THURAVIL: Racial stereotypes in STEM do not add up

Opinions Column: Sip on Your Chai

It might seem crazy, but I enjoy math. My majors and minor are all math-intensive, I can calculate the results of complex series with (relative) ease, I find tricky math problems fun and I only use calculators to check my work, not to do it. There are many people like me, who genuinely enjoy the subject of mathematics, are engaged by the logical and complex processes needed to solve a problem and want to further STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) through research and discovery. I know that what I do isn’t easy. Anyone who pursues a field that involves math knows that success and true appreciation for discipline comes only through a lot of hard work, practice and thought.

So why, when I'm able to solve a problem without using paper or a calculator, or calculate how much change I need to get back from the cashier or split the cost of dinner mentally, are those years of studying and work abruptly demeaned by an offhand: "Oh, you're Indian, though"?

There are a variety of things wrong with such an observation, not the least of which is the insensitive assumption that my race somehow grants me a gene that gives me an IQ of 6,000, an affinity for the subject that lets me grasp the most difficult concepts with zero difficulty and the ability to apply them to effortlessly compute my way through life. A superpower of sorts.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the case, no matter how much anyone might think it is.

The stereotype of the "genius" Indian (or any other Asian person) not only devalues the hard work of students whose family happens to hail from some part of Asia, but also puts an arbitrary premium on the work of non-Asian students, which further harms the confidence and self-esteem of Asian students. There have been multiple times when I’ve seen the mathematics paper of a non-Asian student raved over and the work of Asian students simply graded and tossed to the side. The myth of the phenom Asian student seems to have lead graders, teacher's assistants and professors to the conclusion that phenomenal Asian work is only to be expected and not a reflection of a student's passion or discipline. No Asian student asks for special recognition for their work, only that what they do be treated with respect.

And the stereotype is equally damaging in the other direction — Asian students who happen to not be good at math. As much as I’ve heard, “Oh my god you’re so brown,” and, “Shut up, you probably got an A,” I’ve heard my friends and family be asked, in a tone equal parts mockery and disappointment, “Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?”

No one is “supposed” to be good at math, like how no one is “supposed” to wear pink on Wednesdays or no one is “supposed” to go into the arts and humanities because of some damning factor such as race. It’s offensive to assume that because someone has the same skin color as a group of people which happens to pursue STEM-fields with greater frequency that they automatically have the same aptitude as everyone else in the group.

Mathematics and STEM fields are challenging for everyone, regardless of ethnic background. Just because I have a tinge more melanin in my skin does not mean that I’m destined to be a prodigy, and just because someone else may not have that tinge doesn’t mean that their skills are more admirable or rare. Math is hard, okay? The only way to become good at it is through practice, understanding and patience.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a calculus test tomorrow.

Neeharika Thuravil is a School of Arts and Sciences freshman majoring in computer science and astrophysics. Her column, "Sip on Your Chai," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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