For Asian Americans, a Debate Over Racial Identity: Perspectives on Affirmative Action

Valerie Wu, Managing Editor

For Asian Americans across the nation, Harvard University’s recent admissions controversy surrounding affirmative action has sparked a widespread debate on race and identity. It is a debate that externalizes the conflict between what it means to be Asian in an academic context and in a personal one.

Throughout college admissions season, the application process appears to be universal for every high schooler in America. Essays are written, tests are taken and applications are submitted. As decisions approach, seniors hope they will receive acceptances in March.

Yet for many Asian American applicants, the college admissions process raises the question of not only what their fate will be, but also what role race plays in it.

Affirmative action, which is a policy that aims to promote the education and employment of marginalized groups — those who are known to have previously suffered discrimination — is one under fire for what many claim to be its prejudice against Asians.

This has inspired the affirmative action trial against Harvard, which advocates for a “colorblind” admissions process. Chiefly spearheaded by a group of Asian American activists, the lawsuit is based off the idea that the term “holistic admissions” is used to cover up what is perceived to be racial bias.

According to a recent report issued by Students for Fair Admission, the legal group that represents Asian Americans in the lawsuit against Harvard, the policy has resulted in Asian Americans being consistently ranked “lower” on the admissions scale in the personality category. An analysis of more than 160,000 student records illustrated that although Asians were consistently ranked in the top for academics and extracurriculars, the “personal” traits — including likability, courage and kindness — were significantly lacking in comparison to their white counterparts.

Despite the growth of the Asian American population in America in recent years, the proportion of Asian American admits has remained stagnant. This in turn has raised the question of whether Harvard is mandating implicit racial quotas, which are unconstitutional.

In light of this data, the issue of affirmative action hits close to home for many Asian American students and their parents, who must now face the internal crisis of diminishing one’s racial identity or reclaiming it.

Senior Annabelle Tzou is one student who believes that affirmative action is a process that violates the principles of equality and fairness when it comes to establishing racial diversity. She considers herself “strongly opposed” to the policy, describing her experience with affirmative action to be largely negative.

Said Tzou: “Since the seventh grade, [affirmative action] has been a major source of stress for me when it comes to school, grades, and test scores, but it has worsened these past few months with college applications being submitted.”

When asked whether affirmative action should be implemented in the admissions process, Tzou cited a statistic from a 2004 Princeton study. According to the study, identifying as Asian on an application was equivalent to a loss of 50 points out of 1600, while other minorities experienced an increase of points. This in turn inflicts a “double standard” regarding attitudes towards admission that Tzou believes does not apply to other people of color.

“How is an Asian American student arguing to fill more seats different than an African American student doing the same, yet the former is seen as acting entitled and the latter is [seen as] deserving? I should not be compelled by the government to sacrifice my own spots for other minorities,” she said.

Many Asian Americans are no stranger to how the policy has appeared to disregard the hardships that are associated with being Asian American. Senior Naomi Bennett, who is half-Japanese and half-Indian, expressed similar sentiments, stating that many of her peers have witnessed the struggle of reconciling  their racial identity with their individual achievements.

“As an Asian American, I have experienced firsthand the discrimination and loss of opportunities that comes with being a minority,” she said. “I wish that this wouldn’t extend into my education and the college admissions process…I, along with all of my peers, have worked extremely hard to get to this point. For all of that to be disregarded because of a factor that I am born with is absurd.”

However, several students are of the opinion that to understand the benefits of affirmative action, it is essential to look beyond one’s own admissions goals and at the collective of minorities who need such policies in the first place.

Junior Sarah Ungerer foresees her college application journey next year to be one of newfound awareness. She mentions that although her parents formerly believed that affirmative action discriminated against Asian applicants, beginning to understand the policy through her sister’s application process last year changed their minds.

“Both of my parents have held [the negative mindset] for a while, but have since strayed away from it and become stronger supporters of affirmative action…my parents now expect me to choose colleges with a diverse student population that implement this factor in admissions,” she said.

“Across the country, there are many people who do not have the same opportunities which are available to the more privileged. Affirmative action gives these minorities a good chance to advance in their education. Representation within a school system is very important and in order to ensure the presence of diversity, race is a necessary factor,” Ungerer added.

For senior Sahana Swaminathan, the real issue lies in the way institutions have implemented the policy, rather than the policy itself. She acknowledges that it is an empirical fact many minorities live in low-income neighborhoods, but believes that the evolution of affirmative action in recent years has become “skewed” to not cater to all people of color, as the policy originally intended.

Instead, Swaminathan’s ideal process entails a focus on socioeconomic differences, while also creating a “balance” between the protection of minority students and admittance of individuals based on achievement and merit.

“I believe that [affirmative action] should be implemented, but regarding financial status, rather than just purely race-based, as there should be more opportunities for lower-class citizens to attend college,” said Swaminathan.

When asked about how her preferred method of being evaluated, Swaminathan stated that she would like to be seen as an “individual applicant.” Her ideal admissions decision would be one based on individual merit rather than comparisons to other applicants of her race.

Although perspectives on affirmative action vary across the spectrum, the national debate on race demonstrates how race can either be used as a factor that encourages equality of opportunity or subverts it.

The decision of whether or not affirmative action stays or leaves at Harvard serves as the conclusion of Harvard’s trial. However, it does not mark the end of the Asian American quest for selfhood, a conversation of race and identity that will persist not only in the college admissions process, but beyond.