This past February, I went to a conference for first-generation, low-income college students at Princeton University, where I attended a panel about guilt, “the hidden inhibitor of success.” Fifty years ago, the lecture hall’s amphitheater-style rows of antique wooden desks would have been mostly filled by the white sons of America’s educated elite. But this time it was packed with college students like me, the daughter of Korean immigrants, wearing a winter coat bought with funds provided by my school’s financial aid program.
If the other hundred students were like me, they came to the panel to address the deep guilt they felt for now having access to resources and privilege that their parents never had. Soon after beginning my college education at Harvard, I found myself dwelling in all kinds of guilt. Claiming my talent and hard work as the drivers of my success seemed to communicate to family and community members, “If you worked as hard as me, you could be where I am.”
When my mom’s friends would ask me for advice on how their own children might follow in my footsteps towards the immigrant promise of a better life than one’s parents or how they might achieve educational success despite limited financial, cultural, and social resources, I always assured them that I was not as brilliant or talented as they believed. With every impressed look, every, “You must have worked so hard,” my head sank deeper into the crevices of my tense shoulders. “I don’t work hard at all,” I said. “My dad has worked much harder than I ever have.” By apologizing for my success, I hoped to alleviate my worst fear—that people at home would think that I believed myself to be better, more talented, more hardworking, more deserving, and more “elite” than them.
A sociologist of higher education on the panel told us frankly that to succeed in higher education, you have to be able to sell yourself. A former first-generation, low-income college student himself, the panelist advised us that if we wanted to rise the ranks in the academy, “You have to be unapologetically elite.” Aware that first-generation college students might feel more uncomfortable talking to folks back at home about the prestigious fellowship they just received or the journal article they just published, he emphasized, “Do not diminish yourself for others.”
As an aspiring academic, I was failing to live up to his advice. Last semester, a couple students and staff nominated me for a community leadership award that celebrated my efforts to support women and students of color on campus. But when I received the nomination and instructions to proceed, I struggled to write a simple paragraph about why I deserved this recognition. I thought about plenty of other underrepresented students who did equally important, unrecognized work on campus.
How could I assert myself without talking over other women of color and marginalized students? Last winter, I relayed my concerns to the keynote speaker of Harvard’s undergraduate 2019 Women’s Leadership Conference. Like myself, she identified as a queer woman of color and was the first in her family to graduate from college. She advised, “Julie, you just need to ask yourself: what would a white man do?”
To thrive in my professional path, I am often told to channel the authority and disposition of a white man. I am supposed to take my privilege and run with it. A white man does not have to agonize over the ethical implications of every decision he makes. A white man does not have to recognize that a number of other individuals were just as qualified as him to win an award. A white man does not feel uncomfortable with the extensive space he occupies in the classroom or university; he is historically the person perceived as a student, the person whose work will eventually appear in future textbooks, the person who will one day lead the class. A white man does not feel guilty for using the school’s immense resources for his own benefit or personal interests.
I am not only told to strive to be elite, white, and male as the path to success and happiness but also to envy this as the ultimate goal. Last semester, I went with a number of Asian American students at school to watch Endlings by Korean-Canadian-American playwright Celine Song. In this play, Song interrogates whether she is “selling her own skin” by producing art under the patronage of white benefactors and displaying her culture under the gaze of white audiences. Questioning her authenticity as a diasporic Korean, Song wonders if she has any right to claim the success of her “Korean” play. Following the performance, Song and several other Asian American playwrights talked to the audience about the complex ways in which their identities intersected with their artistic work. One of the Asian American students looked over her shoulder and said to our row, “It’s so unfair. White men don’t have to think about this kind of shit.”
I often hear students of color and other underrepresented students rightfully talk about the burdens of our identities. Our labor usually goes unrecognized and uncompensated. Despite little to no administrative support, we still feel compelled to support other students of color and first-generation college students, carving out our own time and resources to fill these gaps on campus.
But in my first year at college, I also fell into the trap of yearning for a world in which I did not have to care. A world in which I didn’t feel compelled to spend my study hours making posters for a protest. A world in which I would be free to pursue my generic “personal” interests. I spoke as if the gendered, classed, and racial parts of my identity were inhibiting me from reaching my fullest potential. After watching Song’s play, my friend similarly wondered if he could ever step away from his title as the “Asian American artist.” He mused about a society in which he could produce art that was free from being marked as “political” or always scrutinized for its impact on our racial community. As I began to think about post-graduate opportunities, career advisors and peers asked me, “Just for this moment, without thinking about your family or about your community, what would you want to do?”
To be happy and successful, I was told to cut myself from the upsetting racialized, gendered, classed parts of my identity.
My senior year of high school, when a friend asked me to interview my father about his experiences with racism for her Asian American Studies course final at Williams, my usually reticent father opened up about his experiences.
My father remembers clearly the racism he’s experienced. Racism and violence. Racism and violence and fear. “It was even worse for my little brother,” he begins. “When he visited me in Koreatown around 1986, some person—some druggie—hit him. He was at a four-way stop and the guy in front of him was not moving, so he did what anyone would do. He honked. The white guy in front of him went over to his car and smashed his face with a pistol,” he says.
He recalls immediately going to the Venice police station to care for his brother. But the police officer decided not to help him, instead asking, “Why can’t you speak English? When I lived in Germany, I learned to speak German.”
Shaking his head, my father concludes, “That’s why I learned three languages: Korean, Spanish, and English.”
The stories continued to flow out, pooling together in a mixture of Korean and English sentences. He tells me about his stint in the 1980s working as a shopkeeper in South Los Angeles. One day, he found a blood bath in front of his shop door. Another day, when one man tried to rob a woman using a Bank of America ATM next to his store, she shot him, right next to his shop. He recalls hearing “Go back to where you come from” and “Gook!” shouted at him almost every day. He tells me about the time in the late 80s when my aunt was driving down the streets of a mostly white, wealthy neighborhood in Playa del Rey. She was stopped by a police officer at a roadblock although she wasn’t doing anything wrong. The officer circled his flashlight on her face, taunting, “Oriental, oriental, oriental!”
“Did that really happen to you?” I ask my aunt a few days later. I am sitting on the smooth kitchen stool in her two-story house, assembling my breakfast on her marble countertop. She lives alone, ensconced in the newly developed suburbs around the outer rings of northern Los Angeles.
“He still remembers that? Oh god, he needs to move on,” she says. “I’m sure it probably did… but that was so long ago. I don’t really think about those things anymore. What’s the point in dwelling on those things?” she laughs.
My first two years in college, I often wondered if something was wrong with the way I dwelled deeply in my history and identity. I’m sometimes told that I “think too much” about my race, my gender, my class, and my ethical relationships to others—to the point that it hinders my success. If I want to get ahead, I am told I must think and act more like a white man.
For immigrant parents who come to the United States, pain is supposed to be generational. This narration of sacrifice preaches, “My generation suffered so that my children and their children would not have to.” How do we transcend generations of trauma and let go of our burdensome past? For my own dad, who immigrated from Korea to the United States in the 1980s, the goal was the American Dream and the path was assimilation. Surviving meant tiding over the waves of injustice until reaching the shorelines of whiteness. The American Dream is a linear progression from bad to good, past to future. It forces you to only look forward, never backward, only spotting opportunities, never noticing the barriers. However bad the present circumstances may be, they were always worse before.
In this linear progression, racism is also plotted in the past, as an era of “once was” but “it’s better now.” The post-racial present for Americans means that those who still see race are now the racists. Dwelling in my racial identity means dwelling in the past. I might be post-racial, too, if I just tried a bit harder to see the sunny side in life.
Like all fantasies, keeping up this illusion takes work. As I chart my path forward, my parents urge me to erase the penciled traces of our past, to white out the stubborn marks of struggle on the page. For some immigrant parents, this erasure means shielding their children from the challenges and sorrows of their lives. When I was a child, my father would leave home in the early dawn hours for his gardening job, sometimes only returning after my sister and I had already gone to bed. While my father drove several hours to clients’ homes in his rusted white pickup truck, my mom would drop me off at my middle school bus stop in our new Toyota Camry. When faced with unbearably long commute times, my father even moved a few hours away to live in a small shed with other workers, just so I could continue to attend the same middle school in the same home. This semblance of a normal American home life required distancing myself from his life, his stories, and his history. For my father, this distance was a success. What was the point in letting his children feel or see his pain if he yearned for them to leave this pain behind?
Yet painting our pasts with whiteness cannot undo the physical groove on the page, impressed by the heavy hand of our histories.
Attending Harvard was supposed to be my ticket to whiteness. At the very least, education, the “great equalizer,” was supposed to be my path to a post-racial American society. In this progression of “bad” to “Harvard” to “good,” all injustices must stay in the past so that people no longer sympathize with my present. Any time I feel the heaviness of my history, my identity, and my family, I am told, “But you go to Harvard now.” It’s as if thee university now shields me from feeling the weight of this world and the weight of my past. Now that I go to Harvard, I have a choice: I can continue to hold on to these heavy histories or embrace the progress of my present. And why would I ever choose the former?
The events in my dad’s stories happened twenty, thirty, or forty years ago. Yet he remembers every racist remark verbatim, every moment of fear, every struggle to survive. He recalls details and stories that my aunt, his older sister, has long forgotten and believes are no longer worth remembering. He not only remembers pain but still deeply feels it, reliving his experiences to this day.
“He holds grudges,” my aunt chides. “Why is he so upset all the time? He doesn’t struggle to find food for you two anymore. Both you and your sister went to college and are doing so well. Why can’t he let go?”
Holding grudges, letting go. Remembering, moving on. One holds you back, the other propels you forward. Why hold on to painful memories when you are doing okay now? Why can’t I let go? Why can’t I move on? Why do I insist on being hurt when I do not need to be?
In Michelle Obama’s best-selling memoir, Becoming, she recalls a moment during her senior year at Whitney Young High School in Chicago when her college counselor tells her frankly that she is not “Princeton material.”
Obama describes a fleeting moment of anger, only to be replaced by personal resolve and a stronger work ethic. She writes, “That day I left the college counselor’s office at Whitney Young, I was fuming, my ego bruised more than anything. My only thought, in the moment, was I’ll show you. But then I settled down and got back to work.” After receiving her Princeton acceptance letter, she recalls moving on from the incident. She continues, “I never did stop in on the college counselor to tell her she’d been wrong—that I was Princeton material after all. It would have done nothing for either of us. And in the end, I hadn’t needed to show her anything. I was only showing myself.” Obama advocates for “letting go” rather than dwelling on such upsetting encounters. She glides over this instance of race-based discrimination, exemplifying a moment of personal grace and resolution.
Obama also discusses how she has been privileged as the former First Lady of the United States to meet a large number of “extraordinary and accomplished people” in her life, who all similarly thrive in their successful pursuits due to precisely the same ways in which they handle such ugly affairs. She writes,
Some (though not enough) of them are women. Some (though not enough) are Black or of color. Some were born poor or have lived lives that to many of us would appear to have been unfairly heaped with adversity, and yet still they seem to operate as if they’ve had every advantage in the world. What I’ve learned is this: All of them have had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium-size collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals.
Obama appears to attend to the gender, race, and socioeconomic disparities stacked against some “extraordinary and accomplished people” whom she has met in her life. However, she immediately relativizes experiences of injustice. According to Obama, these barriers to success constitute a shared or universalized “doubting” that all individuals face and that all individuals must learn to overcome. Moreover, in Obama’s narrative, doubt rather than structural racism and its material conditions, ultimately prevent individuals from achieving their fullest potential. While structural racism is harder to tackle, doubt can be overcome with the strength of mind and spirit. Obama’s advice hence pertains to the few who have overcome the material conditions of racial stratification in the United States. Obama’s advice rests upon an ultimate unmarking—a successful free spirit who has learned to ignore the racialized, gendered, and classed markers in their life. A generic subject who has transcended these marks of identity and achieves success despite these markings.
Like Michelle Obama (likely the only time I can comfortably compare myself to a previous First Lady of the United States), I faced a number of disparaging remarks from my college counselor in high school. When I was disqualified from a college scholarship for first-generation college and low-income students of color because a teacher had not submitted his letter of recommendation in time, I emailed my counselor to ask if there was anything he could do in that situation. I stressed how I had seen such mentorship programs benefit my friends from similar backgrounds in high school. These friends had been part of programs like Prep 9 in New York and the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship, which centralize educational resources for low-income high school students of color.
He replied days later explaining that he could not help me. Instead, he reminded me that I should be grateful for my circumstances. He asked me to reflect on what has been given to me in life through grace—“which is defined as receiving something without any merit of one’s own.” Moreover, in his opinion, programs like Prep 9 have inadvertently hurt students. “By making opportunities for internships and mentoring so easy, students haven’t developed the inner initiative, stamina, and flexibility that life requires,” he wrote. On the other hand, I should be proud that I gained the “inner strength” to succeed in life. At the same time, he reminded me that my struggles were normal. “Yes, it has been hard,” he continued, “but life is hard. Nothing will be handed to you in the future, as even attending university cannot present you with the perfect life on a silver platter.”
In her memoir, Obama explains that she cannot describe her college counselor anymore because she “deliberately and almost instantly blotted this experience out.” I, on the other hand, am like my father. I will remember this instance verbatim. I will remember waking up to this email the day that my high school held workshops on equity and social justice in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I will remember reading this email aloud to my best friend, who was part of the New York Prep 9 program herself. I will remember crying aloud to her because I was a deeply hurt high school student who was still trying to figure out my place in the world. I will remember wondering if I perhaps he was right—who was I to ask for more for myself?
Obama frames two options in her response to her college counselor’s remarks: She could dwell on the issue and ultimately return to her college counselor to prove her wrong. Or, she could move on and live her own life, not letting this instance affect her path to success.
I refuse to follow either path. I choose to remember and relive that moment, not because I am hung up on how my counselor’s response has affected my personal journey and success. I dwell in that moment because I think about all the first-generation, low-income college students whom my college counselor must also have advised. I wonder about all the other students who do not end up attending college because they wondered if they even had a right to ask to attend, let alone to have the resources to do so. I wonder about all of the people like my college counselor who believe that college prep programs for low-income students are useless, perhaps even advocating to reduce access to federal funding.
It is easy to dismiss my father as a bitter man, as my aunt frequently does. But he is a bitter man whose reflections on his struggle have led him to care deeply for his workers, most of whom are immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. He is a bitter man who will never make a decent amount of money in his life because he insists on paying his workers more than most other gardening businesses do. He is a bitter man who took the time out of his seventy-hour workweek to teach Spanish to one of his Guatemalan workers, who only spoke an indigenous language, to help him survive in Los Angeles. He is a bitter man who would give our old laptop and toys to his worker’s kids even when we did not have much ourselves.
The goal in asking “What would a white man do?” is an ultimate unmarking. I do not want to be a white man. I do not want an unmarked and disconnected journey towards personal happiness and success. As Sara Ahmed says, to the normative standards of (white) happiness and (white) success, to lighten up is to whiten up. A white man would not understand why I’ve spent the majority of my time in college supporting women of color, hosting events on social class, and researching environmental racism and health disparities. My internship at the Harvard College Women’s Center, where I lead the Women of Color Collective, my leadership of the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Women’s Association, my research in Asian American Pacific Islander studies, and my personal writing all stem from the ways I prefer to dwell in the “non-white-male” parts of my identity. As I learn to “advance” myself, to “get ahead,” and to “climb the ladder,” I refuse to forget about the communities I am urged to leave behind. In lieu of drifting as a carefree soul, I yearn to feel tethered to the people around me.
I sit deeply in “my” parts of “my” identity and think about the barriers in “my” life because I understand that these are not just personal barriers to my path of individual success. Rather, remembering, reliving, and retelling opens up spaces for shared solidarities and experiences. By dwelling in my identity, I find myself firmly connected to people who I do not know. This is not to say the “my” struggle and “your” struggle are equivalent narratives, especially as I confront newfound privileges in my life. Rather, it is a recognition that my struggle and my future is inextricably linked to yours in ways that I refuse to “move on” from.
Rumpus original art by Leesa Travis.