***Editor’s note: On January 7, 2022 the Supreme Court will decide whether or not they hear the case Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, which deals with Harvard discriminating against Asian applicants during the admissions process.
This article is featured in the winter edition of our quarterly magazine Sword&Scales.
Historically, there has been a popular image of Asian-Americans that is best described as “nerdy” and “academic.” Think Audrey Hepburn’s oversized-glasses-wearing-heavily-accented-nerdy neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or the socially awkward Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles who is criticized for his foreignness. This stereotype reflects the also-familiar trope that Asian-Americans are overachieving and intelligent. The result of this confluence in perceptions is that people are able to dismiss Asian-American academic achievement as a product of “tasteless” and “sterile” tutoring and grade-grubbing, implying that they are not truly “excellent.”
While pop culture is slowly becoming more accepting of Asian-Americans, evidenced in new movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi, one institution has remained stubborn in its perception of them. Ivy League schools are still clinging to these outdated stereotypes about Asian-Americans, and weaponizing the images against them in the admissions process. Look at the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard court case, for example: Harvard has a strict quota on Asian students and allows their admissions process to be racially biased in order to maintain their ideal numbers of enrollees. Asian-Americans—who make up nearly 50% of all American SAT scores higher than 1500—have made up 20% or less of Harvard’s student body uniformly between 1995 and 2015.
In justification of these actions, Harvard claims that Asian-American applicants rank lower on personality scores and are therefore not the ideal Harvard candidates. Asian-Americans rank lowest of all the races on Harvard’s “personal” score, even though they rank highest of all the races in Harvard’s corresponding alumni interviews. A paradox? No, deliberate ignorance.
In my latest book, An Inconvenient Minority, I show how Harvard’s admissions officers, who never interact firsthand with their applicants, nevertheless attack Asian personalities as being “robotic,” “social outcasts,” and “test-taking robots with no personality.” I show the human consequences of the back-breaking stereotyping of a group of people who study many hours per day more than the average American and work extremely hard to get into college, often to see the fruits of their efforts rot under the gaze of diversity-obsessed admissions officers who see “too many Asians” at their schools. The average Asian-American has to score vastly higher on the SAT to have the same chance of admission as a black person, and higher than a white person to gain an equal chance.
According to Harvard, Asian-Americans are still most accurately represented in films steeped in what were obvious caricatures written in the ’70s and ’80s. Evidently the years of implicit bias training these admissions officers undergo to screen applicants have had the reverse effect as intended on Asian admissions to the university. Or perhaps they have had the exact effect intended. Perhaps the purpose of implicit bias training and diversity, equity, and inclusion is in fact to exclude populations that school administrators don’t want more of.
I’ve seen the intentional typecasting of Asian-American achievement firsthand. Growing up, I did not fit into Hollywood’s traditional description of my culture or race. I do not speak Mandarin, did not attend an Ivy League school, and was not raised in a “typical” Asian household. My mom and dad made an effort to get me integrated in society. Both my church and alma mater are predominantly white, I listen to country music, and I love football. I always felt a little out of place, never quite belonging to either group included in the Asian-American camp.
Once, in college, my hall counselor challenged us to introduce ourselves using three objects that related to our “cultural heritage.” In an act of subversion of the entire exercise, I brought my prized Redskins cap, a paper target I had previously shot at a shooting range, and my pocket Constitution—signaling my fealty to the country in which I was born and had lived my entire life—my “culture.” Ignoring my hall counselor’s jeers, I informed my peers how much football meant to me, how I had met some of the friendliest people I had ever encountered at the gun range, and how I was grateful to live in the United States. These three things were a part of me, made me who I was.
At this point, the counselor apparently had had enough. She berated my presentation, claiming that minority values and American values are contradictory and that assuming otherwise was nothing more than ignorant. I disagreed, of course, explaining how I, an Asian-American, believed in American principles as much as any one of my white peers. In response, she simply stated that many people consider Asian-Americans to be in fact white.
The term in critical race theory is called “white-adjacent.” These are not meant to be compliments, but denigrations of Asian-Americans as kiss-ups to the white man.
I was not necessarily surprised by her attack, which really says a lot about race narratives in our country. I challenged her perception of Asian-Americans, which was probably based on unrealistic stereotypes, and instead of recognizing that all people are different regardless of race, she wrote me off as “white.” I inconvenienced her assumption that my race should be the most important thing about me, and instead of accepting the reality of different presentations even within races, she rejected that I was a “sincere” part of my race in the first place.
For all the virtue-signaling that progressive people do concerning uplifting and supporting minorities, it all falls by the wayside when a minority decides he will stop playing the roles they want minorities to play. This is unfortunate, of course, but is also so deeply ingrained in our culture that I am no longer surprised by it.
After graduating college, I became increasingly interested in conservative politics—a turn, I admit, caused by the very real concern for my fellow Asian-Americans due to the way Ivy League universities like Harvard seem to treat them like trash. As this interest grew, I found that the feelings of ostracization I had felt in my younger years followed me into this new interest. A 2016 study conducted by the National Asian American Survey found that 41% of Asian-Americans identify as Democrats while only 16% consider themselves to be Republicans. Frequently people assume that I vote Democrat or hate the orange man. Once again, I found myself contradicting the way the world perceived my race.
Adhering to strict stereotypes and rejecting any “abnormalities” robs us of truly appreciating the depth of different cultures. Being Asian doesn’t imply homogeneousness, just as being white doesn’t imply homogeneousness. Race doesn’t dictate beliefs or opinions or anything beyond our physical appearances.
Progressives tend to ignore this fact.
But that is the thing: Being Asian-American can mean whatever I want it to mean. I am not limited to Hollywood’s portrayal of me, nor am I confined by assumptions or traditions or stereotypes. I am proud of my Chinese heritage, of my parents’ willingness to immigrate to the United States so that I could have a better life. But that does not contradict my love of things deemed “white” or “American.” The two are not mutually exclusive. Being different from my cultural and racial peers does not separate me from them; instead, it shows depth. All of us are not the same, indistinguishable from one to another. We have different opinions, different perspectives, different experiences. And that is a good thing. We should not want, nor be expected, to be the same.
Our culture, our race, our background—these are just parts of us. In reality, we are made up of so much more; we are made up of things that actually matter. It is progressives who obsess over race who tend to pigeonhole us and try to control the way we present ourselves, which is the epitome of ignorance.
Maybe it is time to remember this. Maybe it is time to embrace our differences. You would not think the left needs to hear this, but not all Asian-Americans are the same. Some of them like football and guns and think America is the greatest nation in the world.
Kenny Xu is the president of Color Us United, an advocacy group for a race-blind America and author of the new book An Inconvenient Minority.