Applying to College: Don’t Check Asian. Or Do?

BlogHer Original Post

How the Model Minority Myth is Driving Some College Applicants to Hide Their Ethnicity

An article published by the Associated Press this weekend highlighted a growing problem among students applying to college: potential discrimination against Asian American applying to elite universities. In particular, Hapa -- or Asian mixed-race -- applicants face the dilemma of whether or not to acknowledge their racial makeup. The story by AP Race and Ethnicity writer Jesse Washington spotlights mixed-race Ivy League students who hid their Asian heritage in the application process.

Asian student

Successful and Smiling, via Shutterstock

The Model Minority myth – that Asians are naturally compliant and hard-working – has been around for decades, and there is evidence that Asian students must have higher grades and test scores than their counterparts of other races when applying to elite schools. The AP article states that Asian students have higher SAT scores than any other demographic group, including Whites. The article goes on to state:

Top schools that don't ask about race in admissions process have very high percentages of Asian students. The California Institute of Technology, a private school that chooses not to consider race, is about one-third Asian. (Thirteen percent of California residents have Asian heritage.) The University of California-Berkeley, which is forbidden by state law to consider race in admissions, is more than 40 percent Asian — up from about 20 percent before the law was passed.

And then there's the non-quantifiable biases, such as the stereotype that Asian kids are “overachieving”, “robotic”, or “Model Minority” math and science whizzes who might lack creative or leadership skills. Or perhaps their foreign-sounding names and non-Caucasian appearance might not fit the Ivory Tower image. Yale, Harvard, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania declined to speak with AP for the story.

But even more troubling than the problem is the solution. The article interviews six Asian or Hapa (Asian mixed-race) women, four of which either identified with the race of their non-Asian parent, or refused to identify any race at all. Is this just the newest way to play one's best cards in the game of college admissions? Like several other of the students interviewed, Yale freshman Amalia Halikias (who is half-Chinese and half Greek) explains it’s a way to avoid bias.

"If you know you're going to be discriminated against, it's absolutely justifiable to not check the Asian box," says Halikias.

As the mother of two half-Asian kids, this is a depressing alternative. As depressing as the idea of forcing my children to practice piano for hours on end in an attempt to out-Asian the other Asians.

I don’t want my kids to deny the Taiwanese side of their heritage or be ashamed of their identities in order to get into a top university. Sure, that’s one way to beat The System. But how long before The System catches on? In my worst fears, I imagine a college admissions process in which any Asian-sounding surname is grounds for a witch hunt.

Washington's article was published in many major newspapers, then tweeted and shared on Facebook thousands of times. But will all this Internet outrage translate into action? In reality, the long term solution will require political action to change the system – questioning discrimination against underlying college admissions – which may be even harder than scoring a perfect mark on the SAT.

Race and Ethnicity Section Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs at HapaMama and A Year (Almost) Without Shopping.

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