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When I first began thinking of college, I didn’t know “Hartford” and “Harvard” were two different places. But I did know that getting into an “Ivory League” university would be harder because I was Asian.
Like many Chinese Americans, my parents are immigrants. They gave up friends, family, and high-status jobs for a minimum-wage shot in a country they didn’t know. Instead of being respected for their linguistic prowess (they each knew seven languages at their prime), their fluent American accents were met with mildly insulting surprise. Instead of climbing a steady corporate ladder, they continue to scrape by as small business owners. And instead of growing up in the expanses of Shanghai, I grew up in the flea markets and convention centers where they kept shop, contributing as both a “little saleslady” and a nuisance.
These are the hardships my parents chose willingly and the ones that I was born into. But they can all be overlooked because this is also the land of endless opportunity that my parents wanted to give me an equal chance to live in. Naturally, I want success for myself—and I will work hard until I reach it—but I also want to succeed for my parents’ sake and to prove with my happiness that, despite all its flaws, this is still a country where it is possible to fly high on passion.
And it is precisely because my parents have sacrificed so much for my education that I, an Asian American, find affirmative action necessary for a fair definition of merit.
When we talk about college admissions, we talk about merit. But what do we mean by this word? Many arguments against affirmative action will cite a 2009 Princeton study, which found that in order to have the same chance for admission at selective universities, Asian Americans had to score 140 points higher on the SATs than white students, 270 points more than Hispanics, and 450 points more than black applicants when controlling for athletics but not extracurriculars.
While this calculation of “merit” is provocative, it is important to remember that people are not numbers. We are our family, our communities—pictures bound by frames that make it necessary for us to take pride in the distance we have travelled rather than the absolute altitudes we have reached.
Instead of focusing on the 2350 I got on a test I spent way too much time studying for, let’s talk instead about how it was always expected that I’d go to college, how my parents constantly reassured me that they’d pay my way, how they didn’t hesitate when paying for a $5,000 summer program that was only two weeks. Let’s talk about how my house was always filled with books, both English and Chinese, how my parents know at least something about everything, and how they were willing to drive me half an hour to school at 6:30 in the morning.
Let’s talk about privilege.
The difference between a 2000 and a 2400 on the SAT is not a reflection of intelligence if the person who scored a 2000 had one try for the test and had to work part-time jobs to support basic expenses. A 4.3 GPA isn’t more impressive than a 4.1 if the person with a 4.1 goes to a school that offers only a quarter of the Advanced Placement classes that the other one does.
Affirmative action is important not because of race itself, but because of the enormous inequalities that are attached to bits of pigment and history. Our president is therefore right to question the equity of affirmative action not because of “discrimination against whites and Asians,” but only because of the vast inequalities and diversity contained within the label of “Asian” itself.
When I think “Asian,” I think East Asian and then Indian. A lot of this has to do with the fact that I am Chinese American, but even more has to do with the fact that these are essentially the only two areas of Asia that I see represented at Harvard. It takes another person to remind me that the Philippines and Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Thailand are also a part of this label.
Unsurprisingly, this lengthy list of countries leads to a lengthy list of discrepancies. For example, Hmong Americans and Cambodian Americans make only half the median income of Indian Americans. And while 70 percent of Indian Americans hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, only 26 percent of Vietnamese Americans hold one. These numbers don’t even begin to touch on the inequality that exists within these ethnicities.
As Harvard moves forward, it should continue to let in the private-school geniuses who see Harvard as home, but it must also let let in those who see Harvard as an opportunity. If the president is serious about racial equality in the college admission process, he must realize that intelligence, hard work, and potential can’t be simplified into numbers, and that the categories we have are imperfect because of their expanse rather than their existence. If Harvard is serious about racial equality, it must stop its favoritism for legacy applicants and wealthy families—who come from all racial backgrounds—and realize that real inequality exists within affirmative action.
And as Asian Americans, we can’t afford to give in to sweeping generalizations that overlook the details of our diversity. We should take pride in the sacrifices we and our families have made and assert our right to success. But we must also remember that sacrifice itself is a strange form of privilege.
Elizabeth Y. Sun ’19, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Government concentrator with a secondary in East Asian Studies in Eliot House.
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