Are you sick of racist people accusing Asians of being good at math?
If so, you’ll love Niral Shah’s shootdown of such offense.
Niral’s a Washington University assistant professor of learning sciences and human development.
In an article for The Conversation, she defends Asians against the compliment of mathematical mastery.
Even young children, she writes, are aware of the allegation. And it can cause people to do poorly or well in school:
The narrative that “Asians are good at math” is pervasive in the United States. Young children are aware of it. College students’ academic performance can be affected by it.
Some people may take it as a positive thing to say, she recognizes.
However, “there are two problems.”
- The narrative is false.
- The narrative is racist.
Niral’s an “experienced teacher and researcher of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education,” and she’s learned somethin’:
If we don’t understand how racism works – even in supposedly “neutral” areas like STEM – we might unintentionally recycle racist ideas.
The professor disproves the narrative:
On international exams, it’s true that Asian countries are among the top performers in math. But it’s also true that other Asian nations rank 38th, 46th, 59th and 63rd. Interestingly, those top performers also lead in reading – but there isn’t a narrative that “Asians are good at literature.”
According to the link she provides, China ranks #1 of 78 countries in reading, mathematics, and science.
#2 and #3, in all categories: Singapore and Macao (China).
In reading and math, Hong Kong places at #4.
It’s the same, she indicates, domestically:
Research shows considerable variation in mathematical performance among different Asian ethnic groups in the U.S. If all Asian people were innately gifted in math, we shouldn’t see this kind of variation.
Niral believes the misconception comes down to education and immigration:
A better explanation has to do with education policy and federal immigration laws. Countries that invest in teacher education and high-quality curriculum do better on international tests. In the U.S., the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act gave preference to STEM professionals from Asia. That policy affected my own parents, who were able to immigrate to the U.S. under that law, not because South Asian people are naturally good doctors.
So…given that the whole idea’s a crock, why do people say it?
Niral delves deep — into white supremacy:
In the 18th century, Asian people were classified as “mongoloids,” a racist term based on the pseudoscience of craniometry. Whereas “caucasoids” (white people) were deemed full human beings with superior intellect, all people of color were considered underevolved.
From the late 19th century, a new image of Asian people was born: national threat. Chinese immigrants were seen as an economic threat to white American workers, and Japan became a military threat during World War II.
Asians, she asserts, are called a “model minority” in order to “pit” them against “non-Asians of color.”
The implication is: If Asians can do it, why can’t you?
Saying Asians are good at math, she insists, “falsely positions non-Asians of color as mathematically inferior.”
Does it position white people as the same?
Regardless, the fantasy also puts pressure on Asians.
She goes on to deride a dehumanizing deed by Family Guy:
The main character, Peter, is reminiscing about taking a math exam. As the shot pans over other students, each take out a calculator from their pocket. Peter pulls out a boy with Asian features, prods him with a pencil and says: “Do math!”
This might seem funny at first, but the underlying message is clear: Asian people aren’t seen as human beings; they are calculating machines. Asians are literally objectified, seen as capable of doing things at a speed and scale that “normal” people can’t do. In other words, they are dehumanized.
Calculators are capable of only procedural tasks, not creativity. For Asian people, this implies that while they can succeed in the technical STEM subjects, the humanities and creative arts aren’t for them.
Usually we think about dehumanization in terms of intellectual deficit. For example, Americans in the 21st century still associate African American people with apes, a racist trope. What’s happening with Asian people is different but still harmful. They become hyperintelligent robots.
So there ya go. Resist the urge, resist the racism.
Are you purged of the myth? How will you now change the world?
“Most people easily recognize overtly racist behavior and language,” Niral notes. “But I believe we also need to learn how to spot racism in its more subtle forms.”
The next time you hear someone say “Asians are good at math,” don’t hear it as a joke – hear it as racism.
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