When Whistling Vivaldi was first recommended to me, my initial response was, “I already know what stereotype threat is. Why do I need to read about it?” In other words, I was your standard punk-ass college student. I had never really given concentrated thought to stereotype threat in the broader context of society, or how it affected people who weren’t me. But this book gave me a deeper understanding of how stereotype threat happens and how it can be combated. My only regret from finally reading it is that I didn’t read it before starting college. Now that I’ve finally dragged myself to the finish line for my bachelor’s degree (after 6 years!), it seems especially bittersweet that this book helped me recognize some of what was happening to me right at the end of my journey.
I haven’t felt so compelled to share a book with other people in years. Reading, for me, is usually for entertainment or personal development, and I go from book to book without wanting to sit down and reflect in a way that is useful for others. This book is different. I feel obligated to share Whistling Vivaldi because it made me burst into tears from recognition of my own past pain. I didn’t think I needed affirmation that my experiences in college were shared by others, but I did. This book gave me time to reflect on moments of self-doubt from the past and helped me re-interpret them in the context of stereotype threat instead.
This book is useful both as a tool for self-reflection (even if you don’t consider yourself as a minority!) and as a tool for supporting others. I want more people affected by stereotype threat to read this book so they can have the time to think back on their own experiences and how they were impacted. I want more people in general to read this book to gain empathy for what students, coworkers, and friends might be suffering from without realizing.
Allies, put your career where your mouth is.
There is no fire under any tech company’s ass to change their ways. Over the past few years, we’ve seen every major tech company release a statement about their abysmal numbers, their token efforts to improve, and how much they value diversity and inclusion at their companies. It’s been a feel-good hug fest where everyone gets an A for effort.
Yet from the same companies, we see all this talk of not lowering the bar, tolerating of abusive behavior from their employees, and unwillingness to hire from the existing pipeline. How could this behavior be so pervasive when tech companies claim to be so concerned about diversity and inclusion?
When I was 17, I desperately wanted colleges to accept me based only on my academic achievements — my “merit” — without consideration for external factors. My family and school counselors insisted that I emphasize my immigrant family / low income status in order to gain sympathy from admissions officers. To me, that meant not getting into my dream school through my own talent. I spent my first year at Stanford doubting myself and fearing that people would realize I wasn’t talented enough to be there. This sounds like textbook impostor syndrome, but it was worsened by constant comments about my minority status. Students from other high schools said they wished they had my background so they could get into whatever schools they wanted. Everyone assumed it must have been easy for me to get accepted. Stanford likes poors like me. Of course I got in. I learned to not mention my upbringing because people would think less of my qualifications and belonging at Stanford if they knew.
At the end of my sophomore year, I was lucky to end up in a required writing course with a black professor who understood what I was going through (having spent over a decade working on social justice issues). She encouraged me to investigate affirmative action stigma for my term paper as a way of understanding my own feelings about being a “diversity pick.” My paper focused on research surrounding the psychological impact of being considered a diversity pick on minority students. That research is what I want to summarize now.
Back in December, I wrote an article for Model View Culture. You can find it here. I’m proud of it because it’s my first paid article ever and it deals with a topic that had bothered me about the tech industry and women’s advocacy efforts in general. Enjoy!
Update: Because MVC is no longer publishing, I have re-printed my article here for posterity. Continue reading
I’m a Vietnamese American woman in technology. That is not synonymous with being an Asian American in technology. Here’s the shortest summary of my background I can give: My parents escaped Vietnam on a boat and moved to the United States in 1990 with barely any understanding of the English language. We grew up poor and I pulled myself through high school and university with little guidance from others. I worked after school until 10–11pm several nights a week throughout high school for my family. My high school nearly lost accreditation while I was there, which would have made my diploma useless. There’s so much more to my upbringing than that, but I’ll save it for another time.
So you organized an outreach event or program for a marginalized group that you care about and you’re really excited about doing your part to improve diversity in your field. You’re all pumped about your work, but then you start receiving negative comments that accuse you of being sexist/racist/etc. for putting so much focus on your chosen minority group rather than providing resources for the whole group. In my case, this usually takes the form of complaints about sexism and inequality in the outreach programs that I organize for women in tech — why aren’t there similar scholarships and conferences for men? Why aren’t there men’s-only tech events?