A story about SFFA V. Harvard College, Asian America, and a peculiar shift in thinking.
On October 13th of 2016, I received an interesting email titled, “Notice to Applicants for Admission to Harvard College". My initial reaction was to laugh, as I wondered, a then junior of MIT, if I had somehow “gotten in” on the Harvard wait list I was placed on three years prior and had immediately removed myself from.
Instead, when I opened my email, I was told that my application to Harvard from 2014 was subpoenaed.
My application was subpoenaed as part of the lawsuit Students For Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College (Harvard Corporation). Reading the text of the notice I was confused. I tried to learn more about the case. And the more I learned about it, the more concerned I became. As the lawsuit developed over the past two years, I wasn’t sure what would happen. In 2016, I was concerned my data and my application, though anonymous, would be used to “prove” claims I didn’t stand by and further the goals of someone with skewed objectives and frankly racist motivations.
My fears came true, as that’s more or less what ended up happening.
Recently a New York Times article titled “Harvard Rated Asian-American Applicants Lower on Personality Traits” went viral, and the lawsuit reached a peak in public awareness. I watched a lot of Facebook discussions ensue. I felt angry and powerless, because I felt like this was the perfect, almost textbook example of how obscured actors, click-bait headlines, and the chaos that is Facebook can all coincide to make people argue passionately while being horribly misinformed. Instead of patient, thought-provoking discussions, instead of open-minds, we are in an age of snap decisions and polarization. We forget history (or don’t bother to research it), we align ourselves with the very people working against us. In no community are these contradictions more apparent than among Asian Americans.
Asian in America
I am 22 years old, and a recent college graduate. My mother first came from Nanjing, China to the United States in 1990 for graduate school. All through her graduate education, I’m sure she still thought of herself as primarily Chinese rather than American. She spent much of her time with fellow Chinese international studetns, and sought out Chinese communities wherever she moved in the United States.
At some point while I was growing up, my mother became more Chinese-American than Chinese. Like many diaspora, she occupies a middle ground between the U.S. and her home nation. People can always tell now — based on what she knows or doesn’t, based on how she speaks — that she hasn’t properly lived in China for a long time. Her culture froze with her when she came to the United States, and it is that culture, of China in the 1980’s, that she passed down to me. Her sister moved to Canada and that is where my relatives still live now. Because this is how I grew up, with a solidly North American, Chinese community, I have always thought of myself as Chinese-American, too. Yet, my mother is still not completely “American” either, and though I grew up here, I felt that way too.
While in college at MIT I took a class called “21G.190: Modern Chinese Fiction and Cinema”. I decided as part of my final project, I wanted to produce a short video. I went around campus and collected stories from current students, and did some research on Asian-American artists. I was especially interested in a friend of mine, Emily, who is the most “Asian-American” person I know. I learned that, in some parts of California, there are communities of multigenerational Asian-Americans — families that have lived in the United States for years, and can trace their ancestry back to railroads or gold rushes and internement camps. They are Asian-American the way black people are called “African-American” — now maybe, depending on who you ask, more “American”, but still a unique subset of people between “Asian” and “American”.
There was a time when the Asian community knew exactly where it stood among the hierarchies of an oppressive white system:
They were Black.
In the 1800's, railroad workers from East Asia started emigrating to the U.S. for work. At the time, the U.S. census contained limited demographic descriptors, so many Asian immigrants were simply marked as “black”. Treatment by other whites varied, but at that time, American society more or less lumped Chinese and Asian Americans in with the same “colored” category of indigineous and black people. The photo above, “Yellow Peril supports Black Power”, is one of my favorite photos from the 1960’s civil rights period. I look at it and don’t know where that solidarity went, and I hope it is (or can be) still alive today.
From here, I can only speculate, however, there was some turning point when many Asian people decided they were no longer “colored”. This doesn’t surprise me, but rather than forming a strong independent voice and entity, many Asian people and Asian countries aligned themselves with whiteness. It’s something that never fails to confuse me, as it is whiteness which created Japanese internment camps and the Chinese Exclusion Act. It is whiteness that prevented those ancestral railroad workers, which built America, both from going back home and from really living freely in the U.S. It is whiteness and colonialism that created China’s “Century of Humiliation”, that bombed Hiroshima, that Gandhi had to fight against in India. I don’t know where or when this was forgotten, but in 2018, white and mixed-race models pose for ads across Shanghai and Tokyo. My floormate tells a joke from her mother, who said to her, “I took pains to get here from China so that you could marry a rich white man”. Whiteness has become such an obsession, even a fantasy of many Asian societies, to the point that we are easily tricked by an old white man into believing the best way forward is to turn against “colored” people, when of course, we have always been “colored” ourselves.
In the same class on Chinese Cinema, my classmates would discuss how they, Asian MIT students, felt they were at a personal disadvantage due to Affirmative Action or race-conscious admissions. MIT’s undergraduate student body is composed of ~27% Asian students, compared to the 4% Asian population of the United States, and ~7% black students compared to the 13% black population of the United States.
SFFA v. Harvard College
In 2013, the case Fisher v. University of Texas reached a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Abigail Fisher, a student rejected by University of Texas at Austin argued that the race-conscious admissions process for University of Texas was unfair and discriminatory. Abigail failed to meet the automatic admission requirement for UT Austin, which accepts any student in the top 10% of every Texas high school.
In 2013, the court held that race-consciousness had a place in college admissions only if other race-neutral methods would fail to produce a diverse student body. In 2016, University of Texas won, by proving that their race-conscious process was, in fact, necessary for producing a diverse student body. This result was not enough for Edward Blum, the man who funded and organized Abigail’s case and fueled its way to the supreme court. So he, apparently, decided to turn to Harvard.
Edward Blum is the man behind SFFA V. Harvard College, not the vague, aggregate community of Asian parents and students most people think. In fact, I have been able to find very little information on who, if any, Asian people are involved. Even if there were, I would not be surprised, and possibly not even upset, if a lot of Asian people backed and pushed forward a case like this. What is upsetting is that the insecurities of the Asian American community are being manipulated by a white man for his agenda.
We are being used.
My grandmother’s grandfather, my great-great-grandfather, who must have lived sometime in the 1850’s in Shanghai, China, was an art forger. We think this is a funny story in our family. He was very skilled at varnishing artworks, and during a step where the top layer of varnish is peeled away, he could peel off a single, unbroken sheet. On that sheet would be a ghost of the painting, which he could “trace” over, place on rice paper, and sell as a high-quality fake. Yet, my grandmother’s family was very poor, despite his quality varnishing business and his forgery on the side. All the money went to opium, which of course, came to China from the British.
Many people have spent time talking about these issues, affirmative action and representation in universities, as things that black and latinx students need, things that Asian people could do without. I would contend that actually, by following Blum and people like him, we harm ourselves. It has been shown that those who “take” spots from Asian-Americans in elite colleges are not underrepresented minorities like latinx and black students. It’s priviliged white people. Note the modifier “priviliged”, too — it’s both class and race that is at play. I don’t necessarily mind reforms of affirmative action; many people have spoken about “socioeconomic action” instead, but taking into account “background” in admissions, whatever that might mean, is still desperately needed. The last four years that I was in college, the University of Missouri president resigned over incidents of hate across the campus, including a swastika etched into a bathroom wall and the student body president being called the “n”-word. A Yale fraternity held a “white girls only” party, and faculty members told students to accept their peers wearing culturally insensitive costumes for Halloween. At my high school in Colorado, Asian kids were regularly bullied or ridiculed for just being Asian, and it got so bad for a family friend in Douglas County that her daughter would come home in tears every day. Discrimination is alive and well, and it affects Asian people too.
Don’t take us back to the 1850’s. Don’t allow, in this crazy day and age, you and your parents and your friends to believe the lie sold to you by a priviliged white man, the same way they sold us opium.
I don’t know where my great-great-grandfather got his opium, but I’m sure it wasn’t from a British man. It was probably someone who looked like him, another Chinese person, someone who earned money by drugging his own people. I wonder how that dealer was convinced by the British to do that, to bring down families and leave people like my grandmother in poverty. As I look around today, I might understand now, how truths are twisted to people, how they’re convinced to go along with something they would never do on their own.
I am less concerned, actually, by the people who most readily go along with this narrative, people that are my parents’ generation or older. I know they grew up somewhere else, and often have a very different, rigid mindset. I’m more concerned about those kids in my Chinese cinema class, who are my age, grew up here, and are so ready to believe that the right way forward is to fight other minority students. I don’t know how we lost sight of what the real problems are. I don’t know why, in China and across East Asia, white models pose for ads, and lighter hair is more beautiful. I only hope that going forward, we can remember to join hands like we did in the civil rights era. I know there are at least a few people out there who think like me.