Note: We occasionally feature posts written by just one of us or by a guest. This post is by Anita.
There have two recent cases relating to educational opportunity that have deeply involved and engaged the Asian American community. First, debates about Mayor Bill De Blasio’s proposals about how to make the specialized magnet high schools of New York City more racially and ethnically diverse and the second, the current case against Harvard’s affirmative action plan. Both situations have brought to the forefront the diversity of experiences and opinions among Asian Americans about how they view educational opportunity and privilege. As an Asian American who happens to be an educational studies scholar, I’ve read a number of articles written on the topic, I’ve watched Asian American friends and relatives discuss and debate the issue on social media, and I am one of 500+ signatories on an amicus brief submitted in support of race-conscious college admissions. That brief makes two main arguments: (1) that Asian Americans, like all applicants, benefit from Harvard’s whole-person reviews of applications and (2) the lawsuit makes arguments based on racial myths and stereotypes of Asian Americans. Additionally, as many others have pointed out, we should be spending our time thinking about educational opportunity and equity for all students, including Asian Americans, beyond elite K-12 schools and colleges.
While the brief summarized my professional take on the matter, I wanted to write about these two cases–especially the New York City one–on a more personal level. I graduated from Stuyvesant High School, one of the specialized high schools in New York City. When I think back on my own K-12 educational experiences with a more sociological lens, I can clearly see how various forms of privilege played a crucial role in opening up educational opportunities for me even as I can recall how being a new immigrant student led to painful moments and experiences. I can also see vividly how interactions with peers and friends from diverse communities played an equally integral role in what I have learned over the years and who I have become.
As the child of class and caste privileged parents, and like many middle-class Indian children, I attended a private, English-medium school (English-medium is the term used to describe schools where English was the language of instruction). I had access to a rigorous curriculum, teachers with high expectations, a parent who herself was a teacher and a family who emphasized and celebrated educational achievement. By the time my family’s visa to the United States came through, my parents already had established lives. They owned a home, my dad had a well-paying, stable job and my brother and I were doing well in school. Yet, they decided to take a chance to move to the U.S. because they wanted my brother and me to have a wider range of educational opportunities than they thought was possible at that time in India. There’s a very good chance that if I had stayed in India, I might not have taken the path that I have in my career in terms of pursuing a PhD in a social science field and teaching at a liberal arts college. (In light of what’s happening these days in terms of American immigration laws and policies, I do want to stress that my family would have been fine if our visa hadn’t come through–our lives would not have been endangered if we had stayed in India.)
The fact that I had access to an education in English in India–a function, as I noted earlier, of class and caste privilege–helped ease my transition to American schools in many ways. While I might have spelled some words wrong (oh, color, not colour!), I was able to understand my textbooks, my teachers, and my peers. When my family moved to New York City a few months after we moved initially to the U.S., my parents could use their English-language knowledge and their social network of other Indian immigrants to ensure that I could go to a middle school outside of my neighborhood because they decided that my brother’s negative experiences in the neighborhood middle school meant that I should go to a different school.
Off to middle school I went, in a predominantly White neighborhood with robust curricular resources and well-prepared teachers;I was placed in the highest tracks of classes along with other Asian American students and White students, thanks to the preparation I had from my schools in India. My middle school counselor told me about and encouraged me to take the admissions test for the specialized high schools. I did and I was able to gain admission to Stuyvesant High School.
My parents’ decision to give up their comfortable lives in India and move to the U.S. opened up a new range of educational opportunities for me and my brother, but it wasn’t easy for them or for me. While my parents eventually got well-paying, middle-class jobs in New York City, they did struggle for quite a few years because their foreign degrees and accents meant that they weren’t able to find jobs commensurate with their education and experience. While I received a solid, rigorous education in my schools, I also remember the difficulties that came with being a new immigrant kid. I remember peers making fun of my Indian accent, my “weird” lunches, and my “funny-smelling” clothes. I remember arguing with my sixth grade teacher that I was right when I insisted that Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi were not related. I remember a classmate’s surprise that I had electricity and running water when I lived in India (though, of course, that access is also related to class privilege there and in the U.S).
Still, overall, the system worked for me and I’m truly grateful for my parents’ sacrifices and dedication to my education.
However, what I learned in my classes in my K-12 schools and beyond is only part of my story of education. I would not be the person I am today if I had only been educated through interactions with my mostly White peers and teachers in middle school and my mostly Asian American peers and White teachers in high school. What has made me a more thoughtful, compassionate, joyful person and what makes me so passionate about the need for diverse classrooms, K-12 schools, and colleges are the interactions I had with Black, Latinx, and Native American peers and friends in and out of school. In high school, for example, I had the privilege of writing stories for a teen-written newspaper, New Youth Connections, where I got to know teenagers from across the city who attended a variety of high schools. I learned more about myself and my world through discussions and debates with them. In college, I was lucky enough to be part of a class where 40% of students were students of color, which meant that I had the opportunity to discuss issues of race, identity, class, and privilege with peers who came from a range of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. They pushed me to think about my privileges and positionality, while supporting me and cheering me on. In graduate school, another South Asian classmate and I were welcomed into the student group for African American students. My membership in that group was crucial to my intellectual growth and social support throughout my graduate school career and beyond.
What Janelle Wong writes is definitely true for me: “I would not have succeeded as a scholar without the benefit of attending classes with students from diverse backgrounds who challenged me and made my thinking sharper.” And I would only add that my life wouldn’t be as joyful, thoughtful, or supported either.