Fighting for Depth

At Harvard and beyond, superficially positive Asian stereotypes carry harmful—and complex—consequences.

Grace M. Lee

Many Asian-American students, like varsity basketball player Jeremy S. Lin ’10, are forced to spend much of their time and energy explaining to other Harvard students how they don’t fit the “Asian” mold.

Peipei X. Zhang ’08, Asian-American and unrepentant English concentrator, wants you to know that she does not like math. Not science, either, though she’s good at both. Economics is boring, and keeping quiet is overrated. “When I was younger, I was the fuckup. I did my schoolwork, but I played a lot. I wasn’t as studious as every other Asian kid. Like, there’s a lot of shy Asian girls, but I’m not them,” Zhang says, fashionably groomed in a cable-knit sweater and tweed shorts.

“When I was applying to college, everybody expected me to fail, because I wasn’t fitting into the stereotype of a good Asian child, according to the traditional Asian parents. Among my parents’ friends, no parent told their child, ‘Be like Peipei,’” she says.

In high school, Zhang excelled academically and participated in a slew of extracurriculars, but it was her outgoing personality that stood out: teachers told her she was “too loud” to be an Asian girl. And yet, Zhang succeeded in winning a spot at Harvard. The Chinese-American community she grew up with in Boston was shocked. “When I got into Harvard, the other parents were like, ‘How the fuck did she get in?’” she says.

While Zhang and the rest of Harvard’s future Class of 2008 were preparing their college applications, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel L. Golden ’78 was writing a series of articles on the inequalities of admissions practices at top-tier universities that would earn him a Pulitzer Prize. Many of the articles, and the vast majority of Golden’s book—“The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates,” published in September—focus on preferences given to wealthy white students. However, sandwiched between chapters on “A Break for Faculty Brats” and “The Legacy Establishment” lies a section that touches a nerve recently exposed by affirmative action cases at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Michigan: “The New Jews: Asian-Americans Need Not Apply.”

Much like Jews were before the 1950s, Asian-Americans are “shortchanged relative to their academic performance,” writes Golden. They are held to a higher academic standard in admissions, and are routinely admitted to the highest-level schools at the lowest rates of any ethnic group, including whites. Golden interviewed several current and former admissions officers at these schools to tease out a justification for the numbers. As it turned out, no sweet-talking was required. Official after official went on the record for Golden on the matter. The reasons for the rejections? One Korean student, applying from a top prep school, got pegged at MIT as “yet another textureless math grind.” At Vanderbilt, a former admissions staffer offered that Asians “are very good students, but don’t provide the kind of intellectual environment” that colleges are looking for.

THE FIRST “MODEL MINORITY”

On January 7, 1928, six years after Harvard President and acknowledged xenophobe A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, decided to make it his business to keep Jews out of Harvard, an article called “Trial By Jewry” appeared in The Harvard Crimson. The article was a short news piece—not an editorial—running just 315 words, half of which were devoted to a racist attack on Jews.

“Individually, by their artistic ability and business acumen the Jews play an important part in American life. But, in their race clannishness, they choose to constitute a distinct body. And as such they are a perfectly legitimate subject for discussion,” the author says. “Race pride is a powerful and admirable force, but it would seem that the Jews could attain the desired friendly unity with the Gentile much sooner if the chord were not struck so loudly and often.” These few damning words sum up the experience of the Jewish student at Harvard, and indeed the Jewish person in America, until the mid-1950s. Jews, many of whom were only first- or second-generation immigrants, if that, were seen as pseudo-American. But due to their growing population and prosperity, it was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore their presence.

As Jewish numbers climbed at the institutions of higher learning that had once been reserved for long-established families of white Protestant descent, anti-Semitism increased. Nevertheless, by the time Lowell took over as Harvard president in 1909, Harvard was more than 20 percent Jewish, according to a recent New Yorker article. Alarmed, President Lowell eventually instituted a quota that cut the population of Jews at Harvard down to 15 percent over his 24-year tenure. To justify its actions, Harvard turned to Jewish stereotypes of “race clannishness” and abilities limited to purely brainy pursuits. The message sent was that Jews as an ethnicity were one-dimensional, presented little benefit to a university but brainpower without personality, and tended to self-segregate. Almost 100 years later, Harvard’s attitudes toward Asian-Americans, another “model minority,” has echoes of its past attitudes towards Jews, both in its admissions and in its approach to University life in general.

SOUND FAMILIAR?

At Harvard, Asian-American concern over suspected discrimination in admissions predates Golden’s book. In 1992, an admissions official met with members of the Asian-American Assocation (AAA) to reassure them that, despite reports that Asian-American students consistently had the lowest admit rates of any ethnic group at Harvard while having the highest SAT scores, a quota designed to lower their numbers did not exist. The difference between the rates of admission between Asian and white students was chalked up to preferences for legacy and recruited athletes, two categories that are filled almost entirely by white students. Despite the lower rate of admission—The Crimson reported that for the Class of 1995, Asians were admitted at a 17 percent rate, whites at 19 percent, Hispanics at 20 percent, and black students at 32 percent—the population of Asian students at Harvard has dropped only slightly from a high of a full fifth of the student body in 1992 to about 17.7 percent now. Asians made up 3.6 percent of the national population in the 2000, and that figure is rising, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73 writes in an e-mail that this discrepancy in representation doesn’t concern the Admissions Office. “A fundamental thing to understand is that we do not think of ‘representativeness’ as a goal of our admissions process. We do not use goals, targets, or quotas in choosing among applicants,” writes McGrath Lewis. “When our proportions of Asian-Americans are larger than their proportion in the country as a whole, that simply indicates how well those who did apply did compared with other applicants in our pool.” As for Golden’s accusations of stereotyping, McGrath Lewis denies it occurs: “It would be incorrect to say that our Committee reviews Asian-American students by criteria different from those we use for other applicants,” she writes. “Nor does our Committee operate on the stereotype that Asian-American students are ‘poorly rounded’. We have too much experience with students of all backgrounds to make that assumption.”

Golden’s experience, however, suggests otherwise. He writes that Harvard evaluators “ranked Asian American candidates on average below whites in ‘personal qualities,’” and repeatedly described them as “‘quiet/shy, science/math oriented, and hard workers.’” While McGrath Lewis and other high-ranking admissions officials deny the presence of stereotyping, the lower-level staffers responsible for individual applications acknowledge that such practices exist, according to Golden’s book. The reason lies in the language of the stereotype—the Asian student is good at math and science, talented with the piano or violin, quiet, and shy. He or she can be found more often than not in Cabot Science Library until the wee hours of the morning, bent over chemistry or economics textbooks, while other students socialize. Unlike the often explicitly negative labels placed on Latino and black students, on the surface the Asian-American is a ‘model minority.’ Since Asians are doing so well in getting into college and getting jobs, the argument runs, they don’t need the lip-service respect paid to other minorities.

Several white students at dinner in one of the House dining halls, who asked not to be named, offered their own takes on the stereotype. One said, “Well, they’re science concentrators. They stick together. Socially inept.” Another agreed, “Studious…oh, yeah, asocial, definitely. I mean, that just comes from studying, and not knowing how to talk to people.” A third: “Yeah, I guess I think of them as having broken English.” In other words, the anti-Peipei Zhang.

Asians concentrating in the humanities or participating in unscholarly pursuits have come to expect surprised reactions from white students. Jeremy S. Lin ’10 is a recruited basketball player, a member of the varsity team. He is also Asian-American. Since matriculating here, he’s discovered that these two facts are difficult for many Harvard students to accept together. “Some people don’t believe that I play basketball,” Lin says. “When people see me, they automatically assume I’m the worst on the team. They ask me if I only play when we’re already winning by a lot, things like that.” Again and again, from scribblings in the margins of college applications to dining hall conversations, the same themes arise—softpedaled by patronizing concessions to perceived skill in the sciences, the accusation is that Asian-Americans do not speak the university’s language, do not contribute to university community, and do not participate in university life. According to many Asian-Americans, the fact that racism directed towards them is rarely direct is no less damaging to the community. Yet, others consider themselves lucky that that’s all it is.

One Asian student, who lived in a virtually all-white community before coming to Harvard, doesn’t see the problem. “I think because I haven’t had the whole ‘identify with your own color’ thing, sometimes it’s annoying to me when people get really into [Asian-American activism],” the student, who asked not to be named, says. “Racism was a fact of life for me, growing up. When you’re on the playground, and you’re in an argument, sometimes it comes down to you being called a Chink. And that’s terrible, but this stuff is minor. Pick your battles, I guess.”

HISTORY OF A STEREOTYPE

Like Jews at the turn of the century, Asians in America and at Harvard often come from immigrant families. Many Asian students cite the experiences of their parents or grandparents, who often fled politically unstable countries for a more secure life in the United States, as a significant factor in decisions about career paths. Lisa S. Pao ’08, an English concentrator and second-generation immigrant, identifies that mentality as a source of the stereotype. “You watch what it means to your parents, to come to another country and work so hard and build a better life—it’s sometimes an unfortunate assumption that having a better future means more money,” Pao says. “And that’s why a lot of the majors that [Asians] who get into college pick are medicine, economics, business.” Zhang’s parents, though they supported her in her choice to study English, weren’t fully comfortable with it until she landed an animation internship last summer at Nickelodeon Studios, proving one could concentrate in the humanities and also eventually get a job.

Members of many minority groups who, like Zhang, see clichéd portrayals of their own ethnicities doing battle with often exclusively white images of what a typical American should be, often resolve at an early age to define themselves against that stereotype. “One issue that’s often overlooked is the social impact of being seen as a minority. You hear people say ‘When I was growing up, I thought to be Asian was ugly. I didn’t want to be Asian. I wished I was white,’” says AAA Co-President Sanby Lee ’08.

“I hated being Chinese.” Zhang says. “Now I know it’s part of my heritage, and I don’t have to conform to what’s expected of my ethnicity. I would go to Chinese [language] school, and I was just the oddball.”

Often, it’s only in high-school, college, or later that Asian-Americans and others are able to create their own conceptions of their ethnicities and how to relate to them. Even then, they can face criticism from others. “If you do something that’s not seen as typically Asian, there’s a tendency for people to treat you as not Asian,” Lee says. Government concentrator Edward Y. Lee ’08 says, “There will be Asian-Americans who will be like, ‘Why are you acting so white?’”

The views of those like the prejudiced admissions staffers Golden interviewed are always at risk of becoming the identity that minority groups embrace for themselves, making them even more harmful. The luxury of exploring one’s academic and extracurricular interests without worrying if they contribute to the marginalization of one’s community is a privilege that non-minorities take for granted, and that many Asian-American students feel they don’t yet have.

“The hardest thing for me was realizing that [my concentration] is a stereotype. I didn’t know until I was in my late teens, and that was difficult,” says Molecular and Cellular Biology concentrator Alisa T. Zhang ’08. She is typical of Asian students concentrating in sciences, who are aware of the stereotype and struggle to resist being limited by it. The externally positive nature of the Asian stereotype—So good at math! So skilled in the lab!—becomes a burden when it circumscribes the role Asians play at Harvard, and it is difficult to escape when so many students, for a variety of reasons, feel they have to sheepishly admit to being part of it.

These students are also confronted with pressure from older members of the Asian community to “Americanize.” “I do think the need to assimilate is bigger in the Asian community [than among other minorities],” says Sanby Lee, who is also a Crimson editor. “But I think that surface conception of self-segregation ignores other factors.”

BREAKING FREE

Edward Lee, vice-chair of the Undergraduate Council Finance Committee, co-founder of the Asian-American Political Initiative, and aspiring politician, has made it his mission to encourage Asian-Americans at Harvard and across the country to speak up and join American political dialogue in more concentrated ways. “Throughout history, Asians would rather stay silent than stick out,” he says. They want their children to be the cream of the mainstream. I think [taking the safe route] is more of a hazard than it is beneficial.”

Asian Americans feature relatively little in the UC, and even less so in national politics. Often, Asians and the American majority feel mutual discomfort with the weaving of Asians into the political and social fabric, and that discomfornt manifests itself in a reluctance for either side to get involved in the public sphere. An unfortunate consequence is that Asians then continue to be marginalized. “There’s not even an idea that Asian-American history is part of our history,” says Sanby Lee. “We’ve brought this up with faculty before, and the gist of it was that they don’t see a need for [an Asian-American studies department] because there’s already East Asian studies. It’s a lack of awareness of the issue that just makes it very difficult.” The culture of silence on both sides of the issue is what allows, among other things, college administrators to tell a Wall Street Journal reporter that Asians all look the same on paper without fear of retaliation.

The goal of unity, however, is further compromised by the fact that the sheer number of cultures amassed under the label of “Asian” makes it difficult to achieve the kind of homogenous front implied by the names of groups like AAA. When people use the word Asian, much of the time they mean East Asian, and usually specifically Chinese. East Asians, meaning those with Chinese, North and South Korean, Japanese, or Taiwanese ancestry, make up a majority of the Asians at Harvard. Often, Southeast Asians—the region variably composed of India, Vietnam, Thailand, and several other countries—are lumped in with East Asians on ethnic surveys. In the smaller-scale world of college admissions, the Common Application, used by over 300 colleges, splits applicants of Asian heritage not into categories of East Asian and Southeast Asian descent but into “Asians” and “Asian-Americans”. Southeast Asian-Americans with heritage from countries like Vietnam and Laos have some of the country’s lowest high-school graduation rates, but in applications are indistinguishable from their East Asian counterparts, who are generally much more socioeconomically and educationally advantaged. Efforts to reduce the numbers of Asians in colleges, mostly directed toward East Asians, end up penalizing Southeast Asians, Golden writes in the book. Beyond the Southeast Asian/East Asian divide, there are historical factions within the groups. Until only a few generations ago, Japan and China were bitter enemies (see sidebar); now, they’ve been bound together in a designation that, while useful for political reasons, is somewhat meaningless in other, important cultural ways.

As far as making a stronger Asian-American voice heard on campus, to the extent that it can be done when an entire continent is lumped together under one term, Sanby Lee recognizes the challenge: “I definitely think that it comes up again and again in not wanting to be politically involved, that stereotype of being very apathetic, passive, not wanting to stand out.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Asian-Americans occupy a unique position on Harvard’s campus, represented in pure numbers at as much as four times their national presence yet barely acknowledged in the administrative and political life of the university. If the community’s tag as the “new Jews” holds up, in fifty years Asian students could have an even more considerable stake in higher education. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jews, who still comprise less than two percent of the American population, comprised one third of the Ivy League in 2000—an astronomical amount, and one now readily accepted by admissions administrators, who no longer force Jewish applicants to do battle against a stereotype designed to prevent them from succeeding. In the Ivies of the future, Asian students will make up increasing numbers of alumni applicants—a highly courted demographic to top schools. They may eventually enjoy the same prize Jewish students have won; first, to gain a seat at the table without adhering to American stereotypes, and then, to use that power to redefine the conception of what it is to be American. But a major roadblock to Asian-American empowerment is that same old stereotype, imposed upon them by society and internalized by the community, that can polarize its members when it should unite them to reject it. But as the community expands its historical conventions to include a new tradition of speaking up when necessary to defend its places at Harvard and in America, Asian Americans are slowly but surely putting strength behind their numbers.

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