Asian Evasion: How “Model Minority” College Applicants Bypass Racial Discrimination

Are you Asian/American? Want an edge in those ever-competitive college admissions? Then check “white” or don’t even respond to the race question on your college applications. Jesse Washington’s AP article published in USA Today finds that Asian/American students, particularly those who are half-Asian with racially ambiguous last names, are trying to avoid identifying themselves as Asian in admissions questionnaires — it seems the label “Asian” comes with an  unfair disadvantage in the college application process.

Washington’s article mentions three particularly worrisome things about Asian/Americans and college admissions:

1.   Asian/Americans need test scores that are several hundred points higher than applicants of other race and ethnic groups in order “to have an equal chance of admission.”

2.   Colleges with race-blind admissions “have double the Asian percentage of Ivy League schools” and “critics say … this prove(s) the existence of discrimination.”

3.   The discrimination might happen because of Asian/Americans being “evaluated not as individuals but against the thousands of other ultra-achieving Asians who are stereotyped as boring academic robots.”

In other words, race is something that Asian/American students feel they have to hide in order to get a better chance at college admissions — and being of color is a bad thing. So what’s going on here? Why are universities sometimes “charitable” toward racial minorities (“Oh, we’ll admit more of them because they’re disadvantaged”), and sometimes threatened by growing populations of nonwhite students?  Where’s the line between charity case and threat?

(AP Photo/Jessica Hill) In this Friday, Nov. 18, 2011 photo, Yale sophomore Tao Tao Holmes poses for a photograph on campus at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Holmes, a Yale sophomore with a Chinese-born mother and white American father, did not check “Asian” on her Yale application.

I’ve often felt uncomfortable identifying my race on questionnaires — for me, marking off a race box comes with more implications than an X next to “Asian.” While identifying myself as Asian/American might help institutions know the demographics of their applicants,  my race still carries with it a set of assumptions— that, for instance, my math scores will be astronomically high (note: they weren’t) and my science scores will be absurdly off the charts (note: they weren’t, either). I had a good SAT score, but it wasn’t jaw-droppingly high. I majored in English, Film and Art History in college. I was an Arts Editor for the daily newspaper. I am liberal artsy to the nth degree.

And the fact is, when people see “Asian” on an application, they expect to see a stereotype: a test-loving, science and math whiz who plays violin (note: I’ve never played an orchestra instrument in my life either). And when I am compared to the standard of this math-and-science-loving, “ultra-achieving … boring academic robot” that Washington writes about, I fail — I don’t excel in the ways that Asian/American students are expected to excel. And with our college admissions system comparing Asian/Americans to one another (and to a math-and-science-y high-achieving stereotype) rather than considering Asian/Americans as individuals, are colleges missing out on Asian/American students who are creative instead of number crunchers? What about Asian/American students who are intelligent in a way that isn’t measured by SAT scores?

(AP Photo/Steven Senne) In this Nov. 18 photo, Harvard University student Lanya Olmstead stands in front of an entrance to the school’s quad.

At the heart of this issue is the concept of the “model minority” — the belief that Asian/Americans are all successful, “well to do,” and unaffected by socioeconomic, social, and cultural discrimination on the basis of race. The “model minority” badge is supposed to be a source of pride for minority groups (hint: it isn’t), even as it’s being used to justify the exclusion of Asian/Americans from programs designed to help disadvantaged minorities, including Affirmative Action and diversity policies. The standard for “diversity” at colleges is then oddly inconsistent — and the differing eligibility standards for different racial minorities tell us a lot about whose upward mobility is perceived as threatening and whose isn’t.

How has race become something individuals have to hide in order to get equal or better treatment in the college admissions process? It seems like we’ve taken several hundred steps back here. Race has become a negative marker for racial and academic profiling, and used to keep students out of schools not because of merit but because of race. Is it really fair to present students with the choice of denying part of their heritage for the sake of a better chance of admission? And is the college selection process fair to Asian/American students who do not fit into the stereotypical Asian norm for academics? One thing seems clear; in a time when even with college degrees, jobs are impossible to find, denying students access to higher education based on their race or ethnicity is a failure of the system.

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Whitney is a lover of food, books, comic books and journals made for left-handed people. She is a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University, where she studies video games and new media. She is also a graphic designer, writer and editor who has worked for places like Opium Magazine, Literary Death Match, Publishers Weekly and The Feminist Press. Check out her blog at whitneypow.com and follow her on Twitter @whitneypow.

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40 Comments

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    This is disturbing but sadly doesn’t surprise me. Personally, I think the race question should be eliminated altogether from all applications, etc. For census purposes, country of origin is sufficient if it’s really that important. Race is a social concept, not an indicator of real differences between humans. We are all the same species. As for needing an ambiguous last name to sneak by the racial radar, what if names and other unimportant personal information were kept hidden until the application was either approved or denied? That would probably prevent a lot of favoritism and prejudging. I don’t understand why people can’t seem to look at others and just see people.

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      Race is a social construct that has a very real impact on people’s lives. Not asking about race isn’t the answer, that just hurts people of color, who generally have to work a lot harder to get to the same place in this society.

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      I wish race was a non-issue, but we can’t end discrimination by pretending to be colorblind – that’s a band-aid solution. I’d rather we work together by acknowledging and appreciating our differences. Race and class are inextricably linked, and people of different races within the same class have entirely different experiences.

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      C’mon, you really believe the reason we have affirmative action is because people actually think that being of a particular racial group are better at certain things, and not about correcting the structural inequalities between races that exist *because* people put so much stock in that social construct?

      The fact is that as “colorblind” as you might be, much of society is not, and that means minorities (even so-called “model minorities” like Asians) are still often denied opportunities that white people have. A lack of opportunities or less support due to some quality you can’t control is definitely something that college admissions should take into account, whether it be because of race, class, disability, parents’ educational background (parents who are educated themselves are more likely to support kids who want an education) or anything else.

      The fact that affirmative action is being misused in this case does not mean we shouldn’t have it at all.

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    Is the bias about a stereotype that Asians are “boring academic robots” and “a test-loving, science and math whiz who plays violin” or is it about wanting a more diverse student body? I’m not defending racial bias in college admissions, but the fact is Asians just tend to do better at school. Overall, they worker harder and get higher grades. My guess, as a white person, is it’s probably due to the cultural values in Asian culture that push high achievement. (One could say it could also be genetic differences in race, but that moves into highly controversial and offensive turf, so let’s not.) So then, if you have a huge abundance of Asians who are eligible for admissions, a medium amount of white people as the majority, few blacks and almost no Native Americans, do you give the Asians more stringent requirements and the blacks and Native Americans more lax requirements? Or let the Asians and white people squeeze out the others? When I was considering law school, it was well known that Asians and Indians gained no benefit from openly making their race apparent — and it might hurt, especially with Asians. But blacks and Native Americans were encouraged to write “diversity statements” because they were so underrepresented in law schools. It wasn’t strictly a race thing, non-traditional students and other forms of diversity were encouraged to write these statements. Just look at the difference between a white person with a 165 LSAT score/3.5 GPA and an underrepresented minority: http://www.lawschoolpredictor.com/wp-content/uploads/Law-School-Predictor-Full-Time-Programs.htm It’s the difference between getting into the top law schools in the country or not. So my point is, it’s not about Asian stereotypes (which are oh so horrible… just saying.) It’s about what is a measurable fact: the number of Asian applicants these schools get.

    The interesting thing is that the focus on racial equality and the wish for racial diversity, in this instance, actually encourages racial bias. I could talk about affirmative action and how I support it, but that’s off topic. Still, given that support of affirmative actions, I’m just not sure how I feel about this phenomenon of schools making it harder for Asians to get in.

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      Nonono, the academic and economic success of Asians has much less to do with cultural values and much more to do with immigration laws in the US.

      Most Asian families originally were let into America at a time where the US was only letting in people with professional degrees, so it makes sense that children of engineers and doctors would be pushed to succeed/have the money to do it.

      If you look at the stats of Asian Americans based on country of origin rather than ASIAN (which is so gigantic), you see that nationalities that came to America as refugees rather than educated professionals are actually faring similarly to the minorities known for lower performance in schools.

      The initiative is for more diversity in schools, but I think that the continent a person’s ancestors came from says very little about what unique attributes he or she can bring to a school.

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          THANK YOU YES. Whenever people talk about Asians like some monolith I keep wanting to ask “which part of Asia?”. That damn continent takes up almost half the planet.

          And great point earlier on about how there’s a vast difference between refugees and educated professionals in terms of their access to educational support and so on. My parents were educated professionals that migrated (to another Asian country) and they were in a *much different* class situation than their fellow countrypeople who migrated as hard labour to the same country. HUGE privilege difference.

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        You said this much more eloquently than me, but I would just add: Don’t forget the kids who are like 4th generation and can trace their lineage to older waves of immigrants in the late 19th/early 20th century, like Japanese agricultural workers or Chinese railroad workers, that came before the borders were effectively closed to immigration from any Asian country! :)

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          Just to clarify ’cause in retrospect that smiley seems oddly placed, but it was intended to indicate a non-aggressive tone, not happiness of exclusionary laws.

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        I hadn’t consider that could be another possible reason or the distinction between refugee immigrants and professional ones. Like I said, I don’t agree with the policy of making it harder for Asians and I agree with your last sentence, I just didn’t think the author was accurate about why schools are doing it.

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      Actually, at least through 2009, there were still much less Asians than Hispanics, Blacks, or Whites enrolled in degree-granting institutions, so I doubt this is why universities might feel the need to turn so many of us away. [ Source: the table at about mid-page - http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=98 ]

      This data makes me more inclined to think the competition is within-group rather than between racial groups – that of the Asians who do apply, too many are qualified, and the school’s quota is too quickly filled.

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    A similar racial quota thing happened with Jews and the Ivy leagues in the early 1900s. According to Wikipedia, the religious preference question was dropped from the college application process in 1950…it’s about time they nixed the race question as well.

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      in fact the reason we have to write college admissions essay at all is because schools were trying to find a way to keep Jews out:

      “By 1922, [Jews] made up more than a fifth of Harvard’s freshman class. The administration and alumni were up in arms. Jews were thought to be sickly and grasping, grade-grubbing and insular. They displaced the sons of wealthy Wasp alumni, which did not bode well for fund-raising… the difficult part, however, was coming up with a way of keeping Jews out, because as a group they were academically superior to everyone else. Lowell’s first idea—a quota limiting Jews to fifteen per cent of the student body—was roundly criticized. Lowell tried restricting the number of scholarships given to Jewish students, and made an effort to bring in students from public schools in the West, where there were fewer Jews. Neither strategy worked. Finally, Lowell—and his counterparts at Yale and Princeton—realized that if a definition of merit based on academic prowess was leading to the wrong kind of student, the solution was to change the definition of merit… The admissions office at Harvard became much more interested in the details of an applicant’s personal life. Lowell told his admissions officers to elicit information about the “character” of candidates from “persons who know the applicants well,” and so the letter of reference became mandatory. Harvard started asking applicants to provide a photograph. Candidates had to write personal essays, demonstrating their aptitude for leadership, and list their extracurricular activities. “Starting in the fall of 1922,” Karabel writes, “applicants were required to answer questions on ‘Race and Color,’ ‘Religious Preference,’ ‘Maiden Name of Mother,’ ‘Birthplace of Father,’ and ‘What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father? (Explain fully).’ ”

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        That’s ridiculous, I had no idea that’s why they added the personal essay. And those questions…‘Maiden Name of Mother,’ ‘Birthplace of Father,’ and ‘What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father? (Explain fully).’ ?!?! That’s scary.

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          That’s so interesting! I feel like I have learned so many new things from this article and discussion! I think it would be really interesting to do a study on the people on college admissions boards. I wonder how these boards are broken down in terms of race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status (I bet I could guess how that one would work out…), religion, etc. I also would love to look at the different factors that influence these people’s decisions. It’s so psychological and interesting! (Can you tell I’m majoring in psychology??) Of course, none of this is anything colleges want anyone to look at because it means they aren’t objective, just & absolutely fair!

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    Asian American is also this incredibly broad term that encompasses a lot of different groups in different situations. Different groups of Asian Americans have had radically different immigration pasts that doubtless influence educational outcomes of their kids. For example, did they come because of war as refugees (like the Hmong) or did them immigrate as middle class technological workers (like more recent waves of Koreans and Indians)?

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    The race question could be tossed if we lived in a true meritocracy, but in spite of how much we like to pretend we do, we don’t. And no thanks to the gaps in resources & quality of education. So I’m on the fence about whether or not it’s necessary. But there definitely is something wrong if minorities are getting screwed by a system meant to aid minorities.

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    Everything about this makes me want to headdesk, because the system is flawed, because I probably-definitely-mostlikely benefited from the system and because I can’t think of any reasonable solution.

    I go to a school where black students are woefully underrepresented (there are more Greeks than blacks, overlap excluded!), and I feel like my university should do more to bring in qualified students of underrepresented race (and class) backgrounds.

    At the same time, I don’t think applicants who belong to over-represented groups should be penalized for their race.

    But race-blind admissions are definitely not the way to go…especially since the assumption when you don’t “check the box” is that you’re white.

    Bah…Let’s just call the whole thing borked and start over.

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    As an Asian girl who has a degree from a Canadian university, I find it quite disturbing that this kind of situation still exists for Asian students. In fact, my HS scores in science and math classes were very low and I had to take summer classes so as to pass for university applications. AND I am a bleeding heart liberal, love funky dance and know nothing about computer language!

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    At my fancy university plenty of the Asian students DO fulfill the academic stereotypes, but an equal proportion of all the other students fulfill those stereotypes as well… But I have had people tell me (more than once), “Oh, there are probably a bunch of neurotic Asians there, right?” and I’ve had to explain to them that the neurosis does not follow racial boundaries. Our student body is still overwhelmingly white.

    That having been said, in a sixty person string section in my orchestra there are no more than four or five non-Asians at any given time. Most of them are Chinese or Korean. That demographic is similar in almost every orchestra I’ve been a part of.

    You may now lambast me for being an evil soulless pasty white ginger.

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    Unfortunately this is just a case of affirmative action doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. Since Asians are a ‘model minority’ as you put it, they are being systemically discriminated against in favor of racial groups who are seen as ‘underachieving’ in the current system. The fact that Asian students are doing better than others- including whites- means that they are not a group that qualifies for affirmative treatment. One of the underlying principles of affirmative action is to measure minorities against others in their minority group. An Asian person claiming to be white on an application is similar in theory to a white person claiming to be black or Hispanic/Latino (obviously the latter example carries far more serious social implications, but the principle as it applies to college admissions is essentially the same). I agree with affirmative action. I believe it corrects grave social injustices that go far beyond simple racism in admission (ie; institutional racism in public schools). But this story is an example of how desperately the system needs revision. What made sense decades ago is simply not realistic or effective today.

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      Part of the problem is that Asians are being treated as a monolithic group – as others have pointed out, there is a difference between the wave of Chinese, Koreans and Indians (for example) who came over as educated professionals, compared to groups like the Hmong who came over as refugees. Even within certain nationalities, there is a difference between the aforementioned educated professionals who are Chinese or Japanese and the 4th-generation ones whose ancestors came over to work the railroads way back in the late 19th century.

      I think a lot of this could be helped by separating Asians into different groups, like they do for Hispanics/Latinos/Latinas on a lot of forms, asking their specific countries of origins rather than grouping them as one, instead of just using the big “Asian/Pacific Islander” designation to encompass everyone.

      Another thing about affirmative action which I think is why Asians and whites can’t be treated exactly the same is that it isn’t just about correcting inequalities, it’s also about promoting diversity. Having a diverse student body – racially, religiously, socioeconomically, etc. – simply makes for a better educational experience than when everyone is from the same background. That’s not something that should be overlooked.

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    the race-blind v. icy league stats are super interesting! even though i consider myself pretty liberal artsy and therefore confortable with ambiguity, i love statistics because it’s something i can point to and say “HELLO! LOOK AT THIS NON-BELIEVERS.” i believe this is a trait that comes from living with conservative parents.

    p.s. why is it “asian/american”? i feel woefully ignorant sometimes when it comes to naming.

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      It’s Asian / American so it’s inclusive of both Asians and Asian Americans, and not lumping them together in one group! I just wanted to make sure there’s a distinction between the two — while they both have the word “Asian” in them, they’re both really culturally different. It’s a scholarly term that has come out of APIA studies.

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      Statistics are a double edged sword, especially when it comes to science. They’ve also been used to promote the idea that black people are genetically less intelligent. It really depends on the constituency of the surveyed/analyzed population. If you’re only studying white people, for example, for a certain study, then that’s going to skew the results.

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    It’s really strange how different can be admission requirement to university. In Europe asking someone to declare their race is considered racist. Admission tend to be secret and non identifiable: you have a test(architecture and medicine are equal in all the country), you have a number that says who you are, your paper CANNOT be recognizable, a computer checks it. THEN after an official graduatory with ONLY numbers the university gives a name graduatory only based on the result of that test. It might be impersonal, but from my point of view it’s more objective.

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      Yeah, I can’t tell how many court cases regarding discrimination in the EU I’ve read. Being asked to declare your race would not fly with the authorities here, but I sometimes wonder if that’s because we (at least in Sweden, where I live) don’t really have this academic gap between “races”.

      In addition, all education is free so it’s not really a class thing either (though it is a little, but not so blatant as in the U.S)

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    i appreciate the critique of the model minority myth.
    i also don’t think race should be nixed from applications as a whole. take France as a case study-the government doesn’t recognize race as a construct, allowing people to identify themselves by nation of origin/nationality. while this seems like a good idea at first, it only makes it harder to bring racial discrimination to court and masks very real, deep and insidious issues in French society.
    food for thought…

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