I am a minority in academia

5 Jul

I started trying to write this post and ended up looking at SO MANY articles and thinkpieces related to academia, minorities, affirmative action, high school, independent/charter schools, microaggressions, and interventions.  This topic is way too complicated for my humble little corner of the internet to take on to any kind of depth, so I’ll just talk about my experiences instead and maybe put in a few links.

I’ve written a lot about being a woman in mathematics (see first post, second post, nth post), and a little bit about race and a bit about the intersection (but really that link is nationality and gender).  But I haven’t written too much about being a Vietnamese person in mathematics.  Part of it is that Vietnam is in Asia, so I’m Asian-American, and the stereotype is that we’re good at math and doing great in academia since you can see a bunch of Asian professors in math.  Most of those Asian professors are Asians-from-Asia which is different than Asian-Americans.  Asians-from-Asia face a whole different experience and set of difficulties than Asian-Americans.  A quote from Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, somewhat hits this:

The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.

So that’s point 1: Asians-from-Asia and Asian-Americans are different.  For instance, Asian-Americans are part of a system of structural racism, while Asians-from-Asia can encounter this system but not have the same understanding and possibilities for complicity/empowerment/action as Asian-Americans.  There’s even a term in Vietnamese for us, Viet Kieu: “Foreign but not foreign, Vietnamese but not Vietnamese.” College friend’s blog post on being Viet Kieu.

Point 2: “Asian-American” is also an unnecessarily general term and erases the difficulties that communities of people from very different nations and backgrounds have with their relationships with the US.  I saw a link recently that I can’t find saying that “Asian-American” as a term is going out with the next census and it’ll actually break us down into parts of Asia instead of, you know, people with ancestry from the world’s largest continent.  Anyway, because of a variety of historical factors (stuff like the Chinese Exclusion Act and racism and xenophobia), lots of [East and South] Asians who have immigrated to the US are highly skilled H1-B visa holders.

Heard of the “model minority” thing?  Maybe it’s because children of doctors, lawyers, and engineers are more likely to know about how to become doctors, lawyers, and engineers.  Versus, say, if you take a swath of the general population of a country and plop them in a new country, you’ll probably get the same percentage of highly skilled workers in that swath as you do in the new country.  Probably less because the certifications of the old country aren’t valid in the new country.  You guessed it, I’m talking about Vietnamese-Americans!  There are many successful Southeast Asian-Americans, but numbers wise, we’re worse off than lots of other ethnic groups.  For instance, we drop out of high school!  Even within Asian-Americans you can compare numbers: Vietnamese poverty rate around 15%, and Filipinos around 6% (national average about 14%).

Point 3: Data time!  Especially in light of the Yale thing last year and all the stuff about diversity in academia, let’s just look at some research about diversity in academia.  There’s a Consortium on Race, Gender, and Ethnicity collecting and organizing great work on how to diversify academia.  This table is from their FAQ page:

Table 1. Distribution of Full Time U.S. Faculty, by Race/Ethnicity (1988-2010)

I’m not a big data head, but we can compare the numbers above with the census numbers in 2010:  5% Asian, 13% black, 1% Native American/Alaskan Native, 16% Hispanic, 72% white.  It doesn’t add up right because the census counts Hispanic as ethnicity, not race, but the table above doesn’t or something (also I rounded).  It looks like Asians are doing okay!  And then you remember my point 1, and the data doesn’t differentiate between Asia-Asians and Asian-Americans.  So it’s unclear what’s happening, but it’s pretty clear that programs like SACNAS are necessary (and other programs that target, for instance, African Americans and not-science).  I’ll mention here that I’m a Mellon Fellow and so have benefited from a program that specifically targets these issues.  And that leads us to…

Point 4: what to do.  The American Psychological Association put together a HUGE pamphlet on “Surviving and Thriving in Academia.”  That’s great!  There was an article in Science in 2011 about a simple intervention that helped minority students succeed in college: basically it fought off stereotype threat by saying that everyone struggles with feeling like they belong in the first year of college, and then it fought off victim-ing (I don’t know the word for telling people that they are victims and need help) by having the students make videos for future students telling them that everyone struggles with feeling like they belong in the first year of college.  It’s pretty cool!  I loved this blog post about a psych Ph.D’s experiences with racism here in Austin.  Quote from it:

Being black isn’t hard; being black is awesome. It’s being the subject of discrimination that is hard, and that is a fight we can all fight together.

Okay I lied and only wrote commentary on a whole bunch of links instead of a memoir of my own experiences.  I feel much more engaged with the issue of being a woman in math than with the issue of being a racial minority in math, but I also think both of these things are very important to my identity.  So there’s that!  I’ll maybe say more about intersectionality in another blog post.

Barely related to the content of this post: here’s a video that I watched a few months ago and LOVED.  Get past the cheesy weird preview screen and production by MTV and there’s a surprising about of history, data, and analysis in this.


4 Responses to “I am a minority in academia”

  1. bf July 6, 2016 at 12:25 pm #

    First of all, thanks for the post and the links.
    I am wondering how French-Vietnamese fit into your picture – but possibly you don’t know any, all those I know work in France.

    • yenergy July 7, 2016 at 4:56 pm #

      Thanks b! I don’t actually know, though I do know that France and Vietnam have a very close relationship and Vietnam sends many people to France for graduate degrees. As far as I know, you cannot get a Ph.D. in math in Vietnam, so many go to France, Australia, and Russia (also the US).

      I do know that French culture is very different from American in how people from other nations are assimilated. For instance, when I was there people always said they were French, not hyphenated, and would say for instance that their ethnic background was Thai but not that they were Thai-French or French-Thai. A small linguistic thing, but I think it reflects a lot about assimilation (melting pot) vs. “mixed salad” approach to culture.

  2. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen July 7, 2016 at 12:23 am #

    I definitely learned and thought a lot from reading this. But I have a quibble with part of your Point 2. If we look at poverty rates for different Asian-American groups (bar chart on page 4 of the census data you linked, corresponding numbers on page 11) it’s true that Vietnamese-Americans are worse-off than the average.

    However, if the primary cause of that discrepancy were selective immigration, I would expect people of Chinese and Korean descent to have poverty rates similar to Japanese- and Indian-Americans, and Pinoys (who were largely American citizens, veterans, or war brides at the time of their immigration and thus didn’t need to meet any other requirements) to be at roughly the Vietnamese level. Instead, Korean-Americans have a poverty rate within the margin of error of Vietnamese-Americans, and Chinese-Americans aren’t doing much better; meanwhile as you yourself pointed out, Filipino-Americans are the only group with a lower poverty rate than non-Hispanic Whites.

    I don’t have an explanation here; but I think the HB2 visa factor is at best a much smaller piece of the puzzle than you give it credit for.

    • yenergy July 7, 2016 at 5:00 pm #

      Absolutely great quibble! I think my Point 2 should really be two separate points. One is to fight the “model-minority” myth by referencing HB2 visas, which is also explained in the MTV video. Basically the reason AAs are “model” minorities is that we’ve only brought over “model” citizens.

      The second point is that “Asian-American” is too monolithic a term, and the disparities in poverty level is supposed to show that. But the last few sentences of the “model minority” paragraph should be swapped with the last sentence of the Asian American paragraph because they really aren’t correlated/causated like you point out.

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