On my last day of work before business school, one of my colleagues and good friends stepped into my office to say farewell. She wished me the best of luck at “that fancy school”, and then casually mentioned that while my newly hired replacement was quite capable, he “just wasn’t Asian” and so she was worried that his “technical skills” (read: Excel and PowerPoint) might not be up to par. I was torn as to how to respond—I was more than a little proud that I had earned the respect of my team, but I couldn’t help but be bothered that my heritage was associated with such an insidious stereotype: the East Asian man as a harmless worker bee who is only valued for his individual, mechanical contributions.
At my farewell happy hour later that day, an older white male colleague who attended a rival institution a generation ago graphically described his sex life during college and business school to me and specifically mentioned how he had benefited from “yellow fever” and how I would “miss out on the fun” because of my heritage. I don’t need to tell you that I felt offended: the raw ugliness of his words should be obvious.
I mention these anecdotes not because I want to complain about how my feelings were hurt, but rather to demonstrate that even highly educated and successful business professionals can easily fall victim to the stereotypical depictions of Asians in America. My first co-worker’s well-intentioned but ultimately backhanded compliment emphasized how Asian men are often seen as unthreatening “calculators.” And my second colleague’s inappropriate comments emphasized how Asian women are often considered to be hypersexualized and objectified “china dolls.”
Yet despite the offense I took that day, I have to admit that I’ve never been tremendously invested in identity politics of being an Asian-American. I don’t think this is an atypical outcome: as an educated, upwardly mobile second-generation Korean-American and self-identified “banana” who grew up in the Upper Midwest, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever be shot by the police for the crime of walking or driving while black, and I’ll likely never be told that “deliveries go downstairs” based on the color of my skin alone. My parents (and many other first-generation Asian immigrants) readily accepted the implicit assimilatory social contract of the model minority. This stereotype is limiting (most notably so because it prevents us from building true alliances with other American minority communities), but it also grants Asians the “privilege” of easier assimilation in America than that afforded to other people of color.
I have to be completely honest here: abiding by these unspoken rules, I too have played up my “conditional whiteness” as much as possible before and during my time at Wharton by emphasizing the quality of my undergraduate education (Harvard), the prestige of my profession (I spent three years at a New York-based private equity fund), and the “normalcy” of my hobbies (distance running, skiing, and fine wine) whenever necessary.
Despite these outward trappings, my Wharton experience is the first time that I have felt…well, Asian, an outsider in white America. My “conditional whiteness” was revealed as just that—conditional. At this outwardly progressive institution, I’ve been repeatedly mistaken for other male students of East Asian descent (believe it or not, we don’t all look the same), been told I “sound like I was born here” (it shouldn’t matter, but I wasn’t), been asked where I’m “really from” (Minnesota), if I “even speak English” (of course), and even been the subject of a hard stare or two by recruiters when they mention that their company does not sponsor visas for international students.
The contrast between my Wharton experience and that of a certain celebrity entrepreneur and fellow former resident of Harvard’s Kirkland House is striking. For better or for worse, the “Zuckerberg effect” is very real—when one white man learns a few words of Chinese, the world applauds, but when millions of Asian-American men like me learn to speak perfect, unaccented English, it’s hardly news. Of course, this doesn’t even take into account the fact that many of our international peers here are working incredibly hard to learn the same unaccented American English that so many of us take for granted. And don’t even get me started on the way the media portrays men who look like me—the only positive Asian male archetype I’ve encountered in the past decade of American television is Glenn Rhee from The Walking Dead, and even that character was created by a comic book artist, not a screenwriter.
I know that the challenges I’ve faced are not limited to East Asian-American men alone—listening to my female classmates’ stories of overt discrimination in the workplace puts my relatively trivial anecdotes in perspective. But I can’t help but feel as though the Asian-American community at Wharton is one where social privilege is incredibly divergent based on gender and phenotype. And this is where a particularly difficult topic of conversation raises its ugly head.
At his “town hall” discussion last fall, Dean Garrett was asked why there were so few students who identified as African-American in the Class of 2017. I want to ask the same question, but on a different topic. Isn’t it time we talked about how East Asian-American men are often invisible on this campus? An admittedly imprecise and unscientific survey of Cluster GroupMe rosters reveals that in the class of 2016, the approximate ratio of East Asian-American women to East Asian-American men is roughly 2:1. We are the only sub-demographic with such a lopsided gender disparity; the ratio of South Asian-American females to males is roughly 1:1. At times, I can’t help but feel as though Asian-American men are perhaps the most disadvantaged demographic from an admissions perspective. Despite the fact that we face very real personal and professional challenges both before and after business school, we enjoy none of the benefits of affirmative action. Perhaps there is a legitimate explanation for the administration’s continued amalgamation of East Asian and white men for admissions purposes. I have yet to hear a credible and convincing one.
The practical effects of this gender disparity in the Asian-American community are subtle but evident. Women of East Asian descent are far more likely to be featured prominently in outward-facing, “big tent” student organizations (e.g. Follies, Welcome Committee, Dance Studio, and the Wharton Graduate Association) that will frame many graduates’ lasting memories of their time here. Some of this may reflect individual student preferences. But I can’t help but wonder whether some of my classmates would be making jokes about “yellow fever” and the annual Dance Studio performance if there wasn’t such a marked gender disparity among East Asians at Wharton. The augmentation of certain less desirable cultural norms–in particular, the problematic assumption that only Asian women, not Asian men are desirable romantic partners–is likely also being exacerbated by this demographic quirk. Indeed, I would challenge my anonymous Asian-American classmate who announced that there will be “so many mixed babies” at our upcoming class reunions to consider whether this is an inevitable consequence of a school policy that manifests in a distinct lack of authentic, vocal, and strong Asian-American male leadership on campus at a time when many of us are wrestling with many difficult, life-altering decisions, including the choice of a long-term career and life partner.
Our two years at Wharton are intended to enable us to take a break from the pressures of the “real world” and provide us with the opportunity for intense personal and professional growth. For me, losing the privilege of my conditional whiteness has been one of the most painful (and valuable) parts of my graduate education. Being part of a visible minority group on campus—particularly one stereotypically associated with silent compliance and following, not leading—has been a challenging part of my business school experience. And yet, coming to terms with how I enjoy less privilege on the basis of my outward appearance has enabled me to become more empathetic, self-aware, and cognizant of how I want to shape my own career and leadership style.
I have three specific requests to make of the Wharton community. First, for my brothers in the struggle, I call upon them to fight back and lead from the front. It’s time for us to stop “opting out” of the entire Wharton experience. Our on-campus leadership in many professional and affinity clubs is already evident. Why not make a concerted effort to show how we can lead other organizations and start conversations with school administrators as well? Despite the challenges we face, Wharton remains a relatively safe space to stand up for ourselves. If we speak up and challenge authority, rather than quietly “opt out,” we can create a new norm where Asian-American men can be seen as dynamic leaders, not harmless calculators. This issue has particular implications for our post-MBA careers as well. How can we complain about the “bamboo ceiling” if we’ve never gotten comfortable with standing up for ourselves?
Second, for the Asian-American community as a whole, I have an important message: we are not, and will never be “white,” and whiteness is not and should not be the same thing as being patriotic Americans, thoughtful citizens, and empowered leaders who will someday lead some of the world’s best companies and other organizations. If we don’t build strong relationships with other people of color and instead succumb to the temptations of conditional whiteness, we lose the ability to shape our own distinctive voice and role in identity politics in America. The recent protests over Peter Liang’s manslaughter conviction have only further exposed how our political dialogue is “the stunted language of a people who do not yet know how to talk about injustice.” Why aren’t we discussing how the current system has pitted minority groups against each other, instead of blaming another disenfranchised group?
And finally, to those who would continue to perpetuate the stereotypes of calculators and china dolls: I, for one, am no longer willing to turn the other cheek. I am not limiting my response to my white classmates and peers. All pejorative depictions of Asian-Americans—including, but not limited to the recent casting of children as either accountants or Chinese factory workers (imagine that!) in this year’s Oscars ceremony—are wrong, no matter, who’s telling the joke. This episode was doubly disappointing given that Chris Rock began the evening with a plea for equality of opportunity, and (justifiably) skewering the selection of only white actors and actresses for awards. But then again, we have long occupied the fuzzy, interminable space between blackness and whiteness in America. Perhaps it is time that we found our own voice. I personally think it’s well past time.