My article, “Asians: Too Smart for Their Own Good?” developed out of the first Northwestern Public Voices Fellows meeting in October. Like the diligent Asian American students that I write about in the article, I dutifully completed my “assignment” under the watchful eye of my Public Voices’ Tiger Mother, E.J. Graff. (She withheld food from me unless I finished the article!) But unlike any of my other homework assignments or scholarly publications, my thoughts on the very controversial issue of the alleged Asian American over-representation in elite universities, were widely and wildly public. When the article came out, I felt naked. For most of the day the article came out, I did not celebrate my first publication in the New York Times. Instead, I felt overcome by doubt and writer’s remorse. “What will people say?” “Who am I going to offend?” “Are they going to think that I’m that kind of Asian American?”
I have received more than one hundred emails about the piece. Most of them have been very encouraging, thanking me for the courage to speak out about a difficult and controversial topic for Asian Americans. There were a few mean-spirited emails, usually covered with exclamation marks and text in all caps. These were easy to write off. But the most difficult criticism to take has come from my allies, other politically progressive Asian Americans. E.J. warned me of this. The New York Times published a letter to the editor about my editorial written by a staff attorney from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), an organization that I have worked with in the past. For reasons too complicated to explain here, they needed to publicly distance themselves from my position and me. The letter essentially expressed that my claims of an “implied Asian quota” were baseless and detracted attention from far more pressing issues for Asian Americans. This hurt.
E.J. was wonderfully supportive through the entire process. She shared with me a piece of wisdom that has helped me tremendously and that I remind myself of all the time. Advocates like the attorney who wrote the letter to the editor cannot be nuanced, at least not publicly. My job as a writer and scholar is to bring nuance and complexity to the issue. To ask the questions that the advocates often do not dare to, and cannot, ask.
There’s a somewhat happy ending to my story. One of the attorneys at AALDEF and I are now going to collaborate on a point/counterpoint article about Asian American admissions in higher education. Stay tuned!
Dr. Chen is a sociologist of religion, race, and ethnicity, and immigration at Northwestern University. Her work examines how religion and spirituality in the United States intersect with race and ethnicity, particularly among Asian Americans. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.