Diversifying Labels on identity

Art by Rebekah Chun | Eleanor Roosevelt

By Emma Vaughan | Maret '22

It didn’t matter how hard I struggled, nor how loudly I yelled. There seemed no escape from the shroud of invisibility that threatened to suffocate me or from the culture that deemed my existence irrelevant. I was trapped, caged by the opinions of people who only saw one thing. In the eyes of the world, I am nothing but Asian. I am simply someone to be forgotten.

I was in elementary school when I first became aware of this world that expected me to fade into the background. I noticed that my teachers thought I was only two things: hardworking and quiet. Again and again, across report cards, parent-teacher conferences, even in simple conversation, that phrase appeared and precedence. Hardworking and quiet. A phrase of good intentions that left me irritated and confused. While it was meant as a compliment, “hardworking and quiet” felt more like an insult. It felt empty, boring, lifeless, a “compliment” that backhanded me hard enough to leave a mark. My other classmates were showered with extraordinary words that set fire to the sky. They were creative and intelligent, charismatic and confident, leaders and artists that would do great things. Yet I was only hardworking and quiet. I was just an extra in the background, a supporting character to prop up someone else who wasn’t just “hardworking and quiet.”

Although it seemed minor, and most wouldn’t even consider that phrase to be important, that phrase, “hardworking and quiet” ingrained itself in my brain and sunk its black tendrils into my body. Even if I thought I was more, even if I knew myself to be creative and interesting, if all my teachers believed otherwise, then I must be wrong. That hurt. As such, in an attempt to rectify who I was, I threw myself into class discussions with vigor, took charge of projects, forced creativity into everything I did. Anything I could do to show that I wasn’t some boring, quiet girl that filled in the space, I did. I wanted to demonstrate that I could be special; I could be unique.

But despite all my efforts, nothing changed. I was still the “quiet and hardworking” kid, the epitome of “ordinary.” Faced with the fact that my efforts weren’t enough, I eventually accepted that maybe, I really was nothing more than “quiet and hardworking”. It wasn’t until much later that I realized it wasn’t an issue unique to me, it was an issue for all Asians. Too many of my Asian friends and classmates have also been saddled with the label “quiet and hardworking”. I have heard people describe Asians as “all the same”, or as “impossible to tell apart” far too many times. People regularly dismiss the triumphs of Asians by calling them losers, successful only because they have no life outside of studying. Everyone seems to find it too easy to just dismiss an Asian, to push them and their accomplishments to the side.

How many times have you seen an Asian in the news? How many times have you seen Asian characters in movies? How many times have you seen Asians being mentioned, being seen, even getting the slightest bit of recognition from the world? There seems to be a pervasive belief that Asians can only exist as cogs in the machine, unspectacular, and replaceable; small things burdened with making something better than themselves function. We can’t come up with the remarkable on our own, apparently, we can’t be leaders or innovators. We’re too quiet, not unique enough, not special enough to do anything other than lend support. You could make the argument that all Asians just happen to be only defined by “hardworking and quiet,” but there are billions of us out there. Chances are at least a couple of us are good enough to make the front page of the newspaper.

Everyone, not just Asians, suffers at the expense of this stereotype. Every time an Asian is overlooked for a leadership position, or an Asian kid is told they can’t do it, or a stereotype plays a role in undervaluing an Asian, the world suffers for it. We lose out on so many capable Asians and let too many hopes and dreams be sidelined.

So, is there an easy solution to this? No. Not now at least. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been progress. Each day, we step closer to solving this problem, either by casting an Asian actor in a movie, recognizing the accomplishments of an Asian, or even by describing Asian children as “bright and creative,” rather than “quiet and hardworking.” One day, these stereotypes will stop playing such a big role in society. One day, Asian children won’t be convinced over and over of their invisibility. But until then, I’ll keep fighting, even if it isn’t noticed by anyone but me. Change has to start somewhere, and even if it’s just one person fighting against all odds to break down Asian stereotypes, even if it’s just one person acknowledging that what the world thinks of her isn’t what she knows to be true about herself, it helps. The world can choose to see me as whatever Asian stereotype they want. I can’t stop them from doing that. But eventually, I’ll change their minds. Why?

Because I am someone to be remembered.