So you’re at the dinner table on Christmas night, laughing with your cousins who you haven’t seen in years, trying to eat as much food as humanely possible when suddenly, a wild racist uncle appears!
He turns to you, his breath smelling like cigarettes and boiled peanuts, and asks, “So, Vivian, how are your grad school applications going?”
“It’s going well, thanks Uncle Jack!” You’re hesitant about making further conversation because you know the longer you two speak, the more likely Uncle Jack is gonna say something racist. He always has something racist to say. “I applied to four universities and I didn’t get into three of them. Luckily, the one that accepted me, UCLA, was my first choice!”
“That’s great, Viv! I’m proud of you! You know, with all this affirmative action going on it’s really hard for people like us to get into college. We gotta compete with the Blacks and Mexicans and they probably don’t work half as hard as you!”
Oh god. Here we go. Uncle has gone full racist.
In this situation, you’re pretty much fucked because you can’t curse out your racist uncle in front of grandma the same way you drag Nazis on Twitter. You need a plan of attack. You need a way to talk about affirmative action on a level that your ignorant uncle can understand.
So let’s role play for a minute. You pretend to be your racist uncle and I’ll be you. Sound good? Cool, let’s start!
Uncle: “Blacks and Hispanics Are Stealing Spots From Qualified Asian Applicants!”
Actually, Uncle Jack, the opposite is true: Asians students are overrepresented while Black and Hispanic students and underrepresented.
Since 1980, American Ivy Leagues have increased their Asian student body from 3% to 24%. Meanwhile, Black and Hispanic Ivy League students are experiencing enrollment rates that are the lowest it’s been in 35 years. With Black and Hispanic enrollment on the decline, why are Asians even complaining about Black and Brown people “stealing their spot”? Black enrollment at Harvard University sits at 8% — are we really going to be greedy when we’re literally three times more represented than Black students?
For Asians, it gets even better if you move to California. Among the nine colleges in the UC system, six of them have a student body that is majority Asian: Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, UCLA, Riverside, and San Diego. UC San Diego has 49% Asians while Black students comprise 1%.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at Columbia University, notes that most discussions about affirmative action in the news fail to mention “White women or other people of color as beneficiaries of affirmative action. Most of the very few that did mention White women or other racial groups soon abandoned even this momentary recognition to focus exclusively on African Americans as the focus of the controversy.”
By focusing on Black ineligibility (a racial stereotype that assumes all Black students are less qualified than everyone else) we ignore all the ways White women and other people of color have benefited from affirmative action and we blame the whole thing on Black and Brown students.
In other words: it’s really goddamn racist when you blame non-Asian people of color for screwing up affirmative action when they aren’t the ones reaping the benefits from it.
Uncle: “Yeah, but Asian students are held to an unreasonably high standard. Don’t you agree?”
You know what, Uncle? I do agree with you.
However, if we’re talking about standards and expectations in the admissions process, then it’s important that we listen to people who have experience with handling college applications.
Such is the case with Sara Harberson, the former associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, who explained one of the main reasons why top universities reject Asian applicants. “Asian Americans are rarely children of alumni at the Ivies, for example. There aren’t as many recruited athletes coming from the Asian American applicant pool. Nor are they typically earmarked as “actual” or “potential” donors. They simply don’t have long-standing connections to these institutions.”
This is upsetting because many Asian students are first or second generation immigrants, so our connections with alumni are almost non-existent. Even more troubling, however, is the fact that Asian applicants can get rejected for having phenomenal test scores simply because their qualifications mirror those of their Asian peers.
Asians don’t want to admit it, but many of us fit the mold of the stereotypical Asian student: studious, quiet, nerdy STEM majors who can play the violin. There’s nothing wrong with being studious or playing violin, and none of these activities define our capabilities after college. Sadly, college admissions offices that sort through thousands of applications don’t have time to get to know our entire life story, so it becomes far too easy to rely on the racist “Asians are all the same” stereotype to cut corners and help the stack of applications go by faster.
But when you think about it, are White students held to that same standard? Are White business majors looked at as a monolith? Are White students told that they need to lie about their passion for pumpkin spiced kale chips and outdated dance moves? Of course not.
Uncle: “Asians shouldn’t have to lie about their interests! You should be proud of your Asian culture!”
Exactly! Now you see where I’m coming from, Uncle Jack!
Uncle: If affirmative action isn’t working, why don’t we throw it out?
As a matter of fact, someone is currently trying to take down affirmative action, but it’s not a person you’d expect, or a person you’d like.
Meet Edward Blum, a conservative legal strategist who pursues cases that involve race and ethnicity. He previously fought on behalf of Abigail Fischer (a White woman who tried to sue the University of Texas for racial discrimination) and lost, but his recent case contesting aspects of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (legislation that prohibits racial discrimination in voting) was victorious.
That’s who you support if you vote against affirmative action. You thought you were making life better for struggling Asians, but you actually made it better for conservative Whites. If Edward Blum wins I’m sure he’ll thank you from his private island made entirely out of rejected Asian college applications. In fact, I’m 99% positive he’s Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars.
Instead of rejecting affirmative action, we need to find ways to improve and expand it. We should push for affirmative action policies that don’t hold Asians to a higher standard than everyone else. At the same time, universities and families should encourage and accept Asian students who want to pursue non-traditional careers.
If we remove affirmative action and the consideration of race during the college application process, then it will also be impossible to detect racial discrimination. If you think Asians have it hard right now, imagine trying to prove racial discrimination at a university that “doesn’t see color.”
Hell, even if you remove race from a college application, you still can’t change your legal name. So if your name is Choi Lee or Trinh Nguyen then guess what? Everyone knows your ethnicity anyways, and if they don’t, Google exists. Colleges are already checking social media profiles and many of them are basing their decisions on what applicants post on Facebook and Instagram.
You know what, that wasn’t too bad! Affirmative action is easy to understand! I think I get it now!
Great! Now that you’ve schooled your racist Asian uncle at the dinner table, you can get back to what really matters: Christmas dinner, karaoke, presents, and receiving passive aggressive comments from your Asian aunties about how much weight you’ve gained.
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