In January 2009, a man by the name of Barack Obama was sworn into office on a cold wintry day. Flanked by his beautiful family, Barack Obama became President Obama and officially, leader of the free world. Just like any president before him, his presidency over the next 8 years would bring him many challenges both on the domestic front and on the world stage. Those 8 years saw a string of mass shootings, domestic terrorism, an ever more volatile Middle East, recalcitrant overseas nuclear regimes, and the growing threat of inequality at home that ended in mass protests (e.g. Occupy Wall Street) whose aftershocks are still being felt today. But any President or Prime Minister would face the same tests, right? Every era has different challenges and another person would have faced these issues. What made Obama’s presidency different was the extreme polarization of politics in those 8 years. Whether this was due to the rise of populism or racism, we may never know. Obama, being a black President in a predominantly white country, carried an enormous burden on his shoulders. Against a historical background of poor race relations in America, Obama’s rise was a milestone, and without getting into his mix-raced heritage, he was a black man who shattered every stereotype and made the impossible possible. Obama is a man of vast intelligence and eloquence. A graduate of Columbia and Harvard, long before he became the junior senator of Illinois, he was already the cream of the crop not just of African-Americans, but of America. Obama had to prove himself to be more successful than others to achieve his status. Even at Obama’s level though, he was still put under the microscope by people who questioned his legitimacy as President or even his citizenship.
When I think about Obama, I ask myself this question: how successful do minorities have to be to earn the same level of acceptance as non-minorities? Whenever I see an Asian name whether on the editorial board of a major media organization, on the roster of partners in major law firms, or on the faculty of major universities, I find myself in shock as soon as I read a bio. The pedigree is almost always Ivy League usually preceded by education in elite private schools. Somewhere along the way, some people make a pit stop at the Juilliard or a conservatory of music. There are exceptions, but they make up for the lack of elite education with a string of post-grad degrees and/or professional licenses. In other words, Asians need to work twice as hard as others to have any chance at say the New York Times. Getting into an elite organization is difficult for anyone, but for minorities, it can be a mountain to climb.
Growing up, I was also aware that as minorities, we do not play on the same level playing field as others, and we have to get used to the double standard. I can think of nobody else better to illustrate than Obama. If Obama did even a fraction of what Trump did in his personal life, his campaign would have been shut down before reaching the primaries. As President, would Obama have been able to tweet with impunity in the same way Trump has capitalized on his social media prowess? If Obama had spoken with the same disregard for the English language, would he have been able to get away with it? Being able to get away with so much comes from a position of privilege. As minorities (Asian, black or Hispanic), there simply is no path of least resistance. Every word and every action is held to a different standard if not a higher standard. Mistakes can be costly wherever we are in life. For Obama, it would have cost his presidency and reputation, and likely the chances of any minority to become a potential presidential candidate. For Trump, life still carries on and he would still win more support.
Although America has come a long away since the civil rights struggle, and Canada has had a successful history of integrating its immigrants, the reality is that minorities must prove themselves every step of the way to be respectable members of the mainstream society. We must put in 150% when 100% is all that is required for others. When I was young, I didn’t understand why Asian parents placed so much value on education, big-name schools and elite professions. I thought it was a sick obsession with prestige. Later on, I began to realize that maybe our parents were actually much more perceptive; they realized that as minorities, we do not have a lot of room to make mistakes, and perhaps a Harvard degree, more than a state college degree, would be a cushion against whatever social inequities that may befall their children. There simply isn’t much room to make mistakes, and we must choose our words carefully. Every action we take may be interpreted as a reflection on our community. It is the same feeling I had as a kid submitting an essay to a teacher hoping that she would not grade me too harshly for my English because I had a non-English surname, and I worked extra hard on my writing and read every book I could get my hands on to improve my vocabulary.
Maybe none of us will ever become the next Barack Obama. He is one of a kind. For a black man to lead the free world is monumental, a historic achievement that rivals the founding of a nation in significance. He has made history books. But he also embodies the qualities and frustration of minorities. Though law has eliminated discriminatory barriers in every facet of life, we still have mountains to climb to be accepted as the editor of a major news organization, to be the dean of a major university or to be the next COO of a major firm. And as Obama has shown, if we have to give our 150%, it is that we are held to a different standard regardless of our intelligence and dedication. But giving our 150% also molds us to be resilient so we can take on any challenge life throws in our way.