Like many Asian-American children, I played piano. No matter how cash-strapped my parents were, we kept going to lessons, cutting back spending elsewhere instead. However, a small part of me resented piano as yet another patch in my quilt of categorical Asian experiences: completing after-school math problems from Chinese workbooks, wanting to become a doctor, finishing chores instead of indulging in flagrantly American teenage rebellion.
This sense — of not wanting to melt into indistinguishable Asian masses, of trying to proudly hold out what composes me and proclaim “here I am” — intensified during the college application process. Parents’ friends bemoaned last names like Wang, Zhang, Yang — so clearly Chinese — so similar-sounding; the conventional wisdom of Wenxuecity, WeChat groups and Asian parties says that the college admissions process is harder if you’re Asian-American. Competition within our community often arises from applicants worried about emphasizing how different they are from all other Asians. A recent class-action lawsuit against Harvard University has underlined some possible reasons for the concern. Quotes from a former MIT admissions dean call one student “yet another textureless math grind.” One preliminary analysis indicates Asian applicants to Harvard “suffer a statistically significant penalty relative to white applicants” on the personality rating. There’s also other data out there, on SAT score gaps and California’s university enrollment numbers, that I find partially misleading. However, for many families this is enough to show the unfairness.
The current lawsuit, and a similar complaint filed with the Department of Justice by 60 Asian-American groups, alleges we must consequently eliminate affirmative action. Meanwhile, Harvard insists that there is no racial bias. Supporters of each side claim that Asian-Americans have been weaponized as a mascot, alternately for racist conservatives or elitist liberals. But we are not mascots. Instead, the necessity of affirmative action and the reality of anti-Asian bias are not contradictory.
At Yale, my education has been made so much richer by the diversity around me. Affirmative action provides a much-needed mechanism to account for race-based disadvantages inherent in too many institutions — our city infrastructure, education system, public security — which often affect less-privileged members of the Asian-American community, too. We, Asian-Americans whose opportunities exist because someone immigrated, should be first to recognize that we are not all born into equal circumstances, that a runner who finishes first with a head start is not automatically the fastest.
Simultaneously, while interracial discrimination definitely exists, the much-demonized WeChat activists are not simply entitled, evil schemers. First, the link made between anti-Asian bias and affirmative action reflects the opacity of American college admissions to immigrant parents, for whom the process seems like a black hole. Few of us can access the knowledge and networks of the white parents whose children attend selective institutions, many of whom are legacies.
Second, the spotlight on college admissions captures further cultural differences in the divide between Asian and white. The analysis that Harvard filed to support its case, by economist David Card, shows that Asians receive lower scores in non-academic measures, including factors like career goals and family background. Card shows how (a) significantly higher proportions of Asian-Americans than whites are considering pre-med routes, so admitting more of those students might be bad for campus diversity, and (b) how Harvard considers achievements in STEM less impressive if your parents work in that field. Additional gaps are accounted for by athletic ratings for non-recruits and legacy preference.
Yet, many Asian immigrants and their children, like myself, either do not know how to reach other careers, or lack the intergenerational wealth and security to prioritize less stable pursuits. Asian values often first want kids to learn delayed gratification — what piano ultimately taught me — before pursuing passions, like the interests I’ve honed in college. While Asian parents also give their children opportunities, those within reach are often in STEM, a result of U.S. immigration policies. Furthermore, in many Asian cultures, stories about family background are considered intensely private and difficult to share with close friends, let alone the stranger in admissions.
Given a media and cultural environment where Asians are rarely seen as complex individuals while white people enjoy the assumption of uniqueness, I am not surprised that Asian applicants may be seen as a monolith.
While affirmative action undoubtedly has flaws, as any policy does, I hope Asian-Americans recognize that the nonacademic traits highlighted above have nothing to do with other minorities, but rather a system at selective colleges which sets wealthy, white experiences as their default. I hope admissions, and our society at large, starts noticing their implicit biases, starts seeing us as real people who may or may not do math problems and play piano, who go on to become writers, diplomats, surgeons, leaders. Who go on to defend our communities. Who go on to be quintessentially individual Americans, speaking out loudly about our Asianness, our Americanness, in countless different ways.
Liana Wang is a junior in Davenport College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at email@example.com .