Color in the Classroom

By Cassie Jeon

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My classmates and I were discussing how race influences writers and that eventually led to a discussion of privilege. Normally, as a person of color I enjoy talking about these issues but when I happened to be the only Asian American student in a classroom full of white students with the instructor being white as well, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable speaking up. And when one female student seemed to have trouble grasping why forcing minorities to assimilate to the dominant culture could be seen as oppressive, I chose to remain silent, unwilling to come across as the typical angry minority figure. Only after the class, when I was speaking to other students, was I relieved to know that they had shared my sentiments that the class discussion had taken an awkward and uncomfortable turn.

I attended a predominantly white high-school. While I was aware of my minority position at the time,  I never really thought about its implications in the classroom setting. There were never any black or Hispanic students in the honors or AP courses because they were all in regular classes, but during high school I never really thought about this issue. Only after I entered college and took classes in anthropology and sociology did I start to really think about my upbringing and how that affects me as a student and other students on campus.

More often than not, I am one of the few, if not only Asian American student in my classes at UMass. It’s understandable since I have decided to study sociology and purposely avoid any courses related to math and science because of my utter lack of talent in those areas. Most of my Asian American friends are majoring in math, science or business and no doubt are genuinely good at and enjoy the subjects. However, I’ve also encountered friends who major in these subjects because of their parents’ influence and sometimes even under threat of not supporting them financially if they did not major in those three specific fields.

A term that I’ve encountered in more than one of my classes is the “model minority image.” For Asian Americans this model is a self-motivated, highly successful, goal-oriented achiever. On the surface, this seems great.

After all, this doesn’t necessarily put Asian Americans in a negative light and at least the stereotypes are positive. Supposedly, Asian Americans are able to succeed because they work so hard which seems to be the key in achieving the ‘American Dream.’ However, I’ve learned how this model minority image can be harmful for not just Asian Americans but for other minorities as well. It puts pressure on young Asian Americans to excel at almost everything they do and if they don’t fulfill this ‘perfect’ image, it can cause stress and depression. This model also often pits Asian Americans against other ‘less successful’ minorities.

I’ve had my fair share of receiving stereotypical or just plain ignorant comments ranging from, “Why aren’t you good at math?” or “What’s your GPA?”  and if mine happens to be lower than theirs its somehow cause for celebration. I’ve had to deal with people commenting on how well I speak English and have been asked, “Where did you learn how to speak English so good [sic]?” I always tell people the truth that I’m from Massachusetts but for some reason that is never enough because there is always that follow up question of, “But where are you really from?” I have been questioned if I eat cats and dogs and been likened to a terrorist just because I’m Korean. This is something I’ve had to deal with since a very young age and to be honest, I can’t even remember all the ignorant and racist comments I’ve heard because there have been too many to count.

And perhaps that is why I felt less than enthusiastic to raise my hand in class and voice my opinions. I’ve had a lifetime of dealing with students who just don’t care to be aware of these issues or do not want to question their point of privilege. However, as I think back to the discussion in class I only feel regret. Part of the anger I felt was out of sheer frustration that University students could be so ignorant, but I was also mad with myself.

There is this idea that people of color should not have to inform or educate the majority. But, people of privilege rarely encounter problems like having their citizenship questioned. Asian Americans are practically invisible in mainstream media and when they do appear their characters are stereotypical model minority figures with little to no variety. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d rather talk to students and have discussions than leave them to be stuck with these ideas that will just perpetuate these misguided assumptions.

Cassie Jeon is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]