Dispatch from the Floor of the Model Minority Factory

Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, the founding director of the Asian American Literary Review and a lecturer in the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland, worked for years at Straight A Learning Center, where he taught SAT prep classes and helped build a college advising service. At The Offing, he describes the opportunity to give back to his community and offer support to Asian American students like him — and how it went all wrong:

But there was a deeper problem too that I began to notice: in Helena, that furious striving, and in me, a compulsion to fan it in troubling ways. To not only convince her she could get accepted to top schools, and show her how to get accepted, but to set a dollar value on that acceptance. We were coding high-end acceptance as fulfillment, coding fulfillment as an investment. Which was also, not coincidentally, at the heart of our essay coaching — value. Application writing at all levels works this way. Why should you select me, hire me, give me that scholarship, that fellowship, that grant, that money. It’s the ultimate in capitalist logic: the most fundamentally important skill is being able to articulate your own value. I was not simply teaching this skill to individual students, I was pitching the idea to their parents, threading its logic into the fabric of our communities, creating a market for our business out of thin air. This was not teaching, not learning, not education; it was sales. It was recoding everything as commodity and transaction. It meant asking our prospective clients, the parents, to re-understand themselves and everyone around them, most especially their children, in terms of success narrowly understood in terms of education narrowly understood in terms of value. I was on the floor of the model minority factory, imagining the assembly line into being.

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