Asian: To Check or Not To Check

7 Dec

When I read Jesse Washington’s revealing article “New Asian Strategy: Don’t Check ‘Asian,'” I found myself nodding with a sense of recognition.  He writes that many Asian American college applicants, especially those from mixed heritages, are declining to identify themselves as Asian on their applications for fear of being discriminated against.  In the story he interviews some applicants who chose not to check off the Asian box because of a pervasive belief among Asian Americans that they are not being evaluated individually but against each other.  Studies have shown that Asian Americans need higher test scores than applicants of other ethnicities to gain admission to the top colleges.

For those reasons, I advised my daughter not to check off her race on the Common Application, especially since it was optional.  Her last name is not obviously Asian-sounding either; she wrote about getting in touch with her Chinese heritage in her personal essay so it’s moot.  And when she goes on interviews, her ethnicity becomes immediately obvious.  But my motivation is the same as that of some of the candidates interviewed for the article.

My husband, who is also of Chinese descent, said that he did not check off “Asian” either when he was applying to colleges because he did not want to be evaluated against other Asian Americans.  He declined to check any boxes.

I suspect that when colleges select their class, it is a nuanced exercise.  I once heard a talk given by the dean of college admissions of an elite midwestern university, who spoke to parents at our high school about how top colleges put together a class.  Because there are many more eligible candidates than there are spaces, a college has to do the hard job of paring down the final list of acceptances.  He gave an example: if there were too many football captains in the pool, they would cut a percentage of football captains and put them on the wait list.  The same holds true if there were too many pianists, violinists, tennis players, or those from one region of the country and so on.  He didn’t say it but it’s not hard to imagine a college needing to cut back on the number of qualified Asian applicants to maintain the college’s vision of racial balance and diversity on campus.  As one interviewee in the article puts it: “…a lot of Asians, they have perfect SATs, perfect GPAs, … so it’s hard to let them all in.”

I’m interested in hearing from readers: what would you advise your child to do?

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9 Responses to “Asian: To Check or Not To Check”

  1. Tiger December 7, 2011 at 1:57 PM #

    I have been an alumni interviewer for Princeton University for many years, and I have interviewed many Asian candidates. Generalizing is a dangerous thing to do, but oftentimes, the Asian candidates I interview are very “programmed.” Their academic records are excellent, and they often play tennis and a musical instrument. However, these candidates are often “flat” when answering questions that don’t have a right-or-wrong answer. When asked, “Why do you want to go to Princeton?” I have received answers like, “My parents expect me to go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton.” Sometimes there is no personality conveyed during the interview. What are you passionate about? How do you feel about different issues? Statistics about Asian candidates that are given in newspapers do not tell the whole story.

    • Wanchee Wang December 8, 2011 at 11:51 AM #

      Hi Tiger,
      Thanks for your comments. I agree that generalizing is a dangerous thing to do because we may suddenly find ourselves sliding down a slippery slope and not knowing how to climb back up to higher ground. Many Asian American students play musical instruments because their parents believe it is a worthy artistic endeavor and they want their children exposed to it. It’s a strong cultural preference. In the same vein, you probably see fewer Asian American athletes because that used to be considered not as worthy an activity as music. But, things are changing and I suspect you will see more Asian American athletes in future years, participating in different sports. As for why tennis is popular, I don’t really know why that is.
      I think your hints on how to present oneself better on interviews are useful: don’t be afraid to show one’s personality, discuss passions, whatever they may be; show the interviewer why the college should accept the candidate. It’s a chance for written words on an application to take on flesh and blood.
      Thanks for reading!

    • Susannah Prill December 14, 2011 at 11:02 AM #

      Its not just asian americans that are not as interested in sports, many european americans are eschewing sports these days because the predominant sports culture at times seems to be one of “win at all costs” and we want our children to develop more time honored values and a longer term perspective. I would hesitate to assume the reason a group of people avoids certain activities and work a little harder to understand the underlying reason. It may not be a case of “can’t” but “choose not to” and they may have very good reasons that could be helpful to know.

  2. Susannah Prill December 8, 2011 at 12:13 PM #

    I can’t say what I would advise my child to do, but personally I would refuse to answer. I wish everyone would refuse to answer, personally I think it’s discriminatory. From time to time we get these sort of questionnaires at work and I either refuse to answer or pick something extremely unlikely such as “Alaskan”.

    • Susannah Prill December 14, 2011 at 10:51 AM #

      Thanks for fixing my typos! I always see them AFTER I click post!

  3. Penny December 9, 2011 at 10:00 AM #

    Knowing how the system works now, I will advise my children not checking that box. To me this is another from of discrimination,

  4. rufus jones December 14, 2011 at 3:08 PM #

    If declaring one’s ethnicity is optional, I would not check any box. But, I think your husband is correct in opining that if one has to make a declaration, he/she should choose the one with which he/she most identifies. On the other hand, some colleges at times are looking to fill a quota of certain “minority” or ethnic groups, in which case it might be to one’s advantage to declare that group in demand with which one can legitimately identify.

    One of your most thought provoking blog columns in quite a while!

    • Wanchee Wang December 14, 2011 at 4:46 PM #

      Thanks Rufus. It’s precisely the word “quota” that gets everyone in trouble because the Supreme Court has ruled that quotas are illegal. So colleges want to stay away from that. The way they do it now, it may be discriminatory in the sense that it is not meritorious but it may not be illegal, or at least, it hasn’t been tested.

  5. Mike May 1, 2012 at 2:29 AM #

    I think the problem with Asians, I’m an Asian myself, is that we accept the fact that we’re blatantly prejudiced against. We do nothing to fight back against it and only try to find ways around it. The question of whether we should check the “Asian” box on applications, in my opinion, is an example of this. I have a feeling if there was a survey conducted regarding our loyalties, many asians would regard themselves as Chinese, Koreans, etc. living in America. This is a problem and it goes both ways. Asians are not considered Americans no matter how many generations have lived here. We are marginalized and keep quiet about it. The racism against Jeremy Lin showed us that racism against asians is still accepted to some degree. In the case of college admissions, asians are unabashedly discriminated against. The notion that asians need to score higher than whites on standardized tests is ridiculous. We pay our taxes, fight for freedom and contribute to the democratic process as much as any other American and we should be treated as such. The idea of racial balance is obviously racist and will always give the nod to majority whites, even though they may be less qualified. It’s a way of allowing the people in power to retain their power against the “others”.

    The poster Tiger mentioned that asians don’t perform well on interviews but I’m sure many of those asians applicants that studied so hard for the SATs have also prepared for the interviews and are well-equipped to handle all interview questions. I believe that colleges are too afraid of a plurality of asians at their school. The problem is that they don’t see us as Americans, but as some kind of sub-American that should fill in the rest of the spaces after white people get theirs first. The same kind of discrimination was done against Jews when Jews were feared to be taking over colleges. History has repeated itself and now as Jews are considered white the same thing is happening to Asians. We need to change our mentalities, consider ourselves Americans and fight for equality the way Americans do, through activism, proactivity and litigation.

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