I recently spoke on a panel of seniors to potential Mathematics and Computer Science majors to give advice on how we knew Math was the right major and how to distribute classes once you’ve decided. We began by describing our experience declaring the major. To preface, I was the only Asian American on this panel, but I was not the only woman nor was I the only person of color in the room. I happened to be the last to speak so I said, “I had a very different experience becoming a math major from everyone else here. I came into college knowing I would do art, chemistry or math, but I really wanted to avoid the math major.” The faces around the room were great; a mixture of understanding, awkward smiles and oh no, where is she going with this. “As you can see, I am Asian. I had to really think about what it would mean for me, as Asian American, to be a math major.” Now I heard some quiet ooohhhh’s and saw that ‘oh right, I didn’t think about that’ nod. “I didn’t want to fall into the stereotype of Asians in math, but anyhow long story short, I went a semester without math and I went crazy, so now here I am.” The people of color were nodding, quietly saying, “mmm,” relating to my struggle with stereotypes. Everyone else had a quiet “huh” moment.
Long story, a tiny bit longer but still short: the process of declaring a math major was….difficult. I’ll say this, I didn’t declare until the absolute end of 2nd year which is precisely the school’s deadline. I had to look very critically about how being a math major would affect my image, about how I will endure the look people give me when I say I am a math major. I can see it flash in their minds: hmm, I guess she’s a stereotypical Asian. I thought about the potential for people to then wonder: she already has two boxes checked off, Asian and math, what other stereotypes fit? Then I potentially would have to deal with people thinking they know my whole life story based on two facts. More importantly, I was perpetuating the stereotype that Asians are good at math, simply because I am Asian and because my major is math. Remember folks, correlation does not imply causation and being a math major does not mean I’m a good math major. I was actively choosing to fit myself inside that box, something I try adamantly never to do.
But at the end of the day, I like math and I am good at it. I could not let my race hold me back from succeeding. In a way, not trying due to the fear of what people may assume is admitting defeat to stereotyping. Sometimes fighting a system has to be done inside out, as well as outside in. But still, two years later and almost graduating when I enjoy my math classes, I feel a pang of guilt for perpetuating the stereotype and giving fodder to a false notion. It is a complicated feeling; something similar to getting pulled 3 different directions but add in the frustration of being trapped in a small room. So, I try to do more than math. I’ll geek out about my proofs and my code but also showcase my love of art, dance, cooking and sports (that people forget I like to do). I like to say, I decided to put myself in the box so I could drag along all the rest of my hobbies and talents into the box until it gives way to the idea that maybe it can’t fit my Asian heritage and my proclivities. I say things like I struggled with my identity and with society’s stereotypes, to get people to take a step back, like at the panel. I could have skipped over the Asian American tidbit and gone straight to Chemistry didn’t challenge me enough so I went with math. I might have glossed over the details of the headaches the thought process caused but I didn’t exclude that inner turmoil. Those things don’t go unnoticed and are not random slips of the tongue.