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

Acting on Faith

The other day, I briefly mentioned in my post about how I used to fake believing I was loved and lovable until I actually believed it. It occurs to me that perhaps I made it sound so much easier than it actually was. So, here is my advice to you if you find yourself in a similar situation (either in not believing you are loved or any type of belief you want to change). Really, it is just cognitive behavioral therapy, but hey, it works.

Stop. (I know. This is exactly what you’ve been trying to do.) But just stop. Stop figuring out why you’re a certain way. Why you’re doing the things you’re doing. Why you feel a certain way. If it’s wrong, the way you’re feeling and reacting. Just stop.

Do something else. Fill your time with something else. Even if it seems like a cop out or running away from who you really are.

Stop.

I found that when I was in the midst of a downward spiral and over-analyzing my actions and motivations that I just kept getting sucked back into a negative feedback loop of just how awful I was, how I was horrible and would never find love and be loved.

Then, I just stopped thinking about it. It was super hard, of course. But I stopped. I stopped journalling because all I did when I journalled was talk about it. I tried to stop talking about it with my friends. I read books that did not trigger these emotions. I watched shows and movies that didn’t trigger these feelings. I actively went out of my way to deny myself these triggers and feelings. I filled my mind and time with busy-ness and activity.

I stopped praying. (It was too much like journalling and wasn’t helpful.) If I DID pray, I would pray something like, “God, help me choose the things that I would choose if I believed I was loved and lovable.” Other times, the only prayer I could pray authentically was, “I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Then, I lied to myself. I faked it. I pretended to act as if I believed I was lovable and loved. I forced myself to act as if I were a whole and complete person who made good decisions.

Every time I was confronted with my old habits, I would actively choose to do what I thought a normal/healed person would do. I would ask myself, “What would a person who believed she was lovable and valuable do in this situation?” Then I would do it.

I would rigorously police my emotions and thoughts. Sometimes, it was all I could do not to go insane and say, “Fuck it. This is crazy. Who lies to themselves like this all the time and pretends they are ok?” I would despair that in one hour, I would be confronted at least five or six times with my old habits and have to “lie” to myself and talk myself out of it.

But you know, a lifetime of habit and thinking cannot be re-written immediately. It takes time. And eventually, what I was faking became second nature and real. Eventually (and it was a long time – at least several months before I stopped being depressed and sad ALL THE TIME) I was in an OK enough place to go back and examine what happened, why I did the things I did, and doing so no longer made me feel as if I was the worst person in the entire universe.

Eventually, I made it. I believed and actively lived as if I were loved and lovable. (Keep in mind, this took at least a year or more – and I still struggle with this every now and then, but the more I have ingrained in myself the new habit of acting healthily, the healthier I became.)

And you know what? That is what faith is. Choosing to act as if what you believe and hope to be true IS true. Acting before seeing. Shit, it’s even Biblical. “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1 NIV)

Of course, this isn’t the ONLY way to go about it. This is how I got through it. And it occurs to me as I write this, that on a much smaller scale, I’ll get through this time of stress with the kids and that my problem with yelling and screaming has to be done the same way I changed my habits of thought. I have to catch myself in the act of yelling and stop. I have to pretend and lie to myself that I am a person who CALMLY deals with (or ignores) my children when I’m angry. And then I have to do it.

It will be hard at first. I will fail and blow it repeatedly – sometimes in quick succession. But then, gradually, I will have brainwashed myself into being a kinder, more reasonable mommy.

Of course, prayer and hope as well. But as my old boss used to say, “Hope is not a course of action.” Hope is fine and good, but it is through the act of doing, of slogging through my crappy temper and purposeful action that is the real work of faith.

I believe. Help my unbelief.

Revisiting Past Creations

I haven’t written poetry in at least eight or nine years. Sometimes, I look back and think, “Gosh, what utter self-absorption. What sentimental dreck.” But then, I go back and read them and some aren’t half bad. (At least, in my personal, unbiased opinion.)

Anyhow, I miss that part of me, but unfortunately, most of my poems sprang from a deep sadness and were a way to cope with depression and typical drama. (Years of therapy have definitely helped!) I am not sure I can even write a poem if I wanted to now. Not because I am in a good place – I find the idea that art must only come from depression to be sad and trite. Mostly, it may just be because I am out of practice and haven’t gotten into that type of mindset anymore. It is a muscle that I’ve let atrophy.

At any rate, this is just a long preamble for me to say that I will likely start sharing some of my poems on this blog. Just because I am a glutton for punishment (and praise!).

This is the last poem I wrote.

In All Seasons

I say
Today
I will blast through the dam of my soul
and tears will spring forth from a well
of thirst
salt water carving its course down
my radiant cheeks
full and round
bursting with joy
as I say,
“Glory Be! Praise the Lord, O My Soul!”
Even if it be through gritted teeth
It is still so.

– 10/13/05

I am surprised by how difficult this entry is for me to post. In fact, this post is harder for me than some of my more obviously “vulnerable” ones on my father. I suppose it is because while my posts about my father are vulnerable, they are my experiences and feelings. Who can dispute that those are indeed my feelings and experiences? Even if a person disagrees with me, my thoughts are still my own and perfectly valid.

However, if I create “art” (see, I can’t even bring myself to write “art” without quotes. As if what I created is insufficient to be called Art. Well, perhaps just art with no Capital A.), that can be judged as good or bad. may think myself quite the poet or wordsmith, but now, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak.

It’s like the deluded people who audition for American Idol. They think they are the next pop star but in reality cannot carry a tune if their life depended on it and are astonished when the judges boo them. (What they really should be astonished about is that no one in their life loved them enough to say before they humiliated themselves on national TV, “Sweetheart, you are good at many things. Singing is not one of those things.”)

Hmmm. I suppose that is an inaccurate comparison. Mostly because you are either on tune or not. That is not a subjective situation. That is an indisputable fact.

Anyway, you get my drift.

Well, good poetry or bad, it is not the SOLE reason to write and share. In fact, that applies to all art and creation. Yes, we would all ideally create only beautiful, wonderful things. But if that were the limitation we put upon ourselves, likely, there would not be any good (dare I say, transformative) art all. If the main driving factor behind our creations is whether or not something will be “good,” we have already hobbled ourselves, tamping down our free expression. But, if we are free to create utter crap, then we open ourselves up to making something that could possibly be True and Good.

Keep in mind, we likely have to throw away a lot of crap on our way to making something good. For some of us, we may have to throw away a lot MORE crap before we get to make anything mediocre.

That’s ok.

For so much of my life, because I picked up certain things really quickly (such as sight-reading music for singing or playing piano), I found it very difficult to try activities in which I did not immediately excel. Obviously, innate talent is a consideration, but ultimately, most activities worth doing well are only done so after much failure and practice. I wish I had been more willing to accept “failure” along the way to becoming proficient at dancing, drawing, and perhaps basketball.

Well, it’s not too late for me yet! I have enjoyed taking dance classes in my adulthood, and one day, when I am willing to make the time sacrifice, I will take drawing lessons, too. That’s one of my favorite things about becoming older and more comfortable with myself – I have mostly stopped caring about failure. I am more interested in getting what I want and sometimes, the only way to succeed is to fail along the way.

Nagging an Inattentive God

According to this Huffington Post article, nagging is one of the top reasons people divorce. (Incidentally, I’m obsessed with the HuffPo Divorce section. I find that sometimes, you don’t know what works until you see what’s broken.) I can tell you absolutely that if nagging is the main reason, I’m screwed because goodness knows I would never try to change my behavior. Everyone knows that Hapa Papa is the reasonable one in the relationship.

The main reason I nag Hapa Papa (other than, apparently, my being female – sexism alert!) is because I don’t feel heard. Hapa Papa has a bad habit of rarely acknowledging things I say to him. Of course, he claims that my heavy onslaught of orders/mandates/”conversation” makes it near impossible to acknowledge them all. I just say he’s a quitter.

So, I keep nagging Hapa Papa until he acknowledges me in some way (usually with annoyance). And then I nag him until he actually does what I want. (Two separate actions.)

Hapa Papa is not the only one in the family to bear the brunt of my constant nagging. So are my children. I constantly harp on Cookie Monster and Gamera to sit down properly in their chairs, (Cookie Monster falls out of his chair AT LEAST once a day. Like, seriously? No learning from experience, that child.) eat their food, pick up after themselves, put away their toys, hurry up, etc. The other day, Cookie Monster told me to stop talking and go away because he couldn’t stand hearing me tell him to sit down in his chair anymore. Then, he promptly fell out of his chair. Again. (I felt smug and vindicated; I am a small and petty person.)

Lately, I made the connection that my kids whine in due part because I nag. (Ok, I didn’t make the connection on my own. It was spelled out in this Parents article. More on this article in a future post.) My kids whine because they are afraid that they aren’t heard or acknowledged. So, they keep asking for the same thing over and over again, with greater and greater urgency. I really hate that they are learning my bad habits. I am hoping that if I stop nagging, they will stop whining. I think I made it fifteen minutes.

Anyhow, the other night, I was praying for my kids and I found myself repeating the same plea to God over and over again. “Please keep my children safe. Keep my children safe. Keep my kids safe. Watch over them and keep them safe from harm.” Sometimes, I varied it up and said the same thing but in different words. Or in a different order. And then I stopped.

Did I think that God didn’t hear me the first time? Or that God might have missed part of what I was saying? Or that God was stupid and required me to explain things repeatedly and slowly, as if God were a foreigner who couldn’t understand English?

When I thought about it, God doesn’t really need me to pray for Him to know what I want or need. And certainly not on repeat. Presumably, being omniscient and all, that’s stuff God would already know. After all, prayer is for the supplicant, to get to the root of their heart’s desire. So what did that mean when I kept praying the same thing over and over again, as if I were stuck in a loop?

And then it hit me. Some part of me thinks God isn’t listening. Or that if God is listening, that He doesn’t care. Therefore, the only way to get and maintain God’s attention is to whine and plead and cajole and just wear Him down until He’s like, “STFU! Here’s the stupid thing you wanted. Now, please STOP with the praying!”

If I were God, I’d have punched me in the throat. I’d be totally offended. And super annoyed. (I suppose who’s to say that God is not offended or annoyed? *slowly looks up and backs away*)

So I decided I’m going to try a new thing. I am only going to pray ONCE for something per prayer time. It’s really hard. It’s as if I am trying to fill up the airtime with God so that I don’t have to hear anything He has to say to me about my life or my desires.

It is hard to trust that God takes me seriously and wants me to have good things. It is hard to remember that God is the original Prodigal Father. That my love and desires for my children pale in comparison to how God feels about me. I find it incredulous.

Then, I find that the only prayer available to me is a short but apt one: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24 ESV)