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

Generational Poison

I hate to admit it, but it is incredibly hard for me to like folks from Mainland China. This is stupid since my father’s side is from China even though he was born in Taiwan. My grandfather escaped from the Communists to Taiwan after serving in the army. My paternal grandmother is also from China. We still have cousins and grandaunts and granduncles in China. Yet for me, I now identify mostly as Taiwanese after spending most of my life spouting that Taiwanese people were obviously from China unless they were the indigenous Taiwanese people. Now, I consider myself Taiwanese (if only because my mother’s family has been there for several generations.)

Unfortunately, my father’s numerous affairs with his secretaries in China have soured my feelings towards the country. I hear so many stories of women who don’t care if men are married and have families and become home-wreckers. Anything to get money and/or leave the country. It doesn’t help that the newspapers are full of stories featuring corrupt officials, corrupt food, and status seeking real estate, car-buying hordes of people.

Obviously, an entire country cannot be painted en masse just because of a few horrible people. The people I’ve met from China have been perfectly nice and friendly, loving and wanting the best for their children just as I do. We are not so different. Yet I hold them at arm’s length, convinced that they are, deep down, an immoral, ruthless, greedy people. I find it difficult to look past my prejudice and be warm and inviting. I’m not rude, just not kind or super friendly. This makes me sad.

If I want to be intellectually honest, though, I would have to hate Taiwanese women, too. My father had affairs in Taiwan, in the US, and who knows what other countries. While I’m blaming huge swaths of people, perhaps prostitutes, strippers, and all secretaries, too!

Part of me knows it is partially classic “blame the mistress” syndrome in order to distance my father from his evil. I mean, his latest woman is particularly fucked up and conniving, but let’s be real. My father didn’t just trip and accidentally have his penis fall into her vagina and make a baby with her, buy her multiple houses in China and Texas in an effort to hide assets from my mother before the divorce, not pay alimony, and in general be a sociopathic, narcissistic, grade-A asshole. Sadly, this is just the minor tip (see what I did there?) of a fucked up iceberg that tore through my family and ripped it apart.

Not that I’m still pissed about this or anything.

But try telling that to my brain when I interact with Mainland Chinese people. I know. My Taiwanese snobbery is showing.

I bring this up because this past Monday, a woman was so desperately happy to attend our Mandarin playgroup. She had been so isolated because she didn’t speak English very well, lived in a neighborhood without many Chinese people, and couldn’t drive (at least legally in the US). She has a 14 month old son who rarely meets other children because again, this woman cannot drive. Now, when she arrived at my house, of course I was nice and polite. I’m not THAT much of a jerk. And I felt bad for this woman – I know it can be very isolating and lonely after having a child – especially if you’re basically under house arrest. Yet, as soon as I found out she was from Mainland China, part of me shrank back and did not want to be as open to her as I had been originally.

Part of it can be rationalized by saying that as an ABC (American Born Chinese), my experience is vastly different than hers as a new immigrant. Also, Taiwanese culture can be very different from Chinese culture. But ultimately, that is crap. I can lie to myself all I want, but I know, deep down, it’s because I’m a racist bastard.

Anyhow, since I often post about racial issues, I wanted to be honest. Just because I’m a minority (in THIS country, anyway) doesn’t mean I’m exempt from racist thinking and actions. I don’t have any easy answers. I am not about to go out of my way to make friends with all the Mainland Chinese people in my neighborhood. But I do think that being aware of my tendency to be aloof and to actively be more engaging with folks from the Mainland is a good beginning.

White Man’s Burden

You know what I’m sick of seeing on TV and in movies? Some white dude swooping in to protect and save either women, minorities, or people from a different culture from some thing – be it sexual slavery, rape, themselves, etc. What spurred this rant? This week’s NCIS episode.

Now normally, I love me some NCIS and Leroy Jethro Gibbs. (Mark Harmon just does it for me. I realize this makes me some kind of old, but whatever. Don’t judge me.) But this episode just pissed me off. Why? Because ostensibly, the episode was about smuggling Afghani women who were fleeing arranged marriages or abusive husbands into America. The women came to attention because some Afghani families hired a hitman to find the escaped women in America and “honor kill” them by dumping acid in their face. (Apparently too much hydroflouric acid can cause cardiac arrest. Who says TV doesn’t teach you anything?)

However, mostly the episode just highlighted Gibbs and his guilt over not helping earlier. When an Afghani women’s shelter is threatened with a bombing by the local men, Gibbs goes outside and fights off the mean Afghani men. *eyerolls* The women are just props and background. You never care about them except in a vague “feed the children” kind of way, and the emphasis is only Gibbs, his “bravery” for standing up to those “savages” and how he saves the day.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not pro bombings, abusing women, or marrying teenage girls to old men. But really? FFS, people. White dudes are not the only saviors in this world but time and time again, we get some stoic, no nonsense white guy swooping in (reluctantly, natch) to save these poor victims from whatever trite villainy of the day. It’s really just a prime time version of the After School Special and the Very Special Episode.

It’s contrived and really fucking annoying.

I’m all for shows that truly highlight issues that are ripped from the headlines, but I am NOT for using whole groups of people – especially victims – as gimmicks. They are only present to set up the hero. This objectifies and re-victimizes these people all over again.

Of course, I’m totally screwing up my explanation. I’m rarely very good at explaining issues of privilege in clear, useful language. I’m much more of a ranty “GAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!! THIS SUCKS BALLS!!” type of reactionary writer. For some coherent reasons why this situation is annoying, here are some recent articles I cribbed from Racialicious.

The Problem With Miss Saigon
Malala Yousafzai and the White Savior Complex
War Before Memory
Mighty Whitey (from TV Tropes)

So that’s what you get today for a post. Rantiness. But it can’t be just me who feels this way, right? RIGHT?

*Image courtesy of Racialicious.

Embarrassing Confession

As much as I would like to think I am a progressive person and would just naturally know injustice when I see it, I really don’t think that is so. Since Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman case have been in the news recently, I’ll use that as an example.

Here’s my horrible confession: the MAIN reason I feel so strongly about the injustice against Trayvon Martin is because I have one really, really, really good black male friend. Like so good, I consider him to be family. Of course, it’s not the ONLY reason I am angry and sad about the verdict, but when I’m honest with myself, it is the primary reason.

Why? Because all I can think about is, “What if this happened to my friend, PH? What if this happened to his future sons (who I will consider my nephews)?” I’ll tell you what. I would be devastated. Hateful. Full of Hulk Smash. Because racism would have killed someone I consider family.

That is the crux of my confession: that I am only this angry when someone connected to ME is hurt. Yes, even in all my profession of enlightenment, blah blah blah, it boils down to selfishness – YOU FUCK WITH MINE, I WILL FUCK YOU UP.

But this post isn’t about unpacking why I (and really, most humans) tend to defend and pick up causes that affect us personally. This is, strangely enough, turning into a post about why it’s important for us to have close friends who are very different from us. I don’t mean friends in the sense that you have black co-workers or know a gay person or have an atheist neighbor. I mean DEEP friendships where you know the other person almost as well as yourself. Where you consider them a part of you and if they are absent, you miss them like an arm or a leg.

And perhaps, now that I think about it,  it isn’t even necessary to have super deep friendships. It is often enough to have friendships where at the very least, you are aware of their pain and the issues that affect them and their lives. What I mean is, regardless of the depth of friendship, you have to be able to see them as a person – an individual. And when you hear of the injustices enacted against them (and everyone, regardless of race, sex, orientation, religion, etc. experiences injustice – they just may vary in severity and frequency), you feel as if it happened to you.

Ironically, it is because of Facebook that I feel as if I identify more and more with folks who are different than I am. Not because Facebook is the place where people are Real, but because a few brave friends are honest on that forum – and I admire them and respect them all the more for it. I freely confess that prior to seeing some very personal posts on Facebook, I only read about certain issues on blogs. Though the injustices bothered me, it didn’t really affect me.

But now, because I have friends on Facebook who share about the prejudices they face living in a poly family, or being LDS and deeply religious, or choosing not to have children, or being gay, I CARE. I care now, because when I see these issues at play in society at large, I no longer think of the oppressed as a mass of faceless people. I see them as my friends. By name. Who I know and care about.

That is why it is important to have REAL friends who are completely different than you. Groups become individuals. And granted, these individual friends do not owe you anything and are not by default, a spokesperson of any sort to you. But it makes it easier to identify and humanize groups who are almost alien to you and your core beliefs.

Come to think of it, until recently, I have tried to make my Facebook page as controversy free and inoffensive as possible. Mostly because I hate arguing “facts” (I am terrible at remembering facts and details that back up my arguments) and having people think negatively of me. (It may come as a shock to some of you since I seem as if I say whatever is on my mind. But that’s because most of that stuff, I don’t care about. I have relatively little shame in many areas.) I don’t think I want that anymore.

Facebook friends, you’ve been warned.

Asiana Prank

I know I’m a bit late to this, but I wanted to add my voice to the fray. To recap, KTVU, a local Bay Area news station (confirmed by the NTSB), read on-air, the supposed names of the Asiana flight crew to be the following:

Captain Sum Ting Wong
Wi Tu Lo
Ho Lee Fuk
Bang Ding Ow

Ok. I admit. I totally laughed out loud at the “Ho Lee Fuk” entry. Why? Because it’s funny. I know. It’s stupid and racist and the “foreign names are funny” trope really isn’t that funny to the millions of kids who have been teased because their names sound “funny.” I totally agree. However, a lot of things you know are wrong, but your gut reaction is still to laugh in a “so wrong it’s funny” kind of way. I don’t think that makes you a bad person. (Of course, it’s pretty handy, my self-absolution, but I digress.)

I get it. It’s a prank – and pranks and often comedy, are often very wrong.

However, what I find most racist and unacceptable isn’t the prank itself. It’s the fact that no one read these obviously fake names and thought, “Oh, that can’t be right!”

Even if the NTSB confirmed the information, the names originated from somewhere – and we fail to understand how those obviously phony names could escape detection before appearing on the broadcast.

– Asian American Journalists Association

I get that “foreign names are funny because they’re foreign” thing and that foreign names look weird in American spellings. But you have to be two kinds of stupid to think for even a second that those submitted names are real. And not just two kinds of stupid – racist. Racist for not thinking and blindly just going, “Oh, foreign Asian name.”

I am butchering the explanation. You’ll have to go to a real anti-racist site to get a good explanation of why it’s racist. I will just get on the professional news organization and NTSB’s cases for being Too Fucking Stupid To Live (TFSTL).