Are you fucking kidding me? These are the people for whom thousands of Asian American kids were told that they weren’t personable enough, weren’t likable enough, weren’t human enough? People so infested with privilege and lack of merit that their parents had to pay $500,000 to bribe goddamn USC, a football team with a school attached to it?
By now, I’m sure you’ve heard of the college admissions scandal, aka Operation Varsity Blues, aka that hilarious college clusterfuck involving Aunt Becky and a Desperate Housewife. For quite some time, we’ve known all about the usual backdoor paths: the donors of buildings, the developmental admits, the obscure elitist sport recruits, etc. Some even defended them as necessary evils to subsidize the educations of the non-rich. But the outrageously blatant nature of the exposed cheating, from increased SAT time limits to photoshopped pictures, is really something else.
Can you imagine what would’ve happened if a bunch of Asians were in the middle of this? Would it be limited to raging against wealth and privilege? No, an entire continent and racial phenotype would be impugned. So let’s thank god that that didn’t happen (the one Asian named defendant notwithstanding).
We’ve done podcasts before criticizing the admissions criteria of Harvard and other elite colleges that baselessly penalize Asian American students for having lesser personalities than students of other races. Our anger at those schools and their practices was not because we necessarily want admissions to those places. This is not about a bunch of greedy and prestige-whoring Asians all scheming to mindlessly storm the gates of whichever school US News deems to be the top schools.
No, this is about freeing young Asian Americans from the idea that there’s something inherently undesirable about us. It’s about rebelling against the idea that our lifelong quest should be to overcome this Asianness in hopes of being chosen as worthy of intermingling with the rest of America, far away from the Asian social ghetto. Imagine being a young Asian American kid who has enough confusion about identity because of having immigrant parents and the consequent barriers that come from that. Not only do you have to deal with the underlying Yellow Peril sentiment that has never been exorcised from the American psyche, but you have to contend with the gatekeepers of your future reinforcing the existing notion that by virtue of genetics, you’re just boring and irrelevant and it’s up to you to prove that you’re an exception to the rule.
For what it’s worth, I did get into my dream school many years ago. I did get chosen. Because I knew exactly what they were looking for. When doing my applications, I knew I had to avoid appearing Too Asian. This knowledge was certainly amplified by the college admissions process, but it was also something that was just all around us. Having too many Asian friends was a cause of disappointment, a sign that you just didn’t have that crossover social appeal of being truly interesting, cool, or relevant. Dating too many Asians was something Asian guys did because we didn’t have any alternative (then later claiming we did it out of “cultural pride”) and something Asian girls got to avoid because they could. Being too culturally Asian meant being stuck in a box of small dreams and small ideas, forever a side character instead of a protagonist. So for my personal statement, I wrote about being on the football team and wanting to be a writer. That was the furthest I could honestly extricate myself from that undesirable Asianness.
I’ve seen some of the worst defenses of the status quo from Asian Americans who similarly got chosen and use their personal success as proof that the system works. How selfish is that, to say that something must be good because you yourself got to benefit from it?
And what has been the cost of Asian America’s zeal for the Ivy League? Sure, we’ve got some money now, though it’s mostly income (not wealth, meaning we’re still living under the whims of our employers). And that income has not translated to much more than directionless consumerism. Asian Americans still have little political or cultural power. What little soft power we have is often devoid of any true grassroots expression as most Asian Americans are too afraid to even talk about their own experiences.
We all know guys and gals like Olivia Jade Giannulli (aka Aunt Becky’s daughter). I can so easily imagine young Asian American students beginning freshman year, armed only with their grades and extracurriculars. Naively, they think that’s enough. They’re also constantly anxious because even though their admission must mean they’re not Too Asian, they don’t know by how much they’ve cleared the bar. It’s entirely possible they could regress. It’s a relent sense of precariousness. Like Calvinists anxiously living life for signs that they’re predestined for heaven, Asian Americans look for signs that we’re predestined to be more than just Asian. And among our divine arbiters is the Ivy League.
What happens when we Asian Americans see someone like Olivia Jade Giannulli? Unlike us, she doesn’t even give a shit about school, but she seems to be better off for it. She has more fun. She’s so free-spirited. She’s got that “sophisticated” last name. When she swings one-handed on the trapeze, we don’t see the layers upon layers of safety netting just two feet below her and we mistake it all as that bold joie de vivre that we Asians just lack in our DNA.
And she and her posse will indeed effortlessly ascend to positions of power. I dread ever entering Asian American creative spaces because the last thing I want to be around are the kind of Asian Americans who fit in with, got approved by, and/or aspired to be the Olivia Jade Giannullis of the world. Because in the end, what does “personable” really mean besides having the skill to appeal to white people?
All these harms last long after the college admissions school and well into life after formal education. Just think of what heinous prejudice it is to imply that an entire race is just genetically predisposed to be uninteresting.
As a result, so many Asian Americans don’t know how to talk honestly about our own experiences because we don’t even value them. Why should we, when we’re told by the supposedly most enlightened and progressive institutions in the world that our race is something to be overcome? Is it any wonder that mental health issues and internalized racism are so high in our community? Recently, it’s become more common to see Asian Americans proclaim their newfound pride in being Asian. But what does that say about all those years before? If you spent your formative years hating yourself, what damage has been irreparably done?
We’ve completely internalized this blame put upon us by a system that can’t be honest with itself about how it deals with race and class. On one hand, it tells Asian Americans that if we can’t rise above 20% of a student population in an elite college, it’s because we’re just less-than-ideal human beings. On the other, it goes to unbelievable lengths to coddle the over-privileged and undeserving. It then presents a false dichotomy, that we Asian Americans have to either accept this status quo or be on the side of bigots who want to reinstate Jim Crow. Worst of all, many “progressive” Asian Americans unquestioningly take this deal and become the most loyal attack dogs for the multi-national corporations that are American elite colleges.
It’s true that elite schools can’t admit everybody. Admissions are limited in quantity. But so are Birkin bags. And these universities do have the right to form the student bodies they want. So this what I want to see happen: these schools admitting that beyond a baseline of decent education that’s probably not any different from most other universities, they’re a luxury brand of a social club. A nice thing to have if you have the means, like starting kindergarten at the Trinity School. But we need to disavow this idea that these elite colleges have any legitimacy in monopolizing access to the most powerful and influential institutions of our society, whether it be Congress, Hollywood, publishing houses, corporations, etc.
These universities can’t have it both ways: they can’t both chide Asian Americans for being too covetous of prestigious schools while these universities do everything they can to maintain their stranglehold grasp on power. I want to see Asian Americans say “fuck you” to these institutions AND for these schools to have their monopolistic influence broken.
So for all us Asians, take a good look at who’s been exposed in this scandal. These are the people for whom we’ve been sacrificed. And it doesn’t have to just be the outright cheaters. I remember taking a playwriting class in college. It was the kind of class that I’d always dreamed of taking in college once I was free of the transcript-boosting obligations of high school. Naively, I assumed most of my classmates would be like myself, people for whom college was an exciting opportunity to start from scratch. But my peers were people who’d gone to prep schools that had annual film festivals. My school used our gym as an auditorium.
The differences went beyond the classroom. There were kids who’d spent a lifetime learning to schmooze with their families and friends at dinner parties and ski trips to Aspen. I grew up in a home where by the time I left for college, I could barely communicate with my parents due to language and cultural barriers. And when all this happens, what does the world tell you? It’s your fault, you faceless and boring Asian.
But in light of the laughable depravity of this scandal, Asian Americans should take comfort in the fact that if we weren’t chosen, it’s only because we didn’t meet the criteria of a corrupt system. Or if we did get in but always felt out of place, it was because the price of admission for many others was paid by a dirty currency. If you’re an Asian American facing a de facto racial quota, it’s not your fault. You’re not racially predisposed to have bad personalities or any of the other race-science bullshit these institutions come up with to pass the burden onto a young and vulnerable population. Asian Americans should seek to find more commonality with one another, rather than take overt pride in having been among that chosen minority of minorities or striving to one day rise above our community.
It’s not your fault.