In November 2016, I made a nervous visit to Yale University’s office of admissions. An assistant led me past the lobby, filled with antsy high schoolers awaiting their interviews, and into a side room. She handed me a slim, three-ring binder holding a paper copy of the college application I’d submitted years ago. As I leafed through the pages, she sat on the couch behind me to make sure that I didn’t take any pictures.
I’d hoped to find an answer to a question that had been nagging at the back of my mind during my five years at college: Had hiding my Chinese American identity, to avoid the prohibitively high bar that Asian applicants allegedly face due to affirmative action, helped me get into Yale? I was a senior at that point, so my window for viewing my file while at school, through a loophole made possible by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, was quickly closing. I wrote up my findings for a nonfiction course but on later reflection worried I was dredging up a controversy that was already resolved—the Supreme Court had a few months earlier upheld affirmative action in Fisher v. University of Texas. So I shelved the essay, thinking that any need for me to divulge my experience had passed.
I was wrong, of course, to think the foes of affirmative action had thrown in the towel. The Justice Department announced in August that it would be investigating a university’s affirmative action policies for discrimination against Asians—according to CNN, the DOJ subsequently found Harvard “out of compliance” with federal law last month. The government inquiry has breathed new life into a suit from rejected Asian applicants against Harvard orchestrated by Edward Blum—the same man who recruited Abigail Fisher to accuse the University of Texas of discriminating against white Americans and who has made it his mission to bring an end to affirmative action. Blum is now framing race-based diversity considerations as harming a minority group rather than whites.
This new legal assault taps into allegations of anti-Asian discrimination that opponents of affirmative action have cited for decades. The contentious theory is that we Asians are too dominant in academics and test taking, so colleges have to cap the number of us they would otherwise accept in the interest of diversity. By evoking the Asian American experience, and implicitly alluding to the pernicious model-minority myth, Blum may have finally found the straw that will break the camel’s back.
If this latest attempt to dismantle affirmative action is successful, it will be in part because of a portion of Asians (particularly East Asians) who have real fears that these policies treat them unfairly. Even though a survey last year found that 52 percent of Asian Americans think policies “designed to increase the number of black and minority students on college campuses” are a “good thing,” there is a vocal faction that has been speaking out in opposition. The numbers I hear most often from friends and family are from a Princeton study by Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, who found that Asians must score 450 more points on the SAT than black applicants and 140 more than white ones to be admitted to a given school. (Espenshade himself, though, has said the findings are not a “smoking gun.”)
I believe affirmative action is a necessary policy to counter systemic racism and provide students with a diverse set of peers. But after seeing Asians take center stage in the debate in the months since I’ve graduated, I can’t stop thinking about the disquieting incentives that the college application process is creating for Asian students in America, as it once did for me.
* * *
Looking over my admissions file that day last year, I was reminded of just how much I’d internalized warnings about the “Asian penalty.” Like many other high school seniors, I carefully manicured my identity to cater to the admissions committee. But that effort also involved erasing it in order to appear white, or at least less Asian. I chose to leave the optional race and ethnicity section of the form blank, a practice common among Asian applicants. I assumed “Mak” isn’t a popularly known Chinese surname in the U.S.; my dad used to jokingly point out that it’s one letter off from the Gaelic surname “Mack.” Maybe an oblivious admissions officer would mistake me for Scottish. (I didn’t tell my father how much I’d hoped our family name would be misread.) I marked my intended major as philosophy, thinking this was one of those impractical fields that most sensible Asian parents would not allow their children to pursue. I had no intention of actually following through. The response boxes under the questions inquiring what postgraduate degree and career I desired were left blank. I wanted a J.D. and planned to become a lawyer, but I felt that admitting such a goal would conform to the stereotype that Asians are particularly obsessed with a narrow range of prestigious professional careers.
In my Ivy League essays, I made sure not to mention anything about my heritage. The personal statement I submitted for the University of California applications about my immigrant grandfather was the most emotionally honest one I wrote that year—I knew the UC system had discontinued race-conscious affirmative action, so the essay wouldn’t hurt me.
But while reviewing my application reminded me of the decisions I’d made, it did not explain Yale’s. The only notes I found from the admissions officers were a series of inscrutable numerical ratings: I apparently scored a 5 out of 9 for my “personality.” I’ll never know if I was able to effectively pull off the façade or if it had even been necessary to whitewash my application in the first place. In 2015, Yale destroyed the records containing admissions officers’ comments on applicants after students discovered the FERPA loophole I was exploiting. (But it seems that most everything else is generally still stored. I received an email in 2016 from Harvard, which rejected me, noting that the court in Blum’s suit had ordered the university to provide data on all applicants from 2009–2015. The legal notice further indicated that “academic, extracurricular, demographic, and other information” from my application will be provided to the plaintiffs.)
I had hoped to find some stray markings during my visit indicating that my effort to pass had worked, but the evidence was elusive. And I was still stumped on how to feel about the broader debate. Was I a hypocrite for supporting affirmative action despite my attempts to dodge it during my own application season? Was I also Blum’s patsy for worrying that the admissions process was unfair to Asians? In the following weeks, I sought out people with firmer points of view, hoping they could convince me one way or another on the matter.
A week after the election, I took a train from New Haven, Connecticut, to New York City to meet Brian Taylor, the managing director of an elite college counseling service called Ivy Coach. Taylor’s company explicitly advises Asian applicants to work against racial stereotypes as part of a college-prep sector that presumes anti-Asian discrimination in the admissions process to be a fact. There is a contingent of college consultancy firms and advice books, including one by the Princeton Review, that discourages Asians from spending too much time on violin, math, chess, or computers. I didn’t know if Taylor had any inside knowledge about college admissions, but he wouldn’t have been successful selling this strategy if there weren’t a market for it.
“It’s a moneymaker,” Taylor said of Ivy Coach when I met him at the swanky Soho House, a private six-story club that appeared to be constructed almost entirely out of wood, velvet, green plush, and red leather. If I were still an applicant, I would have had no doubt that a member of this club could finagle an Ivy League acceptance letter for me. When I asked Taylor how much Ivy Coach’s most expensive package cost, he wouldn’t give me an exact figure but said it was more than double what had been reported on CNBC. The number CNBC estimated was $100,000.
“Asian applicants in particular have difficulty standing out. Perhaps it’s ingrained in them to do these same activities that so many other Asian applicants are doing,” he told me. “Admissions officers make rapid-fire decisions, and when they see that it’s an Asian applicant, another one that plays the violin, it inspires a yawn.” Interviews also get some Asian candidates tripped up, Taylor said, because their body language confirms stereotypes of submissiveness. To better illustrate, he leaned forward, bringing his elbows inward toward his stomach, bowed his head, and avoided eye contact. He was essentially mimicking the way I usually sit, though I wasn’t sitting that way at that moment.
I was offended at his notion that we Asians are monolithic and uniformly prepackaged, but then again, I have known a lot of Asians who like math and play the piano—often, ironically, at the behest of immigrant parents who think it will improve admission chances. It was infuriating to admit that there was some small kernel of truth to the way he had characterized us and to discover that he was exploiting that stereotype for personal gain. So had I.
But maybe he just wasn’t attuned to the differences between Asian candidates, because the American mainstream likes to assign minorities to a certain mold. There’s a systemic perception that we Asians are all alike, but what about, say, white applicants who play lacrosse? Are they all cookie-cutter too?
Taylor left me wondering if his racialized admissions strategy was secretly a blessing. The typical image of an Asian Poindexter is harmful, isn’t it? I considered whether it might be good for Asians to discover that mastering classical music or becoming a doctor are not the only prerequisites to making it in America.
Then again, what about those Asian teens who genuinely love the timbre of a violin or want to dedicate their lives to oncology? A cottage industry of college consultants who deter Asian applicants from those pursuits, or at least from acknowledging them on a form, is not the sign of a healthy admissions environment.
A couple of weeks after speaking to Taylor, I drove to the campus of Williams College in Massachusetts to meet Michael Wang, a student there, at a café near the main student center. Over the past several years, Wang has served as a vocal poster child for alleged discrimination against Asians in college admissions. He scored a perfect 36 on the ACT entrance exam, placed third in a national piano contest and first in California for a math competition, competed in national debate tournaments as a finalist, graduated second in a class of more than 1,000 students, and sang in the choir at Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Yet out of the seven Ivy League schools to which he applied, only the University of Pennsylvania accepted him, which he holds as proof of rampant racism in the admissions process. (Even though most students would be happy to get into UPenn.)
Sitting across from him in the back of the coffee shop, I was unsettled, as if I were meeting a doppelgänger. We both had wide faces, unkempt black hair, a propensity for mumbling, and a similar taste in loose-fitting jeans and earth-toned hoodies. We were both Chinese college seniors reflecting with unease on our application seasons.
How could two people so similar have such different acceptance outcomes? The only pertinent distinction I could think of was that he had openly embraced the “Asian” extracurriculars I’d pushed away out of fear of typecasting. It was as if the deciding factor in our admissions fortunes had been his honesty and my cynicism. I asked him if he thought as a high schooler that his passions would put him at a disadvantage.
“I knew I was a very stereotypical Asian American student applying for college,” he told me. “But in my essays, one difference I wanted to really say was that not many Asian Americans pursue a career in politics.” He wanted to convey in his application a desire to “break through this bamboo ceiling that says Asian Americans aren’t able to speak out.”
To Wang, this complex self-portrait didn’t mean he needed to shun math and piano, passions he pursued in high school and marked as extracurricular activities on his application. He wrote his personal essay about how his political aspirations stem from learning of the Japanese war crimes committed in WWII during a visit to his homeland, China. He checked “Asian” in the optional “race and ethnicity” section.
And now he was speaking out—doing an unstereotypically Asian thing in response to being (allegedly) stereotyped. When I asked him about this decision to bring his qualms to the public, he told me, “If we as a minority are having our rights sacrificed for the majority, or other minorities, that’s not OK. We’re not a majority. We’re still a minority.”
Later, I Skyped with Wang to press him on the negative impact that outlawing affirmative action would have on other minorities. “It’s not that we’re trying to steal their spots,” he said. “It’s that we want equal and fair treatment.” He didn’t think we should abolish affirmative action but that we should perhaps consider economic over racial diversity. He primarily wanted to highlight the injustice and encourage tweaks to the system, though he was unsure what those tweaks might be.
I wasn’t sure what to make of Wang. I worried he was helping to force a wedge between Asians and other minorities, preventing the cooperation necessary between people of color to overcome systemic racism. Yet I also sympathized with his desire to relieve future Asian applicants of the same pressures that we’d had. I’d won the admissions lottery to the school of my dreams by trying to pass myself off as someone else. He hadn’t—he had the courage to present himself honestly, to acknowledge the side of himself that fits into the “Asian” mold along with the side that resists the stereotypes. I admired him for it.
* * *
It’s been a year since I looked at my admissions file and asked the questions I had gone so long avoiding. With Asians and affirmative action back in the news, now feels like the moment for me to resolve my own ambivalence. But it’s turned out to be harder than I’d thought.
While I don’t believe we should abolish or radically change affirmative action, I’m also hesitant to accuse Asians of betraying other people of color just because they’re questioning the admissions system. As Jeannie Suk Gersen wrote in the New Yorker, perhaps it is not contradictory to support race-conscious affirmative action that bolsters black and Latino representation while still seeking changes to ensure that the deck isn’t stacked against Asian applicants in favor of white Americans, who benefit the most from soft preferences like legacy admissions and political clout. I believe in affirmative action, but I also can’t accept other aspects of the admissions process as good enough when it comes to Asian Americans. It’s hard to say just how much of a role bias plays when the process is so opaque.
There are multiple ways to interpret my college application experience, all of which hinge on whether you believe the allegations of anti-Asian discrimination in college admissions. If you believe that the discrimination does exist, then my attempts at passing were a way to sidestep a policy that treats me unfairly. If you believe it doesn’t exist, then I bought into a myth designed to slander affirmative action for the benefit of a white majority, giving rise to an anxiety-ridden climate in which Asian applicants are constantly told that they need to take steps to hide their identities.
I recently reached out to Wang again to see if his feelings had changed given the DOJ’s new crusade. In a Facebook message, he replied, “Asian Americans are being used as a pawn,” but still thinks some good can come out of these challenges if they motivate colleges to reconsider how they look at Asians in the application process. He added, “I don’t believe affirmative action would be shut down that easily.”
I’m less confident and more afraid that the baby will be discarded with the bathwater. I worry that if affirmative action weakens further or is eliminated, and our universities become handcuffed in helping those for whom the scales of society are tipped drastically against, Asians will be the reason.
I’ve wondered if my wholehearted support for affirmative action has persisted because I am no longer facing the gantlet of college applications. But if I’m honest, I’ve already been deeply affected by it in ways that have made me who I am. It wasn’t just during the application process that I contorted myself to avoid Asian stereotypes. For nearly all of high school, I’d held in my mind an image of Asian American identity and then ran as far away from it as I could.
I avoided participating in the future doctors’ association, ping-pong club, the robotics team, and the Asian culture group. I quit piano, viewing the instrument as a totem of my race’s overeager striving in America. I opted to spend much of my time writing plays and film reviews—pursuits I genuinely did find rewarding but which I also chose so I wouldn’t be pigeonholed. I enrolled in a Mandarin course during my senior year of high school, never having learned a Chinese dialect as a kid, but I dropped it a few weeks in. I told people it was because I was too busy, but in actuality I didn’t want Mandarin on my transcript and as a second language on my application, which I feared could be a red flag for the admissions committee. There would be plenty of time to take Mandarin in college after my acceptance.
I often think about what I would say if I had a chance to speak to that teenage Aaron while he was plotting a course to gain admission to an elite college. I would sympathize with his calculus—a prestigious diploma can pay lifelong dividends that might outweigh the seemingly trivial choices of what classes to take and activities to pursue. But I’d also encourage him to consider the real weight of contorting his identity to win an Ivy League acceptance letter. I would warn him that his attempts to pass as white wouldn’t be just cynically checking boxes on an application—it would involve excising most anything he deemed as superficially “Asian” or meaningfully Chinese from his high school experience. I would give my teenage self a look into his future after college, proudly informing him that I’ve just graduated with a Yale diploma and a wealth of opportunities before me. But I’d also confess that I may never be able to shake the thought nagging at the back of my mind: I’m a sellout.