Old Racism, New Clothes: Middle Class Child Abuse Is Not An Asian Thing

January 17, 2011, 4:29 pm

White women can be good mothers too, Amy!

It isn’t news that Yale Law prof Amy Chua has written a book about what she calls her “Tiger Mother” philosophy of parenting.  Most of us would never have known about it if her publicist had not arranged to have an op-ed placed in  the Wall Street Journal called “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.”  It went viral, at least on academic Facebooks, almost immediately.  Re-packaging the model minority thesis as a tough love philosophy, rather than the genetic predisposition to excellence that ignoramuses talked about for years, it raises a fascinating set of questions about the social construction of race as it intersects with ideologies of parenting.  It has also, according to ABC News, caused Chua to receive death threats from readers who were outraged at parenting techniques that include yelling at her children, forcing them to practice the violin for hours until they get it right (withholding bathroom privileges as an incentive), referring to them as “garbage” when they disappoint her, never accepting less than an A in anything, and not permitting a range of indulgences that might expose her daughters to the wrong influences, make them fat, or cause them to take their eyes off the prize.

I don’t find the Chua book particularly shocking, I guess, because terrible things happen to middle-class children that no one talks about.  I’m not talking about sexual abuse, but the forms of narcissism that are not as outwardly abusive as Chua’s techniques but can be damaging int eh long term all the same. I’m talking about kids who are forced to apply to fifteen different colleges, when in fact you can only attend one in the end; kids who are raised by alcoholics who can keep life pinned together enough so that no one calls the cops; kids who are forced to conform to gender standards that are unnatural to them because the make everyone else so uncomfortable; kids that are hit in secret; kids that are constantly put on diets; and kids who are academically unremarkable but are pushed to excel in conventional ways when they might be happier devoting themselves to sports, art, dance, cooking or hedge fund management.

And I’m just getting going.

However, the part that really fascinates me is that Chua’s desire for rote forms of perfection are being derided in a society that is, in fact, devoted to increasingly unimaginative ideas about what counts as intellectual life.  My generation and the several that have followed have mostly gutted anything that counts for progressive education.  As if that was not enough, we have even taken what used to be fairly standard and unremarkable forms of critical pedagogy and gutted those in favor of a national standardized testing agenda.  Languages, classics, art and music have been stripped from secondary curricula.  Students no longer read for fun; they read to satisfy the AP requirement.  We talk, talk, talk about excellence — but we can’t say what it means, beyond winning admission to a “selective” school.  Although Chua isn’t a person I would choose to be my mother (is there a world where you get to choose your mother?) what she describes actually reflects our current winner-take-all philosophy of what education should look like at its best.

What I am also intrigued by is this idea:  if Chua were black or Latina, would what she is doing count as racial uplift?  We don’t know, because in the binaries that usually define racialist discourse, mothers who aren’t “Chinese” or “Western” aren’t part of the discussion.   In fact, it is only when compared with an entirely fictional standard of “white” parenting, in which standards are maintained by silently encouraging children to make the “right” choices, that Chua comes off as cruel.  Author Ayelet Waldman has responded to Chua in the WSJ with an article entitled “In Defense of the Guilty, Ambivalent, Preoccupied Western Mom,” in which she ‘fesses up to having allowed her children to drop their music lessons because she was too embarrassed when they were outperformed by children who really practiced.  (Take that one  to the couch, kids!) But Waldman is no pushover.  When one report card came home with defects,

I pointed at the remaining two grades, neither a solid A. Though there was not the “screaming, hair-tearing explosion” that Ms. Chua informs us would have greeted the daughter of a Chinese mother, I expressed my disappointment quite clearly. And though the word “garbage” was not uttered, either in the Hokkien dialect or in Yiddish, it was only because I feared my husband’s opprobrium that I refrained from telling my daughter, when she collapsed in tears, that she was acting like an idiot.

The difference between Ms. Chua and me, I suppose—between proud Chinese mothers and ambivalent Western ones—is that I felt guilty about having berated my daughter for failing to deliver the report card I expected. I was ashamed at my reaction.

OK, Ayelet.  You are not ambivalent:  you are passive-aggressive.

Subsequently, describing a dyslexic daughter’s struggle to read, she describes a daily, self-imposed regimen in which the child’s “face would be red with tears, her eyes hollow and exhausted.

Every day we asked her if she wanted to quit. We begged her to quit. Neither her father nor I could stand the sight of her misery, her despair, the pain, psychic and physical, she seemed far too young to bear. But every day she refused. Every morning she rose stoically from her bed, collected her stuffies and snacks and the other talismans that she needed to make it through the hours, and trudged off, her little shoulders bent under a weight I longed to lift. Rosie has an incantation she murmurs when she’s scared, when she’s stuck at the top of a high jungle gym or about to present a current events report to her class. “Overcome your fears,” she whispers to herself. I don’t know where she learned it. Maybe from one of those television shows I shouldn’t let her watch.

At the end of a grim and brutal month, Rosie learned to read. Not because we forced her to drill and practice and repeat, not because we dragged her kicking and screaming, or denied her food, or kept her from the using the bathroom, but because she forced herself. She climbed the mountain alone, motivated not by fear or shame of dishonoring her parents but by her passionate desire to read.

In my view, Chua wins the battle here, not because she is the better mother, but because she is honest.  What is shocking to me is that we seem to have nothing more interesting to say about educating children at this stage of history than either of these women, or their critics, are able to articulate.

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