Asian Americans are frequently viewed as all being much the same—we’re treated as though we don’t have rich inner lives. And that’s a breeding ground for the anti-Asian racism and violence we’ve seen amplified over the past year.
We must put a stop to it.
As a scholar who specializes in metacognition—the ability that humans have to understand and reflect on our own thought processes—I know how damaging the erasure of individual identity can be to one’s self-esteem and how easily it can prevent us from realizing our unique potential.
Even “positive” stereotypes, such as the presumption that we are committed to being “model” minorities who focus exclusively on scholastic and career achievement, especially in science and math, are limiting and dehumanizing.
The first time I came across the word metacognition, I was a college senior, and I knew almost immediately that I had to study this concept for the rest of my life. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to know about “learning how to learn,” but, rather, I was desperate to know myself. The first definition of metacognition I ever read described the concept as a self-reflective process that all humans possessed. At that moment, I asked myself, “Do I really know who I am?” Throughout my life, I’ve been troubled by the nagging worry that I’m hiding myself, not sharing who I really am with the world.
Now, as a professor of psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University, a premier college dedicated to empowering young women as they pursue their passions, I am making a concerted effort to be more visible. I want to position myself as a better role model for young female Asian students, many of whom struggle with knowing themselves and showing others who they really are.
The vast majority of my laboratory experiments explore various aspects of metacognition that I consider “safe”: What is the best way to retain information? How do you judge what you do and do not know? Why should we self-test? And how can we avoid overconfidence? But the reason I was drawn to metacognition in the first place has little to do with empirical research. As I plan my methodology, analyze the data I’ve collected, and interpret my findings for publication in scholarly journals, I can’t lose sight of why I was originally drawn to the field—I had, and still have, a passion for self-knowledge. If I forget my initial inspiration, it may come at the expense of my real self. And I refuse to be a stereotype.
Many young Asian-American women are torn between being “bold” American students and fulfilling their assigned role as members of a “model” minority group.
Throughout my youth, I was one of them.
When I was in middle school, a teacher commented on “how students dress these days.” As he spoke, he used several “trends” as examples. One he mentioned casually, saying, “Some of you girls walk around with your bra straps showing” while he pulled on the sleeve of a female classmate, making her unintentionally visible bra strap show even more. I knew immediately that she was embarrassed and upset. However, what shocked me most was that by the end of the day, the teacher was reprimanded, an apology had been made, and the teacher was forgiven with a firm warning, all because the student’s mother came to the school and complained. I was envious. I thought, “When I feel discomfort, can I tell my parents about it?” I concluded that I could, especially after what I had observed—I was learning about my “American voice.” But I also wondered, “Could my parents back me up, walk into the school, demand an apology, and insist on repercussions?” I concluded that they couldn’t. Perhaps I was mistaken, but I had seen enough of the indignities that non-English-fluent parents had experienced to reach that conclusion.
As an adult, my uneasiness about expressing my thoughts only worsened, despite how excited I was to become a mother. I constantly fretted that I wasn’t equipped to help my child establish an individual identity that also honored our Korean heritage.
The day that my husband and I found out that we were expecting a girl, I stopped in my tracks as we walked out of the hospital. Overcome with anxiety, I asked him, “How will I know how to give my daughter a voice? How will I give her confidence?” My husband, who grew up in Korea, understood what I meant to a degree, and replied, “Don’t worry, I’m her dad.” It was a perfectly supportive statement, but it highlighted for me that I needed to conquer my own fears. I needed to become a strong female role model for our daughter and could not depend on anyone else to do that work for me.
A few years ago, my daughter and I participated in several of the science marches and women’s marches that were organized across the country. I took her with me because I wanted to show her the importance of speaking up to defend your values. At one local march, I remember vividly that we were the only Asians that I observed in attendance, and I think I understand why. Activism, protest, voicing our concerns—these are not necessarily valued by the Asian community, particularly older generations (I didn’t tell my parents we were going and wouldn’t have considered inviting them). During that march, the entire group started chanting various phrases (with which I agreed) in unison, but my daughter and I marched silently. For that moment, at least, just being there was enough of a “voice.”
As a parent, I know that simply telling children to do something will not work if we ourselves are not doing that same thing. When my daughter began to read on her own, I was determined to give her that “American voice.” I wanted her to know that it was OK if she wasn’t perfect, if she didn’t live up to society's expectations for her—or my own expectations, for that matter. I wanted her to know that it was OK to argue with me and speak her mind. I instructed her that “when you write, you say everything that is in your heart,” and I tried my best to do the same. For many years, I wrote short pieces on a Korean media site. I wrote as honestly as I could, including stories of joyful times, sad memories, and shameful moments. My daughter was “connected” to me on that site and could read all that I wrote. I can’t be certain that it helped, but I want to believe that, at least for her so far, I have been a strong role model by acknowledging some of my weaknesses.
But I did not do the same for my Asian-American community. Since the Atlanta shootings, I have asked myself: Why are people skeptical that this violence is being directed at us? How can racism against Asians not be seen? And I have sadly answered my own questions with more questions: Have I advocated enough for Asian-American representation? Have we shown our Asian-American students that we all need to make our voices heard? And the most shameful one: When have I modeled true metacognition? I have focused so much on metacognition as a private process, but we can’t really know what others know. Knowing yourself is at the very core of metacognition; sharing this self-knowledge with others is the next step.
Over the past few years, I have begun to try to voice what I can, but it has been, in a word, stressful. I am so accustomed to following the path of least resistance, and for Asians, that often means keeping your head down and getting your work done—staying quiet. Even in the past few days, I have been castigated for speaking up about how I’m processing the rising anti-Asian violence. The attacks are a fact, and not new. Yet I get comments like, “My Asian friends have never experienced racism.” Why do so many respond with such skepticism? The mistake people continue to make is to lump all Asian Americans into one group. There are dozens of countries in Asia and scores of different languages and cultures. Asians in America have migrated here at different times and under very different circumstances. This means that Asian Americans haven’t assimilated into the American cultures to the same degree, and our experiences greatly differ. In short, we’re individuals. Some of your Asian friends may have escaped the experience of racism, but certainly not all. Even among those who say that they have escaped it are some who would rather not discuss what’s happened to them publicly. After all, as I have tried to explain here, Asian Americans are at different points on the long journey toward finding their voices.
A recent tweet from Korean American writer Min Jin Lee summed it up perfectly: “Asian Americans are talking about anti-Asian racism at great risk and cost to our personal & professional lives. For those who are silent, I respect & understand your decision. I do. For those in our own community who are denying the racism that many of us experience, cut it out.” How perfectly descriptive are these words at capturing the heterogeneity of the Asian-American experience. Those of us who share our traumatic experiences with anti-Asian racism and violence are not lying, exaggerating, or being dramatic. If anything, given all of the pressures on us to be the “model minority,” Asians are likely still dramatically downplaying negative experiences.
I have been relieved to see the Asian-American community now publicly coming together with one voice to fight against the hate that is directed toward us. But the next step is to hear, to listen, and to believe, each individual voice. It is crucial that we encourage those who are still silent and continue to encourage self-expression. Metacognition is a private, self-reflective process. It’s not just about knowing yourself; it’s about believing in yourself. And studying this process has allowed me to hear the individual. I am incredibly thankful for that.
Lisa Son is a Korean American psychology professor at Barnard College of Columbia University.