and fancy cuff links. I thought it was ridiculous. After all, if you had a financial advisor, wouldn’t you be looking for someone who was PRUDENT with their money? But then again, would you want someone who didn’t look outwardly “successful” and didn’t drive the “right” car?

I was teased about driving a Toyota Avalon. Not sure why since it’s totally a grandma car (nor exactly cheap), but they said it wasn’t flashy enough. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t really want a flashy advisor – I’d be too worried about them trying to make as much money off of me as possible. But I can see WHY certain people gravitated towards that type of advisor. Thankfully, I attracted clients just like myself. People who had money to invest because they didn’t spend it all on fancy clothes and cars.

Anyway, I guess this is just my rambling way of saying, I kinda get why poor people choose to spend their money a certain way. I do it, too. It’s just less obvious because I have more discretionary funds – and no one is judging me on my purchases because it’s in keeping with my income threshold.

One other thing. As much as I love to judge people, ultimately, who are we to tell people how to spend their money? Whether or not people are rich or poor, the money is theirs and they can spend it however they want.