How to Raise a Model Minority
"Tiger Mother" Amy Chua is right about one thing: Assimilation is the enemy of achievement for minorities in America.
In that liberal, elite Northeast axis, women in particular are under enormous pressure to assimilate into American upper-middle-class groupthink. This is an angst-y place where women trade their individual identities, hopes, dreams and careers (and often their future financial security and independence) for indentured servitude to their children. Ditto here in the Chocolate City, bourgie capital of the world, which, after all, produced the Mocha Moms.
Unfortunately, Chua does not challenge the basic paradigm of competitive-martyr mothering, filled with daily servitude at the altar of homework and "enrichment" activities. But she does dismiss, with a confident swagger, the overindulgent American, everyone-is-a-winner, smothering style. The Wall Street Journal headline for her essay declared "Chinese Mothers Superior" and poked a finger in the collective eye of formerly smug Americans, inflaming insecurities about the meteoric rise of the East.
Chua rejects the American middle-class, touchy-feely parenting style supposedly guaranteed to stack the deck in favor of the spawn of these hardworking mothers. Such a guarantee is a lie, of course. As my son learned from listening to NPR, this meritocracy works perfectly as long as you are not a young black boy.
Still, Chua reminds us that intelligence is not determined by the gene pool; it's made. That is the simple reason immigrants of all stripes do so well in this country. Immigrants outhustle, outgun. They work their asses off and never get comfortable or let up, or relax into American social excesses because they have "arrived." They hold their ground, remain centered in their own non-Western cultural norms, fending off child insubordination and rudeness.
I share my friend Allison's impulse to escape from it all. There is something to be said for living in a place where it is not normal for parents to schedule their children's friendships. Or where you are still considered a good mother if you don't micromanage your kids' teachers, principals and entire school district. Or where you don't find a generation of whiny, overentitled children who, when given a chunk of nonmediated free time, have no idea what to do with it. I shudder to think that this will be the generation that will someday be turned loose into the "real world" and actually be expected to run it.
For minority parents, the second we lose our "otherness" -- the second the American status quo and its attendant racial pecking order makes sense to us -- is the second we fail. For black folks, who have a much more complicated history in this country and blend in less easily than other minority groups, conformity is even more dangerous because that often means finding our "proper" places in rapidly declining segregated institutions.
When we get comfortable in the (also rapidly declining) Western world order -- where, in America, at least, it is not normal for a president to be anything other than a white male -- we stop living up to our potential. Barack Obama's life possibilities and worldview expanded from his time in Indonesia; from growing up off the mainland, in Hawaii; and from having a mother who refused to dim his prospects, no matter how badly he screwed up.
This is the challenge that we have raising children in this crazy global, technological age where life is moving too quickly for our traditional institutions to adapt. We should not forget for a minute how strange the age in which we are living is. But we also should not forget that our ultimate job is not to get our children to produce a perfect concerto or SAT scores -- even if they might do so in the process -- but to give kids the knowledge, leadership and social skills to one day thrive without us.
That could well mean spending some time abroad to allow your black children to be immersed in another language, culture, cuisine or education system. It's letting them know what it's like to taste something other than mediocrity, and taking our rightful places as citizens of the world.
Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow her on Twitter.