Although we’ve left the college application season behind us and Ivy Day stands only two weeks away, the war against the Common Application rages on.
Yesterday morning, the Education Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly convened a public hearing for arguments concerning RSB-359, a bill which would prohibit the disaggregation of student data by ethnic subgroups in the public school information system. The strong support it has received from Chinese-American Connecticut residents — among them parents and high school students — is only the latest in a series of protests by Asian-Americans against race-based data collection, which they perceive as a discriminatory burden in college admissions. Just last November, the Asian American Coalition for Education demanded that the Common Application remove its list of 10 options to designate an applicant’s “Asian background”; in August, Asian-American residents of Massachusetts protested a pro-disaggregation bill introduced by Massachusetts state Rep. Tackey Chan, calling it “racist.”
I am — as are, I’m sure, many other Asians at Yale — sympathetic to the fears and motives of the Chinese-Americans who have rallied behind this bill. Their misgivings toward the fact that “Asian” is the most specifically subdivided racial category on the Common App are not unfounded. Nor are their fears that disaggregation, hand in hand with affirmative action, might affect their children’s chances of gaining admission to top-tier colleges.
They are, however, misguided in their belief that disaggregation only serves as a mask for segregation. Under data aggregation, the differences that exist between Southeast Asians and East Asians, between immigrants and American-born Asians, would be obscured. The persistence of the “model minority” myth reflects the visibility long granted to East Asians — often those in the upper-middle class — in America that eclipses the presence and needs of other subgroups. The de facto erasure of financially disadvantaged subgroups — many of them Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander — would only amplify the racist tones of the model minority myth. The ability to clarify such information would aid not only in understanding demographic diversity, but also in applying more specialized and effective teaching methods in schools, such as remedial reading programs for immigrants or children of immigrants.
In fact, the arguments of those supporting RSB-359 — which addresses data collection only at the state level among public schools — reveals that they have entirely misunderstood disaggregation and overlooked its effects on primary and secondary education. The rush to oppose disaggregation for fear of racism in college admissions has trickled down into a refusal to identify ethnic subdivisions at all education levels. Somehow, they saw antagonism against Asian success underwritten into a bill intended to improve public education for all students.
But what is the point of such categories, anyway? If we’re attempting to capture nuances in political and racial identity, the assortment of labels offered by the Common App falls obviously, woefully short. My own ethnicity can be subdivided far more minutely than “Other East Asia” implies: as an immigrant, as Taiwanese — both of which gave me a very different upbringing than the one my American-born Chinese peers received — which undeniably complicates my “Taiwanese-American” identity, to say nothing of my Chinese or Chinese-American affiliations. In his book “A Chinaman’s Chance,” Eric Liu ’90 explains his refusal to hyphenate “Chinese American.” He entertains all possible combinations offered by English punctuation — Chinese (American), Chinese-American, Chinese/American — to illustrate the futility of communicating identity through labels but also the potency of what is preserved.
These labels, as dissatisfactory and impersonal as they are, represent a much-needed effort to resist misunderstanding and eliding all Asian-Americans. My background could not have made clearer to me the important differences within the “Asian-American” community — a label that I often find a misleading catch-all, loaded with assumptions of success and culturally ingrained aggression — that beg greater clarity.
The threat of misunderstanding race and diversity, nevertheless, looms large. The need for disaggregation points to huge knowledge gaps in the current iteration of affirmative action, or AA. Anti-AA groups have long adduced the policy’s failure in recruiting black Americans as evidence of its ineffectiveness; the “black” quota at Ivy Leagues tends to draw a majority of West Indian or African immigrants or biracial students, many of whom are financially better off than the average black American. The failure to specify all racial groups according to more precise criteria such as country of origin has allowed immigration patterns to stymie AA’s efforts to address black Americans. This failure might be alleviated, too, by expanding data disaggregation across all ethnic groups.
Although disaggregation might not fully dispel the model minority myth, it may at least weaken its hold on the American imagination. For Asian-Americans to reduce this to an issue of college acceptances admits only of myopia. We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it’s high time that we as Asian-Americans realized this, too, despite the unifying and insufficient label that we share.
Sherry Lee is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .