Am I like the overseer of a plantation?

The question comes to mind during a masked walk in Golden Gate Park, out of the drumbeat of Ahmaud Arbery … George Floyd … Breonna Taylor … Black Lives Matter what can we do? From these senseless killings, to the wildfires that turned San Francisco skies a deep orange, to the 200,000+ American deaths from COVID-19, so many wrongs are piling up, prompting questions that meander along with my steps. Who am I, in a society where these things can happen?

An overseer? I recoil at the thought. We see the overseer in books and films, menacing astride a horse, whip in hand. He doesn’t own the plantation, yet he enforces its brutal logic, turning racist ideology into an economic system, allowing the few to enslave the many. We think to ourselves, surely, were I in his place, I would have chosen otherwise.

On its face, the comparison is ludicrous. I’m in San Francisco in 2020, not the antebellum South; I’m a Chinese American woman, not a white man; I’m a corporate lawyer at a tech company.

But there are parallels I can’t dismiss.

I remember my dad shaking his head at the Black people protesting on TV. “They waste their energy complaining about ‘discrimination,’” he said, dismissively. “They should just work on themselves.”

Just work on yourself. That basically sums up how race figured in my upbringing. My parents, who emigrated from Taiwan to the U.S. before I was born, made it clear that America is a land made by and for white men, that as a woman and a minority, I would have to work twice as hard to get half as far. Trying to change these obstacles would be a waste of energy, energy better spent on things within my control, like math drills, violin scales, laps in the pool. They framed their way of parenting as pragmatic and inherently Chinese. I was taught that no matter how inhospitable the environment or how narrow the path to success, Chinese people have been able to thrive around the world by being smart, valuing progress over comfort, and sacrificing for future generations. And it was my duty, as the recipient of these generations of sacrifice, to not f— it up.

One way to look at this approach would be to say that, with me, it worked. My last living grandparent was a refugee who was never taught to read, and here I am, making a career of the legal power of words, my resume triumphant with eminent institutions and escalating professional titles.

It was around high school that I became aware of the concept of the model minority. I recall chuckling with other Asian students who also began playing a classical instrument in preschool and got the “twice as hard/half as far” speech from their parents. I came to understand that “model minority” was a term intended to capture the commonalities in our experience. Knowing that my childhood pressures were part of a shared pattern, bigger than me or my parents, made it easier to carry them lightly.

In this time of racial reckoning, so little of what we are reacting to is new. Even events we consider contemporary have had time to sink in: Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012; Freddie Gray in 2015; Philando Castile in 2016. What feels different now is the nature of our attention, more personal and more urgent. It’s as if we who regarded America’s racial conflicts as primarily a story about other people now suddenly realize that we are in that story; we have been there the whole time, and whatever racial narratives we’ve held up to this point need to be rethought.

The model minority, for instance: it’s a stereotype I never seriously considered beyond knowing that it was too narrow to encompass the diversity in our community; I never thought about it in the context of America’s broader racial history. Recently, I was fascinated to learn that this concept didn’t arise spontaneously, but intentionally, as a concerted response to America’s geopolitical interests. During the Cold War, as America competed with the Communist bloc for influence among non-white populations around the world, racial inequality at home was a reputational problem. Concerns about America’s image played into the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which allowed significantly greater numbers of Asians emigrés, particularly those who were highly educated and/or had family ties in America. And it was during this time that success stories of hardworking, non-complaining, family-minded, academically-oriented Asians proliferated, simultaneously providing a counterargument to international criticism and undercutting domestic calls for deeper social and political change. If Asians can succeed, America must not be racist. So don’t waste your energy complaining about discrimination; just work on yourselves. These flawed arguments ignored the negative stereotypes rooted in slavery and colonialism that disproportionately burdened BIPOC, the educational advantages that post-1965 Asian immigrants often brought with them, and the tailwinds given to Asians by the model minority stereotype itself.

Even for people like me, an Asian “success” story, is praise of the model minority a sign of acceptance, or is it a threat wrapped in opportunity? The very existence of a “right” way to be “other” in this country highlights how precarious our acceptance is, as if we — even those born here — are perpetual guests. Isn’t it perverse, that the “correct” response to mistreatment is to suck it up and work harder to please the society that is mistreating you, to be even more compliant with its strictures? In other contexts, wouldn’t we call that abuse? And what happens when geopolitical winds shift again — like now, when a trade war with China looms over chants of “kung flu”?

Who ultimately benefits from model minority behavior? In addition to this narrative’s geopolitical origins, I’ve been thinking about the economic forces that sustain it. The traits of a model minority map so nicely onto those of a “good” professional: someone who works hard to attain valuable skills, who deploys those skills diligently in service to the enterprise that employs them, who strives for advancement within prescribed boundaries. As a good professional, I have drafted documents to sell and buy companies, generating enormous wealth, mostly for white men. I’ve worked on corporate restructurings to minimize my employer’s tax obligations, which we accomplished through reams of paperwork and without having to change anything substantive about our business (I remarked to a financier friend that the millions of dollars in fees we paid to accounting and law firms in return for our tax savings amounted to a wealth transfer from American taxpayers to those firms, and he didn’t disagree). I have sat in board meetings where we discussed whether our board members should be paid more for the trouble of attending a couple of meetings every quarter, when their compensation for these meetings already exceeded many of our employees’ annual salaries, and I have thought, This is why companies don’t want employee representatives to sit on boards. I’ve laughed ruefully with colleagues who joked, “This is how the rich get richer!” while of course, we continued to do our jobs. Everything we did was perfectly legal, perfectly consistent with “best practices,” no more than a reflection of how the world works — the world I’ve entered after all of my parents’ sacrifices and their parents’ sacrifices opened its rarified doors to me.

This is where I get really uncomfortable. I keep asking myself whether I’m like a plantation overseer because I can’t be sure my role in the corporate world — a job which is, at its core, about growing the wealth of a company’s owners — is different enough to dismiss the comparison.

The details are different, the degree of brutality is different, but the parallels are real. Like the overseer, I’m a trained professional, hired by the powerful few to drive the productivity of the many, within enormously unequal societies in terms of race and wealth (in 2016, the net worth of the median Black family was one-tenth of the net worth of the median white family; in 2014, the top 1% of America was 98% male and 91% white; by definition, making the rich richer means exacerbating racial inequality).  Like the overseer, I have been aided in getting to my current position by my own efforts but also by racial privilege. Like the overseer, in return for performing well, I get to make a good living and advance within my company and society — up to a point. There is still a dearth of women and minorities among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and a profound lack of diversity on boards of directors of Fortune 500 companies.

I’ve learned that many of the business practices I’m around every day were developed on plantations, sophisticated operations whose owners often lived far from the fields, in cities, relying on elaborate managerial hierarchies. I’ve learned that a basic accounting concept, depreciation, was pioneered by accountants for plantations, who depreciated the value of enslaved people as they aged and became less useful. I’ve learned that enslaved people were some of the earliest collateral used for loans (being easier to seize and sell than the land they worked), including the loans that Thomas Jefferson took out to build Monticello. It was lawyers, accountants and bankers — not just overseers — who allowed slavery to operate at industrial scale.

Like me, these professionals sat in offices; they didn’t carry a whip. But learning about their role underscores, for me, the need to keep the overseer in focus. Because the overseer’s job was not fundamentally crueler than those of his more educated colleagues; it was just more intimate. It’s a privilege to make decisions that impact other humans without acting on them physically. Whether we are talking about enslaved workers, subcontracted janitors, Amazon warehouse employees, or strawberry pickers, it is abstraction that simultaneously preserves and blinds the humanity of the people who hold power over them. It is abstraction that allows the rest of us to just do our jobs.

I can imagine what my parents would say: So what? The world has always been unfair. Are you going to change how it works? You have a good job, you have healthcare, you can support your family. Don’t you want to buy a house? Don’t you want to retire? Or, friends and colleagues: But this is why YOU should be a leader. Think about how few women and minorities there are. Think about the impact you could have. Better you than another white man. I hear them. I see their points, because, of course, these are my own points, my own questions.

This is where I’d like to say, I’ve figured things out, and here’s exactly what I’m going to do. But I’m still learning, I’m still feeling out how to situate myself within a web of sprawling systems that perpetuate inequality as we continue to do our jobs. What I do know is that I need to keep the overseer in mind precisely because his image provokes a gut response, creates a moral urgency to look, really look, at my actions. I know that intentionally or not, to just be a model minority, to just work on myself, would be to further entrench the mutually-reinforcing racial and economic hierarchies that got us where we are today. I know that breaking through bamboo and glass ceilings to sit atop those hierarchies myself will not be meaningful if I’m just a different face playing the same part. I know that I need to be less fearful to stray from the model minority path, because my belonging to this country comes not from maintaining white America’s approval, but from my own willingness to be responsible for, and to be of, America’s full history. To do otherwise would be to settle for mediocrity, for comfort over progress. Which is just not how I was raised.

Photo credit: Stephanie Hau//Unsplash


  • Vero Lee is an attorney and writer in San Francisco.