How Math Cost Me My Identity

I’ve never been very good at math, but the fundamentals of multiplication have inadvertently carved my understanding of racial identity. At the root of it, elementary school teachers are to blame for drilling the basic rules into my head, to that corner where instinct unintentionally overcomes intuition.


For the longest time, I believed racism could be solved through multiplication. In terms of numbers, to me, any person of colour (POC) was a positive thing. You multiply two POC parents, and their child turns out positive as well. Positivity was privilege, in the sense that positive people deserved a loud voice, which would be beneficial when arguing against racism and discrimination. Positive people had a seat at the race table to share and to collaborate whereas negative people did not. Negativity meant the absence of privilege. Negative people for me were those who didn’t deserve to contribute as much to race conversations, as they could never share the experiences of people of colour. I thought negative people should spend infinitely more time listening than talking.


To me, whiteness was a negative thing, but the math here gets a bit tricky. You get two white parents and multiply them by each other, and that child is going to turn out positive; however, this is a false positive—false privilege—commonly referred to as white privilege. A false positive is negative. Mathematically, I’m not sure if that math holds up, but for the sake of my metaphor, let’s say it does. Positive equals privilege: privilege deserves a loud voice. Negative equals the absence of privilege: the absence of privilege deserves to listen. I’m not saying all white people should be irrevocably silent at the race table, but they should at least be far quieter than people of colour.


Here’s where I come in. My mom’s Chinese. My dad’s white. On paper, that’s one positive and one negative, and if we’re following the multiplication rules, that means I’m fundamentally a negative result. I found myself disqualifying myself from the race table for only being half POC. No one wants to hear the plights and experiences from someone who only half understands. I was apologetic for being white and ashamed it tainted my Chinese blood. I felt undeserving of my heritage because I wasn’t whole. I was an imposter on both sides of the spectrum—wholly unclaimed by society.


I felt as if I wasn’t entitled to speak on the behalf of my Chinese race. I felt as if I didn’t deserve to feel offended by racism because my half experiences were unsubstantial to those who were wholly targeted. On government questionnaires, I never checked the “member of a visible minority” box. I personally disqualified myself from diversity scholarships because I thought I wasn’t deserving. In theory, this partially holds up, because, on the scale of diversity, I’m low in comparison to fully diverse students. But I was the only Asian student in my program, in a university and city filled to the brim with white people. There are few people of colour who qualified for these scholarships, regardless of whether we counted biracial people or not. So, why did I feel so undeserving? Why did I forfeit my identity?


For the longest time, I thought my whiteness cancelled colour out. But when one half destroys the other, what is left? White privilege was an inherent social advantage based solely on the colour of one’s skin. The by-product of that was the ability to always feel comfortable in that skin. Although I knew I had white privilege, I didn’t always feel comfortable. I felt I didn’t deserve to be called Chinese when I was. I felt I didn’t deserve to celebrate my culture when I was raised plunged in it. I felt I didn’t deserve to worship Chinese actors like Simu Liu and Gemma Chan when they portrayed characters just like my family members. This constant, relentless anger towards myself was emotionally exhausting, alienating and at worst times, inexplicably damaging.


This rejection of the self was cultivated by math because it taught me to see people as one of two things: positive or negative. I was so focused on the fundamentals that I convinced myself only whole numbers—and whole people—were variables in the race equation. I’ve learned now that math gets a bit more complicated once you pass the third-grade level and sometimes, math doesn’t really apply to race at all. I know I’m hardly the only half-Asian out there feeling this way and that others have fallen victim to the rules of multiplication too. But by no means is half not whole and if we’re going to strive to fight racism, then every half counts.


Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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