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It’s no secret that marginalized people often have to outperform their more privileged peers to earn equal opportunities and respect. Discrimination at both individual and systemic levels undermines our road to success at every turn. The harder we work to bridge the gap, the harder our oppressors try to silence us, and the burden of achieving while marginalized grows heavier by the minute.
Our society loves a good “success against all odds” story — an inspiring tale about someone who rises above their oppression to achieve greatness. However, this perspective tokenizes people of color, shifts attention away from dismantling oppression and perpetuates the cycle of the moving goalpost. Most importantly, it minimizes how marginalized people all over the world are exhausted from trying to succeed in a system that exists solely to make them fail.
From a young age, I was aware that the United States was not set up in a way that favored people like me. When I was five years old, I wanted to become the president of the United States — only to realize that for the past two centuries, every single president had been a white man. As I grew older, I noticed that women of color could secure positions of power, but only by working infinitely harder than their white or male peers. So I did the logical thing: I started working harder.
I’m almost halfway through college, and I’m proud of the things I’ve achieved so far and the goals I’ve set for my future. But I’ve also noticed that I struggle to identify my own limits because I am accustomed to pushing past them — a tendency many of my friends from marginalized backgrounds share. How can we afford to relax when we’re still making only 82 cents for every dollar we deserve? In most settings, I know that no matter how qualified I am, I will be perceived as less competent than a white man with the same accomplishments. I used to think I could overcome this discrepancy by simply collecting twice as many accolades as everyone else, but now I’ve realized that no number of awards can erase centuries of oppression.
Systems of inequity also pit marginalized people against each other. If there’s only one spot for a woman in a room full of men, women will fight each other to the death for that one opportunity. While competition within groups does drive us to succeed, it also forces us to perform at extreme levels until we collapse. Marginalized groups cannot unite for equality if we’re fighting each other over scarce opportunities.
As an Asian woman, I am sick of the “model minority” stereotype, which suggests that Asians overwork themselves because they are opportunistic. I’ve seen dozens of articles trying to solve the great mystery of why Asians strive for excellence, as if we’re all following some genius master plan for world domination. While some cultures do value hard work more than others, I’ve found that the “work ethic” present in Asian (and particularly Asian American) communities stems more from a survival instinct than cultural traditions. We overachieve only because we will fall further into oppression if we do less than the maximum.
Furthermore, marginalized people who do make it to the top are often tasked with being a trailblazer for their entire community. We are held to high standards because we have to inspire other marginalized people to follow in our footsteps. But this idea suggests that marginalized people are absent from leadership roles simply because they lack motivation, not because they have been systemically excluded.
I will always advocate for greater diversity, equity and inclusion in the fields I enter, but representation means nothing without action. I’ve frequently seen people point at leaders from marginalized backgrounds and say, “Look, oppression doesn’t exist because this person is successful!” I am not your token queer Asian American girlboss. While I’d love to live in a world where my individual successes make racism, misogyny and homophobia magically disappear, I am only one person, and I must know my limits. And I hope there comes a day where the few marginalized people in positions of power don’t have to advocate for the entire non-white community on their own.
To all my high achievers from marginalized backgrounds: keep on slaying, but also remember that it is not your job to singlehandedly change the world. No matter how hard we work, we will never be awarded the equal respect we deserve until we dismantle the centuries-old systems of oppression that squeeze us dry and still demand more.