June 1, 2021
Not “Fresh off the Boat”: An EDI Committee Blog Post Series - Topic 4: A Perspective on Education
Acknowledgements: I would like to express my thanks to Emiko Muraki, Elaine Atay, and Haneet Kang for their reflections, responses and support. Thanks also to Dr. Exner-Cortens for reviewing this blog post and to the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) committee, for providing a platform to share these experiences.
On Racialization and Education
I was 13 years old and had just started eighth grade (the start of high school in Richmond, British Columbia,1 where I was born and grew up). The warning bell for second period had rung. I started running down the mostly empty hallway, passing by two tall older boys. I remember them as being White, but sometimes I wonder if I’ve recreated their whiteness in my memory. As I ran past, one of them yelled out to me “You’re so Asian!”
When I got to class, out of breath, I told this anecdote to my teacher, laughing. Thirteen-year-old me found it amusing, funny. In part, I took pride in my upstanding studiousness. Being so serious about my education - running like the wind to my 8th grade humanities class so as not to miss a second of novel study - was something I was proud of. And, in part, I reveled in the attention of these two older high school (white!) boys. It was a moment that countered a confusing shift I had started to feel without having the understanding to recognize: a steady erasure of various aspects of my unique identity because of my racial appearance. In other words, the bold lines of self that I saw as being uniquely ‘me’ were being socialized and smudged into obscurity and invisibility.
I think of that moment a lot, of running through my high school hallway and being called out on my “Asian-ness”. In looking back on it now, I recognize that many of my experiences of feeling racialized have been in educational settings, or related to education. Education has always partially been a redemptive and justifying endeavor.2 My success means the sacrifices my parents made were worthwhile. Sacrifices of immigrating to a new country, leaving the security and safety of a known homeland and lifelong relationships, the loss of identity that occurs with loss of citizenship (Japan, my mother’s homeland, does not allow dual citizenship), and professional credentials obtained elsewhere being rendered essentially useless in Canada, resulting in my mom accepting jobs cleaning other people’s houses, and my dad living in a different country from his kids. My identity is infused with an indebtedness to prior generations’ pain. Thus, my view of education has been shaped by my racial background (is it even mine? Can I claim ownership or am I inappropriately appropriating my parents’ experiences?).
Education also continues to reinforce my racialization. All the stereotypes of the hard working, toiling Asian student/worker are ones I’ve internalized and capitalized on throughout my educational experience. I can sit comfortably(ish) within that stereotype, knowing its alignment with the protestant work ethic3 – an ethic we value so highly in our academic systems - will reap rewards. Simultaneously, ambivalence and guilt encroach when I recognize how such “positive” stereotyping is weaponized against other racialized students, who must prove themselves worthy time and again for very different reasons.
On Work Ethic
This “protestant work ethic” is something I have only truly begun to question and resist in the last year. I have knelt at the altar of this work ethic since I stepped into the hallowed halls of a school, my zeal reinforced by my gratitude towards higher education for having accepted me. Now, I am having a crisis of faith. COVID continues to ravage, inequity flourishes, mental health suffers, and yet the gears continue to turn in the ivory tower. And even while I question this work ethic, I question my questioning, because this work ethic has been what’s made my presence here justifiable. It is the value of my productivity, not the value of my humanity, that upholds the academy. For so many, productivity is the lifeline that makes their presence in academia both justifiable and, sadly, tolerable.
The protestant work ethic has also shown up in significant ways in my interactions with students. In my role as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate class delivered in the midst of COVID, a student emailed me asking for an extension.4 They had experienced a dire family emergency and needed to assume care for younger family members. In their email to me, they made clear they had never requested an extension before, and totally understood if I did not grant them the extension. I remember reading this email and being shocked at the implications. Shocked at the normalization of inhumanity. Shocked at the deference directed towards me that was undeserved because it was based on institutional hierarchy that created illusory distance between them and myself. Shocked at the prioritization of academic deadlines above all else. Shocked at how closely that email mirrored the apologetic and deferent appeals I myself have written countless times. To be clear, none of the shock was elicited from this thoughtful student; the shock was elicited from the systemically supported 'work before all else’ ethic upon which our academic system depends. One of the many problems with this work ethic is that it serves to undermine efforts towards equity, diversity, and inclusivity. For example, in its current form, it does little to support different contextual needs and accommodations, different ways of existing and knowing, different abilities that do not adhere to such an unforgiving lifestyle, or different energetic capacities.
On Taking Up Space
A couple of years ago, I made a New Year’s resolution. The exact words I journaled were to work on being “less apologetic for taking up space.” I had assumed my space-taking deficiency was generally a me-problem steeped in gendered socialization. Looking back, I don’t think I was ready to acknowledge my Asian-ness in the equation. The realization hit hard after reading the words of Cathy Park Hong: “Asians lack presence. Asians take up apologetic space. We don’t even have enough presence to be considered real minorities.”5 I now recognize my discomfort with taking up space is also entrenched in racialization, in fulfilling stereotypes, in not wanting to rock the boat. After all, I’m indebted to the boat too, aren’t I?
The idea of taking up space becomes more pronounced as expectations of professionalism heighten. Lately, I have been seeing posts on social media on how women should stop undermining themselves in professional communications by reducing their use of qualifying language in their emails, such as “sort of” and “just”. Each of these posts feels like a personal attack calling out my own guilty communicative habits. Curse you, Instagram! Society has taught me to police myself enough, now you’ve the nerve to extend the panoptic surveillance to my mindless scrolling?! After these social media call-outs, every professional email incites an internal identity war. Do I come across as overly eager to please with this exclamation mark? By adding a “sort of”, am I not only undermining my gender but also reinforcing racial stereotypes of submission and compliance? Screw it. I’ll add a smiley face if I very well feel like it.6
If this post has read as ambivalent or equivocal, that is because my relationship to education as a racialized person has become ambivalent and equivocal. This relationship has been complicated by my identity and, yes, my “Asian-ness,” which is ambiguous, even to me. I second guess my gall at my navel gazing, at expressing experiences I perceive to be closely tied to my racialization, at exposing my blind spots and being too outspoken, or not outspoken enough, or at seeming ungrateful for all I have been given. I fall back into needing to earnestly express my gratitude for the immense privilege of being here. Perhaps it is more accurate to call this post “A reflection on the academy” rather than “a reflection on education.” Perhaps I need to parse apart my joy and gratitude for learning from my darker feelings about the structures of academia, and my hope that there is a will within the academy to change.
1 Richmond and Vancouver BC, both home to large Asian populations, are also home to longstanding anti-Asian racism which have been further incensed by the global pandemic. https://bc.ctvnews.ca/members-of-b-c-asian-community-call-for-charges-in-richmond-hate-incident-1.5440538; https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2021-vancouver-canada-asian-hate-crimes/
2 I am wary of reducing my relationship with education to purely one of “redemption” or “justification” because this perpetuates yet another monolithic stereotype that plagues children of immigrants and prevents us from seeing diversity in terms of individual people. It lets us fall too easily into categorizations of racial experiences. What’s written here is what has been true for me.
3The Protestant Work Ethic (PWE) refers to the idea that hard work and efficiency will lead to success. The ideals of the PWE are closely tied to concepts of morality and good character. Particularly in Western countries, the PWE has been found to promote negative attitudes towards disadvantaged groups, as failures are attributed to laziness or lack of work ethic as opposed to situational, economic, or political factors.
Rosenthal, L., Levy, S. R., & Moyer, A. (2011). Protestant Worth Ethic’s relation to intergroup and policy attitudes: A meta-analytic review. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41, 874-885. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.832
4This communication has been retold with permission.
5Hong, C. P. Minor Feelings. 2020. One World.
6 Response from Emiko Muraki (PhD student, Psychology) to this point of professional communication: “I really relate to this point and often feel really conflicted by it. Yes, using certain language or punctuation may communicate about my own perception of my worth, but on the other hand, I often feel like shifting the way I present myself to remove qualifiers or positive and friendly emotions is also me bending to a different expectation of what is ‘professional’ that is largely based on paternalistic and colonizing views of what is appropriate in a professional setting.”