Racial Binds: Trapping Asians in Australia’s Education Wars

Library Photography Competition 2011 entry, by Rich Grundy, Creative Commons attribution --> https://www.flickr.com/photos/loughboroughuniversitylibrary/6333984637/in/photolist-aDHjXF-qkS3BQ-ooFNGw-owCAJG-48Wfpp-54AriK-8qGg38-77rqtZ-7R4PS3-L3F6f-qLWcj9-q4nbaW-dB5Vtf-9u2j95-6tAnRq-2UCfh-jSpTB-q4nxum-oqWKWd-pTt34v-oXSXSr-e5Q8gW-poWab5-5bRGno-q77vbi-egsXoe-9dUby3-majnde-efCGG4-eximp6-7Mz8LK-8qKpB9-oBFFXg-6cJjCa-aVn3oK-efCHiF-9tYiGt-3kftSZ-mG4Wdr-a2gCWj-9uPVG8-ppaKAv-gfcwyT-byJi75-jSP7rT-8ds4hQ-mG54iD-dvUBA7-dvNU6a-v4dpQV/
Library Photography Competition 2011 entry, Rich Grundy, Creative Commons attribution

Few things so potently demonstrate oppression than a well-constructed double bind. And though not all double binds are oppressive; all oppressions employ double binds. They keep us scrambling to prove ourselves, keep us hoping that if only we did this one thing we would be left alone, become normal, or even accepted.

I recall the difficulties of searching for work as an Asian Australian teenager just after the Pauline Hanson era in the 1990s. Back then Aussie newspapers and TV programs regularly complained about unemployed Asians as ‘dole bludgers’, immigrants living off the taxes of hardworking (read: white) Australians. If you were a young Asian male you were often presumed to be part of a triad gang. Finding work took on a fevered tone. I was desperate to not be perceived as living off other Australians’ work, I wanted to be ‘self-reliant’, ‘independent’.

But when I got my first job I soon found myself the epitome of a new stereotype. TV programs like Today Tonight swapped panning shots of Asians lined up outside of Centrelink with shots of Asian faces in factories as the voiceover warned of a new wave of Asian ‘job stealers’ who were undercutting ‘ordinary Australians’ with our ‘cheap labour’. Apparently I had ‘stolen’ my job from some other (presumably white) worker, who now was forced to live off the pitiful dole.

So if I was unemployed then I was living off the sweat of white Australian workers, but if I got work then I had stolen a job that consigned some working-class white person to a life of poverty (even as the racial discrepancy in wages was naturalized as a result of my being Asian).

Yet even then, at 19 years old, I still didn’t see the double bind. I still believed that fundamentally it was my fault and that if I did the right thing Australians would finally accept me. I worked hard at my studies, determined to move into a career that didn’t force me to compete with my ‘average’ Australians. After almost a decade of studying and working, I finally became a university lecturer, no longer stealing jobs from the working-class or living off their hard work; I thought I had finally made it.

That’s when the shock jocks started complaining about ‘Asian elites’ whose wealth or status suddenly placed them in positions above ‘average Australians’. Their wealth or job did not reflect their hard work but was taken as evidence of how multiculturalism was racially unjust (despite the lack of affirmative action in Australian education or employment). Asian employers or managers were proof that Australia was not only not racist anymore but that we were actively ‘taking over’ by ‘hoarding top jobs’ (despite evidence a ‘bamboo ceiling’ exists).

It was only then, after almost a decade of trying to fit in, that I suddenly realised that there was no use attempting to please racists.

So you can understand why, when I heard about Asians threatening not ‘our’ jobs this time but ‘our’ education, I couldn’t help but take it with a grain of salt.

On one side, you have complaints about the racial segregation of schools where Asians are getting better grades and dominating entrance exams into selective private and public schooling. There is even talk of ‘white flight’ from schools. Here Asian ‘tiger mums’ stand accused of unfairly cheating the system by using extra-curricular tutoring and coaching to artificially enhance their kids’ performance in schools. These harsh ‘tiger mums’ are portrayed as cold, calculating, scheming slave drivers heartlessly destroying their own kids’ childhoods in some twisted sense of achievement that barely masks their own selfish desires and hubris.

Consequently, Asian students’ academic achievements are recast as artificial. Here, tutoring and coaching are analogous to performance enhancement drugs while studying becomes an illegitimate, nefarious Asian activity designed to undermine the natural order of pedagogical things. Asians are blamed for artificially increasing the standards of entry into good schools, universities and programs, and thus excluding ‘naturally talented’ students who do not need tutoring or coaching. As a result, we are told Asians are now undermining our long-held tradition of a meritocratic education system.

If Asians in primary and high schools are accused of artificially raising the standards of our education system, simultaneously Asians are also accused of artificially lowering the standards of our higher education. In the Four Corners special report ‘Degrees of Deception’, international students from Asia who ‘pay their way’ through full-fee university enrolments are accused of subverting the meritocracy of our higher education admissions systems. Accused of uniformly lying and forging documents in order to access these programs, they are portrayed as compensating for their lack of talent through the use ghost writers from Chinese-run essay writing companies. These ‘undeserving’ international students (reduced to Asians in media representations when in fact we have students from all over the world), lying and cheating their way through university (as if Asian students have singularly invented plagiarism), are thus held to be incapable of actually completing a degree fairly.

This is coupled by university lecturers who portray them on national television as ‘problem students’ who unfairly place pressure on them. Here Asian students are portrayed as ‘protected customers’ of a university administration addicted to Asian money or as ‘administrative headaches’ in a time-poor university. Students begging and pleading with lecturers not to fail them, a normal response by many students, are recast as rich bullies, unfairly pressuring vulnerable academics to undermine their academic standards in the face of an insecure employment future.

To be clear, as a lecturer I certainly sympathise with these pressures and am concerned about changing pedagogical landscapes and drops in academic standards. But it requires a certain mindset to blame Asian international students for these problems as opposed to the shape of higher education funding and the influence of its stakeholders, the poor use of specific models of teacher assessment, the lack of infrastructural support for teachers and international students alike, and the overreliance on neoliberal management techniques in universities.

The fact that Asian student performances in primary and secondary schools are helping us raise the standards of our education system overall to be more competitive in a global economy, not to mention the benefits we gain from transnational networks, is completely ignored in this discussion. Further, the fact that international university students are currently the only thing that keeps our higher education system afloat, which allows us to maintain the remaining academic quality we still have left is also not examined.

Frankly, I’m disappointed in my colleagues who should know better than to individualise structural problems onto minority students. Then again, there’s no use trying to please racism.

The Asian Australian Democracy Caucus (AADC) is a non-partisan organisation. One of our ongoing commitments is to contribute a monthly blog in collaboration with Peril magazine. To find out more about this collaboration read here. If you want more information or would like to write for us, get in touch with us, Jen Tsen Kwok or Shinen Wong at aadc@peril.com.au

Gilbert Caluya

Author: Gilbert Caluya

Dr Gilbert Caluya is a Research Fellow at the University of South Australia. His research focuses on the intersections of race, gender and sexuality, specialising in the relationship between race and intimacy. He has published widely in international academic journals. You can follow his work here --> https://unisa-au.academia.edu/GilbertCaluya