Most people focus on the privilege of being white, or male, or “abled,” or cisgendered, or wealthy or of a certain nationality. Some people talk about the intersectionality of privilege where you may not be all of these things, but how your privilege adds up as a result of being any of these things. Today I want to focus on what the “lack of privilege” intersectionality looks like. Ultimately it is a lack of confidence, a lack of faith, a lack of optimism thoroughly key to your advancement as a human being. This intersectionality equates invisibility. As a young, Asian/Latina, first generation immigrant to the states I have experienced a constant shift in my levels of self-esteem as it relates to my appearance, ability, and fate. It’s easy to see yourself on a pedestal if you see people who look like you waiting to welcome you amidst their ranks.
I just graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. “The #1 public university in the world!” Yes, I know. However, I did not major in finance, accounting, engineering, computer science or any high-ticket-degree-that-ensures-my-comfortable-livelihood-because-corporate-America-will-pay-me-a-living-wage. As my life takes many turns of uncertainty now, so did my search for meaning in college. Of my own volition, I always felt that I would become a musician, visual artist, or writer. It was encouraged and fostered through classes and extracurricular activities. My father and grandfather, however, envisioned a path in which I would become a medical doctor. I knew early on my college career that this wasn’t too feasible since my success in mathematics and hard sciences had been average thus far. So I played with the idea of majoring in Neurobiology, then Performing Arts, then English, then Business, then Entrepreneurship, then Economics and finally Political Economy. As a racially profiled individual, I couldn’t help feeling that I had failed expectations by being average in math, but as a woman I knew that a part of me was holding back, whispering, “It’s okay, they don’t really expect you to excel in those subjects.” I know I am not dumb, I know that gendered and racial stereotypes have the power that we imbue upon them but I also know that dreaming, seeing, and experiencing can cement success. I just had a lot of trouble seeing women who made me think, “Wow, I want to do that” or “I can be like her someday.”
Tropes fill up our screens. Rag dolls and puppets and husks waiting for our imagined identities to fill their roles in playing executives, lawyers, doctors, superheroes, politicians, or other desired human slots in society. We have come a long way since all movies failed the Bechdel Test. We are seeing more POC lead in our screens. And there are resources out there to fight the gender/racial gaps in society like Black Girls Code, for instance. I knew I was doing all the right things: I was going to school, working towards a degree and working at jobs that would keep me afloat. I was being a good Korean girl heading to nowhere. My parents didn’t tell me how to write my personal statements, what kinds of books I should read, how I should manage my money or whether my idealism would be my downfall. I grew up ignorant and now I know enough to face that reality. But I wish we had those conversations that say, “Hey, girls/immigrants/latinos/minorities have it tough but don’t worry because __________.” And a million things could fill that blank. Words of encouragement. Positive expectations. Invocation of leadership. You know, it’s not optimal, but you can make it better. THAT is what I needed to hear.
I hear it now, loud and clear, cutting through the cacophony of self-doubt. There aren’t enough ethnic representatives in the media. We have stereotypes instead of diversity. Young girls of color see movies, hold dolls, and watch ads thinking, “I want to be like her: White, smart, attractive and
successful in love.” Amazing women exist everywhere in politics, social sciences, nonprofits, STEM and for profit behemoths but if the news or popular culture talk about them the bulk of the commentary is on appearance, feminist aggression, personality flaws, or how they stack up to men.
The focus of my piece shifted to gender, but it also relates to ethnic identity and citizenship. I identify as Latina, not as Korean. When people talk about Latin American people struggling with their schoolwork, or taking low-paying jobs, or being treated poorly, I internalize that dialogue. It becomes a part of my ideological landscape and my identity. When I see a job, I always remember who I am first and foremost, a woman, then Latina and finally I remember that I also happen to be an immigrant (and it shows if you hear me speak). Then my brain churns and turns and rationalizes if I have what it takes to do the job and my self-doubt kicks in promptly followed by the doubt experienced by the group at large, “Are there people who look like this in that type of position? Are there people who sound like this doing that type of work? How am I going to be perceived/treated because of who I am?”
This is why we need more visible leaders of color. They exist, but I resent the jolt of surprise that accompanies seeing a high ranking, influential person of color. I don’t believe it is racist to be surprised, but it is a manifestation of their rarity in the public eye. However, obscuring or minimizing the presence of such people is reinforcing cycles of doubt and struggle for minorities everywhere.
Together we can conquer mountains. I am not at the summit waiting, but if you look to either side you will see me climbing and shouting words of encouragement.
Be the change you want to see in the world.