The Yellow (Wo)Man’s Burden



Going around in circles.


In light of the Miss America “controversy,” I’ve decided to speak on my experience as an Asian-American female who attends Harvard.

First, I’ll provide a little background for those living under the proverbial rock. Miss New York Nina Davuluri, 24, was crowned Miss America last Wednesday, and the Twitter-sphere blew up accordingly, as it is apt to do. Comments about Davuluri being a “terrorist” and linking her to Al-Qaeda littered the online network following her win. It is important to note that these quips were made by an obviously ignorant small minority probably hoping for a laugh or two, but they represent the larger issue of Asian-Americans struggling to assimilate fully into American culture. Instead, the fan favorite — Miss Kansas Theresa Vail — was dubbed a “true American,” the requisites including loving tattoos, loving hunting, and loving her country (Vail served in the army for a period of time, continuing a family tradition of providing medical services for the armed forces).

I originally thought to write on this specific issue, but I realized that I had no further insightful input on the subject. I refuse to call it an actual controversy because the majority of U.S. citizens will whole-heartedly agree with me when I call this absolutely unacceptable. Calling Davuluri a terrorist is just so blatantly wrong and ignorant that I don’t even think it’s worth the effort to argue why.

But it did awaken in me a latent anger at the racism that is still evident and rampant in our country today — particularly towards Asian-Americans. I have no doubt that racism concerning other races is also alive and well, but I am personally a victim of racial prejudices against Asians. And since this is an article about my experiences, it is what I’ll be speaking on.

Growing up in Arkansas, where there were few Asians during my formative years, I was exposed to some negative remarks — mostly involving small eyes and aromatic food — but, surprisingly, most of my experience was “positive.” You never really recognize that there is a problem until the problem becomes an obstacle to your happiness. Asians have always struggled with the Model Minority problem, presented constantly with what everyone tells us is a “good stereotype” — something we should apparently be pleased with and view as a gift rather than a troubling issue. However, I think it’s been reasonably covered that this “good stereotype” is not always a constructive force and can be a very valid problem, so I won’t be harping on that either.

What I do hope to bring to focus is the ubiquity of racial prejudices. Many times I have found myself thinking that all is good and well. Many times I forget and fail to recognize that this is still a problem. Whether this is pure delusion and wishful thinking or merely a submissive acceptance of the world’s workings is unclear to me, but I would like to preclude all discussion with the acknowledgement of my good fortune. I have been fortunate to grow up in a community where I was not often attacked for my race, and if I was, it was usually all just words. I never truly felt like I was denied an opportunity or refused a friendship because of my physical appearance. There was lots of teasing and lots of jokes that bounced off my thick skin — something you develop pretty quickly as the token “insert-race-here.”

It was not until I came to Harvard, where “uncommon” or “rare” are not words used to describe Asians (20% of the class of 2017 is Asian-American, according to the admission statistics listed on the Harvard College Office of Admission website), that I came to realize that I did belong to a group. I had not ever existed as anything other than an “individual” in its purest form — I was unique, I was Whitney. That sounds awfully personally elitist, but it’s the truth. I had never really had to live with a stereotype because there wasn’t a large enough sample size — there was just me. I never really lived with a force of comparison.

Imagine if you had a tank with blue fish. And one day, a friend gives you a red fish. You’ve heard lots of things, and consequently, have lots of expectations for that little red fish. But it doesn’t matter. You only have one red fish. Whatever it does is what you think red fish must do. I was a red fish. But when I came to Harvard, I automatically became a blue fish for the first time. And the blue-fish-life really shocked me.

In my experience, Asian women are generally given two stereotypes (consciously or not) upon first impression. Either they are assumed to be ambitious, type-A, finance/business/pre-med prodigies who only are interested in like-minded male counterparts or they’re the slutty, undignified groupies who only go after white athletes. Or, honestly, a mix of both. You get a “positive” model minority stereotype on one hand and a more degrading stereotype on the other hand, as if to counterbalance each other and cover both ends of the extreme.

Alternatively, I feel like I get discounted and passed over in the crowd every day. So as opposed to getting slammed with a vicious stamp of expectation, I get swept away as part of a rejected collective.

Once, my best friend from high school and I were Skyping. She was sitting in one of her male friend’s rooms, and the room was taunting her in the back, asking who she was talking to. She starts telling them about me, and, of course, being the hormonal teenage boys that they are, they really only cared about asking, “is she hot?” She tells them more about me, and they then realize, “Oh, she’s Asian. Nevermind.” While this example is incredibly superficial and mostly trivial, it was one of the clearest moments for me regarding who I am. I had never been so awkwardly self-aware of my race. But it was also in that moment that I realized that I needed to love myself for that exact reason — it was a part of me that inescapably defines who I am.

I have also experienced, or had friends who have experienced, discrimination when it comes to board positions or membership in social clubs. The Asian population is glaringly underrepresented when it comes to social organizations, and I’ve been in board meetings where a conscious, specific goal is to select fewer members, board members, participants, etc., that are Asian. Why is that even a thing? It saddens me to know that we are not being judged by the quality of our application and our character, but also by the color of our skin. Sorry to pull an MLK Jr. moment, but the truth is that even after fifty years, issues regarding race have not come as far as we would like.
And being at Harvard, in some respects, makes it all worse. There is so much more pressure to go against the gilded grain, so to speak. The struggle to individualize ourselves is so much greater here. In a world where everyone is unique and everyone is stellar, how do you maintain your identity?

In this case, I might ask myself, “How do I become something other than just another Asian?” But in order to answer that question, I have to acknowledge and consciously defy or manipulate the stereotypes that I conjure, which just amplifies the problem in general. One of the biggest questions I’ve struggled with, and the world struggles along with me, is the question of how to truly avoid and end racism. We know that reverse racism doesn’t work as intended, and merely recognizing the problem stagnates the progress that we hope to achieve. But how do we achieve that happy middle in order to actually solve the issue? Will we ever?

Probably not. At least not in our lifetimes. I expect that I will always be judged by my race, no matter my life decisions. Whether I marry a white man, a black man, or an Asian man, people will have something to say. Whether I become a physician, a non-profit founder, or a homeless bum, people will have something to say. And whether I speak out now or remain quiet forever, most of the world will never realize that I, Whitney Gao, struggle with the emotional burden of being me. I’ll always be just one of them.

Whitney Gao ’16 ([email protected]) has a dream.