When I was 10, my friend’s mother, who was a script supervisor for the sitcom Designing Women, asked me to audition for a part on the show. The role was that of a Vietnamese boat child named Li Sing, who Suzanne Sugarbaker (Delta Burke) agrees to foster for a few weeks. The casting director was having trouble finding enough Asian child actors to audition for the role.
I’d never acted before, and I remember rehearsing the script in the car on the way to the studio. I was supposed to be in Suzanne’s “powder room,” playing with all of her fancy bath products, bantering with her in broken English. Never mind that I was actually Korean American, born in Los Angeles, and spoke like a valley girl—this was the role that was available to me as an Asian.
I didn’t get the part, and that was the beginning and the end of my career in Hollywood. But I often think of it now, especially as the #OscarsSoWhite controversy has revealed the industry’s continued failure to reflect the diversity of the country. Like many people, I agree the Oscars are the symptom, not the cause, of the problem—that there’s a need to create more diverse content by opening up the ranks of writers, producers, casting directors, and other power players to women and people of color. Asian people shouldn’t always be depicted as foreigners and nerds, just as black people shouldn’t always be typecast as thugs or comic sidekicks, or Latino people as maids and gangbangers.
Yet what happens when people of color are discouraged—both implicitly as well as explicitly—from going into the arts and humanities? Here, I’m not just talking about the lack of mentors or opportunities in these fields. I’m also talking about pressures from politicians, from college administrators, even from one’s own family.
At a public institution like my own, the pressure to go into STEM fields is unrelenting. As The New York Times recently reported, “Frustrated by tuition costs, crushing student loan debt and a lack of skilled workers, particularly in science and technology, more and more states have adopted the idea of rewarding public colleges and university for churning out students educated in fields seen as important to the economy.” For students like my own, many of whom are first-generation college students with families to support, this makes compelling sense.
My own parents, Korean immigrants who moved to this country in the 1970s, believed that education was a path towards job security and financial stability. Facing barriers of language and opportunity, they ended up owning a liquor store and then a fast-food restaurant. Before STEM was STEM, they wanted me to go into engineering or medicine or accounting because they didn’t want me to face the same precarious financial existence they faced. They also believed that fields like math and science, with their purported “objectivity,” might prove more meritocratic or hospitable for someone like me, someone who would always be perceived as a racial other.
They were well-intentioned, I know. But there were also unintended consequences. For one thing, shunting Asian children into STEM fields helped perpetuate stereotypes that this was the only thing Asians were good at—that we were all brainy, number-crunching automatons, good with a calculator and a slide rule. For another, it discouraged kids like me—kids who wanted to major in the arts or humanities, kids who wanted to be writers, or artists, or actors, or anything “creative.” The novelist Alexander Chee talks about “the pressures on the children of immigrants to make anything except art.” The actor Ken Jeong talks about being “Koreaned” into becoming a doctor. But without people like Chee defying social and cultural pressures to create a novel with a gay Korean American protagonist—without people like Ken Jeong leaving medicine to become the creator, writer, and star of a successful television sitcom featuring an Asian American family—we’re left with the same crisis of representation that erases people of color from cultural products like literature, film, and television.
Against my parents’ wishes, I went to graduate school in English literature, a decision almost as bad as telling them I wanted to be an actor, or an artist, or a novelist. On the one hand, at least it was still “school”—a good thing—but in the humanities, without the guarantee of a job at the end—a very bad thing. And I won’t deny it was difficult. There were very few students and faculty of color in my English graduate program. Most of my classmates were the kids of professors or other professionals, who helped them navigate academia or supported them financially when they couldn’t make rent or find a job. I nearly quit several times. And I’m brutally honest with my own students who want to be writers or professors that there’s no guarantee of success at the end. At the same time, I can’t bring myself to discourage them completely. Without these students attempting to break into these fields, that means one less voice in the writers room, one less teacher of color in the front of the classroom, one less example that you don’t have to look a certain way in order to have something to say.
I now teach African American literature at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where more than 50 percent of the students identify as a racial or ethnic minority. We recently read Booker T. Washington, who at the turn of the 20th century thought the study of French and music were secondary to the more valuable vocational skills that could lift African Americans out of poverty. In response, W. E. B. DuBois cautioned against such narrow worship of material prosperity, arguing that access to the “kingdom of culture” was just as crucial—that African Americans had equally important contributions to make as artists and creators. Looking at my students, I can see them mulling that choice. Some will go into STEM fields, where they will undeniably flourish and do good work. But some, I hope, will become co-workers in the kingdom of culture—and in so doing, shape American culture to reflect more accurately the diversity of its members.