Majoring in supply chain management and business analytics, sophomore Simone Siew says it sometimes feels like she never leaves the Kelley School of Business. Despite this, she is also pursuing minors in English and the history of the arts, which combines art and music history, and is very passionate about her humanities background.
Siew feels pressured to prove her individuality when people try to define her as merely a business student. As a Chinese-American woman whose parents immigrated to the United States from Malaysia, she is familiar with the sting of carelessly reductive stereotypes.
In what “Bad Feminist” author Roxane Gay refers to as the “oppression Olympics,” there is the notion that disenfranchised groups compete with one another to compare the magnitude of their negative social experiences, and Siew says she feels Asian-Americans are often pushed to the bottom of the ridiculous hierarchy such misguided comparisons create.
These oppression Olympics make it hard for people to remember that we can just treat everyone well to begin with.
“It’s a really weird perspective to have as a person of color, but since Asian people are considered a model minority, people don’t see the implications and problematic path their stereotypes could take us down,” Siew said. “People will say ‘you guys aren’t really oppressed because you’re all doctors and you make a lot of money,’ but they’re still automatically assuming something based on my race.”
Life as a model minority, a group of people perceived to achieve more than the average population, means having your achievements turned into reasons to mock you and receiving praise for blending in and distancing yourself from your heritage, all while being told that your experiences are insignificant or even that you should be grateful to be treated this way.
“I never really wanted to learn about my culture when I was younger because I wanted to feel normal and I didn’t want to be connected to all the stereotypes,” Siew said. “So many times in high school, even my closest friends would ask me if I could see out of my eyes or say that I was good at math, so those stereotypes had to be true.”
It’s hard to feel like you belong when others are constantly emphasizing your differences in a negative light, and the representation of those differences in the media only creates offensive caricatures that reinforce discriminatory societal expectations.
“One thing I always notice especially when I’m hanging out with friends is that they don’t notice the lack of representation in pop culture, or when they do see representation they don’t notice how racist it usually is,” Siew said.
Because minimal or unfair representation does stand out to her, she doesn’t get to experience the feeling of compelling connection to television, film and literature that makes such art forms so valuable. Because she’s a model minority, she’s told she doesn’t have the right to be upset about this issue.
Comparison of discriminatory experiences implies that human beings have a finite supply of empathy and must therefore ration it according to whom we feel has suffered the most, which could not be more counterproductive to progress toward acceptance of diversity and racial equality. We say that these goals are impossible ideals, but we limit ourselves when we focus on the oppression Olympics and forget it is possible to treat everyone well regardless of which groups we feel deserve the most attention.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Reflecting on methods for improvement, Siew emphasized commitment to awareness and active efforts.
“You have to pay attention to race and how people portray each other,” Siew said. “I’ve had to make adjustments myself, but the most important thing is to just try.”