At a young age, I realized I wasn’t very good at math. It took me weeks to understand and be able to do long division in the fourth grade. I struggled with geometry and trigonometry in high school, and everything went downhill when I failed almost every single quiz and test in precalculus and calculus. I scrambled to do every extra-credit assignment possible and was eternally grateful for the grading curve in my AP calculus class that allowed me to pass with a C-plus.
Year after year of math classes, many of my Asian-American classmates would ace their math tests while I hoped for a B-minus or better. As someone who already felt alienated from my Asian-American peers and “not Asian enough” because I had a white parent, you can only imagine how it felt to be that one Asian kid who wasn’t good at math. I already wasn’t a stellar student and didn’t feel smart enough to hang out with my Asian-American peers.
What made me feel even worse was when my non-Asian classmates would exclaim “You’re Asian, you should be good at math!” That statement always upset me because it’s supposed to be a compliment. It’s not. Like Nuria Hunter mentioned in her column from the previous week, microaggressions have been so ingrained in our minds that we don’t realize why some statements may be offensive. In turn, we never know who we’re going to offend, even with a harmless joke or comment.
These incidents and statements aren’t just restricted to the academic world. Non-Asian comedians have used the “all Asians are good at math” stereotype in their stand-up acts before. Earlier this year, Oscars host Chris Rock came under fire for a joke he made during the awards show. Rock brought three young children of East Asian descent out on stage and introduced them as PriceWaterhouseCoopers accountants. Immediately following that introduction, he told the audience and viewers, “If anyone’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone, which was also made by these kids.”
This “joke” is problematic in so many ways. Branding Asians and Asian-Americans as big-shot accountants and technology manufacturers is bad enough, but exploiting young children for the sake of this joke is even worse. These kids are going to get a lifetime’s worth of “flattering” stereotypical compliments, I can guarantee it. Not to mention, Rock is a man of color who probably should know better than to make racially charged comments.
There is no set law or rule that all Asians are good at math. There are plenty of people who aren’t Asian who are good at math. And, surprise, there are other things Asians and Asian-Americans are good at, too.