Column: The Perception Gap
By Richard Lui
MSNBC News Anchor
Anchoring at CNN Worldwide and now MSNBC, you might think I did okay in English. I didn’t. In fact, I almost flunked out of high school twice.
As a result, I was not on my way to becoming like the 21 percent of Harvard’s class of 2016 that are Asian American or Pacific Islander (they are six percent of the population). And I was not part of the group that appears to do so well academically they say affirmative action hurts their chances in college admissions (something the U.S. Supreme Court will review this week: whether to allow use of race).
I was more like the other parts. The parts of the community where over 60% have not attended college (National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education). And the parts that struggle financially like in New York City where one out of two Asian American children is born into poverty (Coalition for Asian American Children and Families).
At my first high school I had more than 100 absences a year. The dean kicked me out after junior year. So the district sent me to the high school my brothers and father graduated from.
One afternoon the principal stopped me: “Your mom came by today. We’re fellow former teachers. She was so worried she cried. And your father was there too.” The principal said he’d look after me, and I said I’d do my best. But reaching 200 credits was mathematically impossible; I would flunk.
Weeks later, the principal made a deal. I could graduate five short, and despite semester GPAs reaching 0.2 (which is slightly below an F+ average if that grade existed).
After graduation, I skipped college. My family was poor. My father was a social worker; my mother, a stay-at-home mom. At one point we were on welfare receiving food stamps. Instead, I worked for Mrs. Fields Cookies.
Four years passed and when I turned 22, the age many students graduate, I realized I couldn’t work in cookies forever and so made an effort to attend college. But I hadn’t taken the SAT and with dismal high school grades, no university would take me. City College of San Francisco, at $50 a credit, did.
At City College of San Francisco (CCSF), I enjoyed education again. I joined the speech team (something I credit with my current career). My English instructor encouraged me to read more than local papers like the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. My interest in politics grew, and I became campaign manager for an incumbent running for a citywide position. After two years at CCSF, I completed an associate’s degree, and because I qualified for loans I didn’t before, I transferred to UC Berkeley where I earned my bachelor’s degree.
- It can mean your family originates from one of 49 countries, most having different languages (U.S. Census).
- It can mean you’re 10th generation American, a descendent of Chinese and Filipino immigrants from the 1700s.
- And it can mean you’re one of the 74% of Asian American and Pacific Islander adults born in another country, perhaps fleeing here as a Hmong or Vietnamese refugee (Pew).
When it comes to Asian Americans, averages fail. Stereotypes fail. There are kids from overlooked AAPI communities that don’t go to college, don’t have enough for tuition, and don’t believe education transforms. This doesn’t sync with the idea of the Asian American “archetype.” It’s a perception gap. And it can be closed by simply accepting that people like me don’t fit the mold.