This blog post is in response to a New York Times article regarding the lawsuit against Harvard’s admissions process and discrimination towards Asian-Americans in the larger college application process. If you haven’t read the article, here is the link: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/30/us/politics/asian-students-affirmative-action-harvard.html
This lawsuit hits pretty close to home for me. I’m an Asian-American female who was waitlisted by Harvard during this exact college application cycle. I remember being told by people in my community that it was because I was Asian and that had I been of a different ethnicity, I would’ve been a shoo-in. Maybe that’s true and maybe it’s not – we’ll never know. What’s important is the larger discussion behind this statement and why so many people believe it’s an accurate explanation.
For most Asian-Americans, getting into college is incredibly important, as it is glorified and perpetuated by parents, relatives, peers, and teachers in a culture that is arguably toxic and damaging. Because so much pressure is put on Asian-Americans to prepare for college admissions during their formative years, the controversy of the aforementioned lawsuit is particularly heavy.
I remember my own college application process and am beyond well-versed with many of the arguments presented by the people spearheading the lawsuit against Harvard. Growing up, I was always told that my scores needed to be higher than “other candidates” because “you’re Asian and the standard is higher for Asians and that’s just how it is.” I was told that winning piano competitions wasn’t going to look that impressive on a college application because “every Asian kid plays piano.” The same was said about Ju-Jitsu because apparently “martial arts is pretty typical for Asian kids.” I was told to list German ahead of Cantonese and Mandarin on my college apps in the language section because the latter were learned at home and thus, didn’t really count in the eyes of admissions officers. I was told to instead highlight my leadership activities, community service, and creative and artsier side in my application essays because that was comparably more “unique for an Asian.”
Of course, that didn’t mean I could skip out on the stereotypical Asian activities. I was told I still had to do equally as well in STEM subjects (particularly math) even though I applied to college as a Politics and English major. And that keeping up with music was necessary because not playing an instrument would look incredibly lacking on my college apps…since I was Asian. No one ever believed me when I told them that I was the one who begged my parents to let me learn piano at age four. Everyone complimented my mom for forcing me to stick with piano throughout high school and assumed that I, supposedly like every other Asian kid, actually hated playing piano and would drop it immediately after its sole purpose of getting me into college was cashed out.
There is no denying that in the United States, there is an implicit bias that people of Asian descent are inherently more intelligent, study harder, have stricter parents, and consequently, yield higher grades. This stereotype of Asian-Americans is incredibly dangerous, as it sweeps all individuals of Asian descent under one definition and perpetuates the model minority myth. It ignores the fact that there are 48 different Asian countries and numerous subcultures within those. It allows for Southeast Asian refugees to be lumped into the same category as new-money Chinese and Korean applicants and for a third-generation Japanese kid to be considered as coming from the same background as Indian student who just immigrated two years prior. It promotes the idea that certain achievements or characteristics are simply not as impressive because the individuals behind them are of Asian descent and that the lack of other achievements/characteristics are noticeably more worrying because the individuals are of Asian descent.
This is a societal problem and needs to be addressed from the root. Not all Asians are the same. We don’t all come from the same backgrounds, privileges (or lack thereof), and values. “Asian” is not a race. Of course institutions like Harvard are biased against Asian-Americans – the people who these institutions are comprised of have been socially conditioned to hold a certain (very narrow) image of Asians. And I won’t deny that affirmative action is an imperfect system whose flaws should be addressed. But it is just as important to acknowledge that this is but one issue of the larger situation – the warped American education system.
Those who argue that Asian-Americans are being hurt by college app process, which supposedly favors Latinx and African-Americans (mentioned in the NYT article) must also consider the advantages afforded to legacy students. We must all acknowledge the spectrum of various privileges bestowed onto different groups in this country (and abroad) and how patterns of such are seen across various demographics. Many people (mostly white people who believe in the model minority myth) like to argue that Asian-Americans make the most money out of all ethnic groups in the USA. While that is true, it is also true that Asian-Americans have the largest wage gap of all ethnic groups in the USA. This is because, as I’ve said before, we’re not all the same. We’re actually incredibly diverse. The global diaspora of Asians is extremely wide and we come from different walks of life, socioeconomic backgrounds, and thus, advantages and disadvantages.
I concede that the affirmative action process should be altered so that institutions of higher education consider issues of financial status, familial stability, and personal stories and struggles above those of race. The former factors can be a lot more telling about a candidate than the label of “Asian.”
But this is not to say that affirmative action should be thrown away nor that reforming affirmative action will fix the higher education system. There are still so many inequalities suffered by students across the United States that remain untouched, i.e the underfunding of public schools in lower-income areas and the lack of resources allotted to low-income and first-generation students that students who are wealthier and/or whose parents are familiar with the American education system benefit from.
As an Asian-American, I demand that the unhealthy and incorrect Asian stereotype is dissolved. But I also refuse to be used as a weapon against other minority groups. I will not allow those who support the flaws of our educational system to pit Asian-Americans against their Latinx and African-American counterparts. If the affirmative action process is undergoing amendment, so should the legacy acceptance process. If we’re going to talk about providing justice to Asian-American students, we must also discuss providing justice to students of other minority groups. We must acknowledge the reality of East Asian privilege over South/Southeast Asians in that even within Asian populations on campuses, individuals of certain ethnic Asian groups outnumber those of others due to socioeconomic factors. We must recognize that there are Asian-Americans who are also low-income, first-generation, and undocumented. Their struggles cannot continue to be ignored and swept under the false construction that is the Asian-American stereotype.
This lawsuit does call attention to a problem, but alone, it is not a solution. It doesn’t guarantee justice for Asian-American students. The problem is larger. It is systemic. It is deeply rooted in the biases and racism that Americans, some of whom are Asian-Americans, have been socialized to believe. And it needs to end now. We cannot be satisfied by the outcome of this lawsuit. We must continue to call for reform. There is still so much that needs to be done.