December 4, 2011Lanya Olmstead was born in Florida to a mother who immigrated from Taiwan and an American father of Norwegian ancestry. Ethnically, she considers herself half Taiwanese and half Norwegian. But when applying to Harvard, Olmstead checked only one box for her race: white.”I didn’t want to put ‘Asian’ down,” Olmstead says, “because my mom told me there’s discrimination against Asians in the application process.”For years, many Asian-Americans have been convinced that it’s harder for them to gain admission to the nation’s top colleges.
Studies show that Asian-Americans meet these colleges’ admissions standards far out of proportion to their 6 percent representation in the U.S. population, and that they often need test scores hundreds of points higher than applicants from other ethnic groups to have an equal chance of admission. Critics say these numbers, along with the fact that some top colleges with race-blind admissions have double the Asian percentage of Ivy League schools, prove the existence of discrimination.
The way it works, the critics believe, is that Asian-Americans are evaluated not as individuals, but against the thousands of other ultra-achieving Asians who are stereotyped as boring academic robots.
Now, an unknown number of students are responding to this concern by declining to identify themselves as Asian on their applications.
For those with only one Asian parent, whose names don’t give away their heritage, that decision can be relatively easy. Harder are the questions that it raises: What’s behind the admissions difficulties? What, exactly, is an Asian-American — and is being one a choice?
Olmstead is a freshman at Harvard and a member of HAPA, the Half-Asian People’s Association. In high school she had a perfect 4.0 grade-point average and scored 2150 out of a possible 2400 on the SAT, which she calls “pretty low.”
College applications ask for parent information, so Olmstead knows that admissions officers could figure out a student’s background that way. She did write in the word “multiracial” on her own application.
Still, she would advise students with one Asian parent to “check whatever race is not Asian.”
“Not to really generalize, but a lot of Asians, they have perfect SATs, perfect GPAs, … so it’s hard to let them all in,” Olmstead says.
Amalia Halikias is a Yale freshman whose mother was born in America to Chinese immigrants; her father is a Greek immigrant. She also checked only the “white” box on her application.
“As someone who was applying with relatively strong scores, I didn’t want to be grouped into that stereotype,” Halikias says. “I didn’t want to be written off as one of the 1.4 billion Asians that were applying.”
Her mother was “extremely encouraging” of that decision, Halikias says, even though she places a high value on preserving their Chinese heritage.
“Asian-American is more a scale or a gradient than a discrete combination . I think it’s a choice,” Halikias says.
But leaving the Asian box blank felt wrong to Jodi Balfe, a Harvard freshman who was born in Korea and came here at age 3 with her Korean mother and white American father. She checked the box against the advice of her high school guidance counselor, teachers and friends.
“I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of trying to hide half of my ethnic background,” Balfe says. “It’s been a major influence on how I developed as a person. It felt like selling out, like selling too much of my soul.”
“I thought admission wouldn’t be worth it. It would be like only half of me was accepted.”
Other students, however, feel no conflict between a strong Asian identity and their response to what they believe is injustice.
“If you know you’re going to be discriminated against, it’s absolutely justifiable to not check the Asian box,” says Halikias.
Immigration from Asian countries was heavily restricted until laws were changed in 1965. When the gates finally opened, many Asian arrivals were well-educated, endured hardships to secure more opportunities for their families, and were determined to seize the American dream through effort and education.
These immigrants, and their descendants, often demanded that children work as hard as humanly possible to achieve. Parental respect is paramount in Asian culture, so many children have obeyed — and excelled.
“Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best,” wrote Amy Chua, only half tongue-in-cheek, in her recent best-selling book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”