In kindergarten, I used to get special permission to visit my brother’s Year 2 class and read with his teacher. Afterwards, I would pick out a Year 2 book to take home for the week. I have always been drawn to words and stories, with an avid appetite for books that saw me maxing out my library card and leaving with more than my tiny body could carry.
When I turned five, I started taking piano lessons. And my childhood memories became infused with splashes of red, green and orange — colouring my vision like cellophane patches when I heard certain tones.
Yet many times throughout my childhood, from schoolmates to strangers, my intelligence and musical talent was put down to one thing: my race. The only reason I was good at the piano or did well at school boiled down to a single reason: “Well, it’s because you’re Asian.”
Interestingly, while white intelligence and aptitude is often seen as innate, creative and uncultivated, Asian intelligence has largely been associated with rote-learning and excessive studying. The assumption is that (white) children who are ‘naturally bright’ don’t need to study, which — ironically — turns studying into a form of cheating that gives Asian kids an unfair advantage. The op-eds and comments that emerge over the ‘Asian Invasion in selective schools’ tout it as a problem of racial division, and out of line with Australia’s egalitarian “national character” when it comes to education.
Perhaps to their disdain, I had a very studious childhood. I learned piano privately for 13 years, had multiple tutors throughout Year 12, and gingerly hid my tutoring for certain subjects when I heard teachers docked marks off assessments if you had external help (which, looking back, is absurd and discriminatory to students who need support).
By 18, I had a vocational degree in piano performance (AmusA), graduated as an all-rounder on the NSW Honour Roll and received a scholarship to study at the University of Sydney. Still, my overachieving status was always a point of contention with my boisterous personality. I distinctly remember being in a video recording of a school comedy sketch show in which someone commented, “She’s too smart to swear!” As if my ‘Asian’ intelligence and foul-mouthed humour were mutually exclusive.
What purpose does it serve to racialise intelligence in this way? To divide a child’s interests and talents into ‘creative’ versus ‘constructed’? One outcome is that it enables a white superiority complex — demeaning Asian students and discriminating against their accomplishments, even as they outperform their peers. A 2012 Australian study found résumés with a Chinese name required 68 per cent more applications to get as many interviews as a résumé with an Anglo-Saxon name. This kind of structural bias translates from the classroom to the workplace and could manifest itself not just in hiring practices, but in perceptions of leadership potential and promotion opportunities.
As a mixed-race person, this binary categorisation of intelligence created a deep-seated rift in my identity. Growing up, I aligned myself with whiteness at every opportunity; claiming I didn’t find other Asians attractive, echoing my friends as they ridiculed my mother, and refusing to divulge my Chinese middle name for years even to my closest friends. For a long time, I kept reaching for the unattainable ideal of ‘effortless’ talent — desperate to be given merit for what I could do, instead of what I looked like.
These perceived notions of Asianness poisoned my relationship with my mother, too — a “crazy tiger mum” who everyone assumed forced me to study and practice piano all hours of the day and night. As a teen, I resented her for being the source of my culture clash. Though in truth, my mother never batted an eyelid when I quit piano lessons, dropped maths, left a law degree and changed my career plans every few months. Throughout my life, she has always been more invested in pushing me to come out of my shell and building confidence in myself, than any outward achievements.
When we devalue Asian children and their intelligence, we tell them that it is impossible to be Asian and creative, Asian and a writer, Asian and comedic. This is a huge disservice to their educational development and internal values system, and if they’re anything like me, a trauma to their identity and self-worth.
Of course, restrictions on Asian children’s educational paths can come from both societal and parental pressures. The academic expectations of immigrant parents of many backgrounds — however well-meaning — can play a part, limiting their children’s career choices, causing mental distress and even contributing to class segregation and economic inequality.
This is a complex issue. But challenging the narrow, often misguided perceptions of Asian intelligence, and holding space for future generations to explore their education and self-expression is absolutely necessary. If someone had told my frustrated teenage self that - instead of struggling to assimilate there was another option - then perhaps I wouldn’t have internalised the racism I encountered. So from one smart Asian kid to another: be proud of your intellect, your (profane) humour, your abilities. Do not apologise for defining yourself or finding your own path to meaningful existence — you contain multitudes.
Bridget Harilaou is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who writes extensively about politics and race, she tweets at @fightloudly.
A new six-part SBS series Child Genius hosted by Dr Susan Carland follows the lives of Australia’s brightest children and their families and will see them testing their abilities in maths, general knowledge, memory and language.
The quiz show will be broadcast over two weeks starting November 12. Episodes will be aired Monday to Wednesday at 7.30pm.