The Remodel Minority Series: An Interview with Dr. Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn (Part 1)

This virtual live interview was conducted on December 10, 2022, by Sahasra Tummala and Sreeja Surisetti with Dr. Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn and transcribed by Sreeja Surisetti, with an introduction written by Sahasra Tummala.

As an introduction to our guest, Dr. Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn (she/her) is an educator, speaker, writer, and professional learning facilitator, with specializations including Asian American identity and history, the model minority myth and its relationship to anti-Blackness, and histories of race and racism in the United States. She has facilitated talks and workshops with schools and organizations across the country, along with spreading awareness as a LinkedIn Learning instructor and the author of a forthcoming book about Chinese American History. Dr. Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn has a B.A. in English from Haverford College, an M.A. in Social Justice and Education from University College London’s Institute of Education, and an Ed.D. from Johns Hopkins University and currently serves as a Deputy Director of Learning and Engagement at Learning for Justice.

Sreeja Surisetti: Hello, Dr. Blackburn! Thank you so much for joining us today. To begin our interview, can you please provide your perspective and explanation of the model minority myth?

Sure, well, first of all, thank you for having me with all of you. I am so excited to be here today and talk about this, and also, I very much appreciate and admire the works you all are doing by raising awareness of this issue. The model minority myth is the common name given to a stereotype about, broadly speaking, Asian people in many parts of the west. A model minority is not always about this group. The model minority is the idea of a minoritized and historically marginalized community seen as being somehow more assimilated or more acceptable than other minoritized groups.

In the context of today, in many parts of the world, it has been Asian people, and specifically, many east and south Asian groups, who fit into this stereotype. Some of the stereotypes that go along with it are that Asian people are really hardworking, naturally good at math or science inherently, and well-behaved. These are all components of that stereotype. Now, sometimes, people ask, ok, why? Why is this called a myth, right? If we look at certain data, for example, if you look at income, on average, Asian people in the United States are doing a lot better than other racially minoritized groups. Now, there are a few issues with that.

One is if you break down that data by ethnicity or ethnic background, you notice a huge disparity, so it is not true that every Asian individual is a hyper-successful doctor. This stereotype ignores history as well. So, I know you have done some talking about things like the H-1B visa program, where it’s not just that Asian people as naturally good at math and science. It is that we have immigration laws that are specifically bringing in people with skills in certain industries. Then, for the children of immigrants, it doesn’t mean that we know what children want. A child might want to be an English major, art major, or something else. Yet, there are just these ideas that what you were good at is logical thinking, etc, because that’s what we see throughout our immigration policies, and that shows up in the media, as well. There are many implications, but I’m sure we’ll get into that today, so that’s the broad overview for you!

Sreeja Surisetti: Has the model minority myth played a factor in your life, and how has that contributed to your dedication to spreading awareness of the model minority myth?

I wish I had known about this concept when I was a student. I didn’t even have the language to describe it until I was an adult. It’s become so much more common for people to finally name it, label it, and describe it, and I wish I had the name sooner because it would have made some things make a lot more sense for me when I was young.

I went to a math and science high school, you know a really elite magnet school. You have to take an exam to get it in. When I went there, it was not majorly Asian, but it is now, so it fits the stereotype of one, what Asian kids are good at, and two, specifically in the math and sciences. Anyways, I got into that school, not because of a really good math score – I did ok on the math part of the exam – but because I aced the reading and writing portion. I got 99th percentile, and that was why I was there.

However, my teachers, of course, didn’t know that. They look at me and thought, “Ok, so this kid must be great at math, or must love science.” And again, it’s not that I was bad at those things, but it wasn’t my passion. I liked to sew costumes for the theater department and read postcolonial literature. You know, very specific different strengths and needs that were not necessarily met except for those few educators that actually got to know me.

So, some of the memories that stood out are a math teacher saying that he expected more from someone like me. That one always sticks out to me because “someone like you”, what does that mean, right? I’ve never been that great in your class, so who are you comparing me to? And sometimes, you just know. You’re hyper-aware of something spoken about under the surface – that coded language.

But again, because I didn’t realize that it was such a common phenomenon and that there were so many other young people having that same experience, I just kind of buried and suppressed it. What I had started to do was tell myself a lot of negative things, like, “You’re really dumb at this, you’re really bad at this, you’re a really bad student,” and that affected my self-image for a long time, and I had to work to regain that confidence in myself and realize that there is not just one little narrow box for how to be a “good Asian.” The same world of possibilities should be open to us just as they are to every young person.

Sahasra Tummala: With most of your teachers associating the notions of the model minority myth with you, did it hinder your abilities or prevent you from exploring other fields like literature and history as opposed to math and science?

That was my rebellious streak. I had that part of my personality where I got to that point where I was like, screw it, I’m just not going do my math homework anymore. I think my mom yelled at me every day for 3 years of high school. When my grades were not where they were supposed to be, she was like, “What are you doing? Why are you not doing your homework?” But it was a little bit of self-sabotage, though. I had the feeling that “This is hard, and if they’re not going to help me, or see me, then why should I even try? Why should I even care?”

I was very fortunate to have teachers in some of those other subjects that I cared more about, who fostered that, so I was able to explore and excel in English, and eventually, I was an English major and an education major in undergrad. But the reason I went into education was because of my own negative experiences and realizing that what I’ve learned is that many people do not do their best unless they feel like they belong, are seen, and feel like what they’re doing matters. If we don’t feel those things, then why should we even expend the effort or the energy to do it? That kind of became the seed of my research, which had then gone on for many years since then into different and deeper efforts around inclusion and belonging. What does that mean? How do we see people for who they are?

But there was a level of “I’m not just not going to try at this thing that you’re telling me that I’m not good at” all through this time. In my last year of undergrad, I got to a moment. I realized what I had done, so I said I would sign up for the hardest physics class that would take me. I was an English major, as I said, but I thought, “I just want to prove that I can do it. I want to prove that I’m not dumb at this inherently.” So I signed up for fluid dynamics, sat in the front row, took notes, went in for tutorials, and got a 4.0. That was self-affirming.

I couldn’t tell you anything I’ve learned in that class because I haven’t had to calculate the flow of water through a tiny thing ever since, but sometimes, we have to have those self-discovery moments to counteract the negative self-images we have. We have to choose to prove otherwise to ourselves because that will restore the balance of our self-understanding.