What Drives Success? A Jamerican on the Tiger Mom

Been thinking about the Tiger Mom/Dad’s essay in the NYTimes. It had the “This feels at least bigot-adjacent, but I don’t have the words yet to articulate why – I’ll wait until Ta-Nehisi Coates breaks it down and then share THAT link” factor.

But as the daughter of a Jamaican-born immigrant and an American-born father who told us that A (as in grades) stood for AVERAGE, so don’t come in here expecting an atta girl for getting an A, I saw myself all in it.

Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfield wrote:

Immigrants from many West Indian and African countries, such as Jamaica, Ghana, and Haiti, are climbing America’s higher education ladder…the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success.

As Tiger Ma sees it, the Triple Threat is a superiority complex, an inferiority complex and impulse control.

Superiority complex? Yes, courtesy of my Jamaican grandma, who would recite Louise Bennett’s poem Uriah Preach – an ode to her son, who is demonstrably better than everyone else. Me femme no quashy (sp?), Grandma would say. Translation: My family is not common.  If you told her her grandchildren were no better than anyone else, y’all might have to box. She was unapologetically bougie, classist and elitist.

Insecurity complex? Check. Exhibit A: 8th grade, pulling PSAT results out of the mailbox. Me, excited, seeking approval/praise: Dad, look! I got a 97%! Dad: What was the highest you could get? Me: (looking at the results, sensing this wasn’t going to go well) 99%. Dad: So why didn’t you get that?

Impulse control? Not as much, although this comes to mind: My siblings and I all took private piano lessons for years. We were not asked if this was how we wanted to spend our leisure time. We had to practice every weekday – my mom would set the oven timer for 30 minutes and we BET NOT get up until it buzzed.  Torture via the Suzuki method or lessons in perseverance? You make the call.

That said, when adults you trust assert that you are capable of grand endeavors because at your core, you are grand, you start to believe it. It’s a powerful inheritance.

That said, racism is REAL, and Tiger Ma-Pa give a “please don’t hit us with the OMG, y’all are so racist nasty grams” nod to it in this essay.

But it would be ridiculous to suggest that the lack of an effective group superiority complex was the cause of disproportionate African-American poverty. The true causes barely require repeating: They include slavery, systematic discrimination, schools that fail to teach, employers who won’t promote, single motherhood and the fact that roughly a third of young black men in this country are in jail, awaiting trial or on probation or parole. Nor does the lack of a group superiority narrative prevent any given individual African-American from succeeding. It simply creates an additional psychological and cultural hurdle that America’s most successful groups don’t have to overcome.

Even from my privileged, middle-class perch, I can see how it me affects/infects in a thousand small, soul-sapping, I’ll-just-stay-in-the-house-it’s-easier-that-way ways.

And now, to practice some piano.


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