When I was young, probably 4th grade or so, my mother told me I wasn’t a “S.T.E.M. person.” My mother is a person who believes in excellence; she believes there is little point to working in a field in which you will not excel (that was her explanation as to why I never had art lessons, at least).
As much of a “non-S.T.E.M. person” as I was, it didn’t stop me from pushing myself academically. Like many Swatties, I was in my school’s equivalent of a “gifted and talented” program and advanced classes. My “non-S.T.E.M.” brain may not have shown in my grades or classes, but it showed in my poor work ethic and what interested me. Sophomore year, during pre-calculus, I spent most of class writing poetry. (I’ll add that it wasn’t particularly good poetry, so it probably was not the most effective way to spend time!)
My junior year I took AP Calculus AB, a class notorious for having a quarter of the kids drop in the first couple of weeks. That was the year I decided, “I am not a math person.” I was doing worse than I had ever done in any class I’d ever taken, and I was so ashamed of myself. I was frustrated because I was doing the homework (not something I did for previous math classes) and still not doing as well as I’d have liked. I felt like the dumbest kid in class, and I hated that. The second worst part was that I took two months of medical leave during my junior year of high school, right when my teacher was teaching integrals. I ended up having to teach myself all of the integral calculus of AP Calculus AB in a month.
The worst part was that I felt inadequate because I was a girl. My class was about an even split between the genders, but there was no community of commiseration among the gender minorities in my class. Moreover, the Chinese evangelical culture that raised me continues to devalue the contributions of women to anything.
In hindsight, this is a story of overreaction. However, it is a justified overreaction. It’s an overreaction because my grades were not that bad, especially relative to most of my peers, but it’s justified because of my environment. I went to a school where Black girls who did well and gained leadership were called “affirmative action candidates.” When I won an election over a white girl, she accused me and those who voted for me of “reverse racism.” Notwithstanding the overt devaluation of minority (racial, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) success, there remain snide subtleties that make minorities feel like imposters.
I remember a fellow student insisting that boys were better than girls in S.T.E.M. because Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia, one of the best S.T.E.M. magnet schools in the US, has more boys than girls. At the time, I just let my insecurities fester and I didn’t question his logic. In AP Computer Science, boys told my close friend, who is Ethiopian, that she was only doing well because she was Black like the teacher.
Now, this is a common story. Minorities of all kinds feel pushed from S.T.E.M., especially math, because of these insidious subtleties that make insecurity unbearable. I am not the only girl or person of color who has felt this way. Minorities, especially those perceived to be less intelligent, must deal with imposter syndrome and the fear of conforming to stereotypes, or stereotype threat, which widens achievement gaps.
The stereotype threat in my life shaped the way I viewed my own failure, as a supposed “model minority.” It seemed as if failure meant anything below an A due to the higher expectations for “model minorities.” My Asian friends and I would joke that we were “A-sians,” not “B-sians,” and that a B+ or lower meant failure. Was it a joke? Maybe, when we laughed, but the brittle edges of our realities beat us down because we internalized it.
What I want this series of articles to be is an examination of what it’s like to be a woman in math, despite the obstacles. How does the beauty of pure logic and form coalesce in an ugly world of fallacy and discrimination? What barriers are here, and how can we blow them up with “inclusive dynamite?”
The less than sign I’ve always felt is slowly rotating 180o for me to feel greater than the challenge of math before me. This first article is an essential part of that process—to revisit what made me feel inadequate to understand how to feel adequate, or better yet, hugely possible and vast as infinity.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of The Phoenix Editorial Board.