I have been teaching myself higher maths lately. Partially because I’m interested in machine learning, so things like multivariate calculus and linear algebra are essential. Partially because numbers are a happy place for me – and partially because I haven’t stepped out of the house in nearly a year and am slowly spiralling into Byronic madness, which is apparently preventable by studying maths.
When I took a quick break from my linear algebra practice book to order a couple more practice texts, I started to think about something which I have very strong feelings on, but haven’t written much about: the pervasive, persistent myth that Asians, as a whole, are academically and financially successful solely because of hard work.
True, hard work is immensely valued in my Indian household. My parents lectured me on my study habits all through high school, and I spent most of my weeknights holed up in a tutoring centre cramming Chemistry and Precalculus. In college, during the weeks preceding my calculus exams, I would lock myself into a study room, switch on my headphones, and slog at word problems for five or six hours until I was certain I’d mastered every concept being tested. When job interviews rolled around in senior year, I practiced obsessively until I was sure I could ace most technical questions thrown at me.
I had a pretty decent GPA, got honours and passed my calculus classes with solid A’s. At the age of 24, I have a job I love, can afford to live in a nice apartment, and am able to afford all the books I want. Superficially, I embody the idea of the studious white-collar model minority, and it’s all thanks to my hard work.
Except it isn’t. It really, really isn’t. There is no simple dichotomy between “hard work” and “slacking off” which will magically guarantee financial security and academic accolades 100% of the time. Privilege is a huge factor in both forms of success. My parents weren’t fabulously wealthy, but my dad could afford to buy me SAT practice books and pay for chemistry tutoring when I needed it. I didn’t have to split my time between a job and my studies during most of my time in undergrad (while I did work during my junior and senior years, I did not rely on that income to pay my tuition). My teachers, for the most part, never assumed I couldn’t do classwork because of my race.
It’s the same situation for quite a large proportion of certain Asian-American groups, including Indian-Americans. Hard work is drilled into our heads – but the kind of heads-down, worry-free concentration I was able to enjoy in high school and college is a privilege. It is nearly inaccessible to many people who have to support their families by taking on jobs in addition to schoolwork, or who can’t afford textbooks, or whose teachers discriminate against them based on racial stereotypes. Those families, by the way, include a large number of Asians – income disparity is massive between different Asian-American ethnic groups.
Image Description: A chart showing income disparities between various Asian ethnic groups in the US. Link to source here.
Ignoring the way income and social standing act as boosters for some groups of Asian-Americans, and concentrating only on a perceived work ethic as the one reason all Asian-Americans supposedly “do well”, is detrimental. There is a vast gap between the average income of Indian-Americans and those of Malaysian-, Hmong-, and Bangladeshi-Americans. To plaster all Asians with the label of “hard workers”, to expect financial and academic ‘success’ based on that single metric, without acknowledging that there are many who enjoy privileges which act as catalysts to success, is a deep disservice – to both non-Asian people of colour as well as Asian-Americans who don’t have those same privileges.
Yes, I am industrious. But I am also privileged – and a failure to outright acknowledge my systematic advantages is a direct play into the hands of the notorious, white-supremacist Model Minority Myth.