For my parents, an acceptance to Harvard would’ve been affirmation of their hard work in raising me—in a sense, the fulfillment of their American dream. Asian-American parents sending their child to a place that is often understood as the best university in the world—what better form of validation exists?
Obviously, I’m not at Harvard, but I am at a peer institution that has a weighty name and top academics, and applying here was a cryptic exercise in trying to differentiate myself from other “typical” Asian-American applicants. I had to make sure I stood out. I knew admissions officers would assume I was a shy nerd when they saw “Asian” on my application.
The recent Harvard Asian-American discrimination case has validated this concern. According to a New York Times article detailing the case, Harvard admissions teams seemed to believe that Asian-American applicants were similar in many ways—”busy” but ultimately unremarkable—and often rated these applicants lower in terms of personality. This is a blatant reinforcement of the model minority stereotype—that Asians are inherently intelligent but boringly homogenous in their achievements.
This is, quite bluntly, racism.
Let me get a few glaring problems out of the way. First, the plaintiff “representing” Asian Americans is a conservative white man who has actively worked to eliminate affirmative action in universities. Additionally, I am not here to side with the plaintiffs in the case; I believe that affirmative action uplifts communities who need it, and I think the Asian experience is being weaponized in this case by white people to support white applicants.
While I don’t believe that Harvard, Columbia, or other “top” schools are using racial quotas or race as an ultimate determination to admit a student or not, I do want to point out that the framework of a “personality rating” allows (white) people to affirm a stereotype that I and many other Asian Americans are constantly subjected to. As Julie Yao argues in her recently published Spec op-ed, Asian-American admission has increased at Harvard but Asian Americans are by no means entitled to spots at a competitive institution. However, there still remains a tendency for interviewers and admissions officers to look upon Asian Americans with the model minority lens that we struggle to overcome.
Though I’m frustrated by Harvard’s frankly racist admissions process, I’m still a firm believer in affirmative action. Like many other supporters of it, I think that it is the duty of universities and institutions to empower systematically marginalized groups by providing opportunities to those who have been robbed by it. I also know that being East Asian, I am privileged, and that the racial discrimination that Asian Americans face differs greatly than those of Black, Latinx, or Native American folks.
How can I reconcile support of affirmative action with my anger at the model minority stereotype perpetuated in the college admissions process?
This is a question that I think Asian Americans at Columbia should ask themselves. There certainly is no easy answer, and I’m still struggling to figure out my own position. However, the existence of a “personal rating” to demean an Asian American’s accomplishments bothers me greatly. In the current affirmative action framework, Asians are not pitted against other minorities (and should not be), but rather are forced to fight a losing battle against white applicants. An article from Slate that summarizes Harvard’s report says, “The only area where Asian Americans significantly fell behind white applicants was in the personal rating. … The personal rating is not supposed to take race into account, but OIR’s (Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research) studies demonstrate that the scores tend to be racialized.”
So what do we, Asian Americans, do about this?
Well first, I want to remain cognizant of my privilege. I am an East Asian from a wealthy suburb in California. I by no means experience widespread systematic racial oppression by way of the historical and current social structures that exist in America. I am, however, angry that Asian Americans constantly have to struggle to disprove the idea that we are a homogenous group of high-achieving, boring students who all play piano and participate in debate and math tournaments.
Asian Americans are not entitled to spots at competitive institutions like Harvard and Columbia. Asian Americans, however, also do not deserve to bear the emotional labor that comes with trying to prove that we too are humans with different personalities, skill sets, and interests. Maybe with time we can overcome this model minority stereotype that hangs over our heads, but for now we must think critically about the duality of our position as both a privileged group and a racial minority plagued by damaging stereotypes. We must consider how we can best straddle this line and embrace both affirmative action and our anger.
Victoria Hou is a sophomore in Columbia College. You can reach her at email@example.com. Chop Suey runs alternate Mondays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.