Since arriving at Columbia, being “Asian” has meant something different to me than what it meant growing up in Karachi and London. There, the term referred exclusively to South Asians: people of Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, or Sri Lankan descent. Still, before I came to Columbia as an international student, I knew that “Asian,” in the collective American imagination, was generally mapped onto East and Southeast Asians.
As a broad category, the term “Asian American” applies to people whose ancestries vary geographically from the Maldives to Japan, which makes it difficult for the term to convey significant information. “Asian American” will refer in particular to East and Southeast Asians for the rest of this article, at the risk of homogenizing what is an incredibly diverse population.
At Columbia, we often use “Asian” as shorthand to refer to a set of general characteristics that overlooks aspects of the larger Asian community that we hear less about. “Asian” has come to mean one group, when in reality, it is many. And when diversity initiatives lump all Asians together in one group, they do a great injustice to the many distinct entities therein.
Anatomy of a Stereotype
The fact that harmful Asian American stereotypes exist on our campus was made clear last spring, after Chad Washington, a defensive linebacker on Columbia’s football team, was arrested for an alleged hate crime against an Asian-American student—a charge which was later dismissed. WKCR Sports captured screenshots oftweets from members of the Columbia football team, a number of which targeted Asian Americans.
The outrage that followed was intense—Columbia’s Asian American Alliance declared the incident “a result of broader systemic issues of racism on our campus and in our society,” and urged the community “to create radical anti-oppression, anti-hate and anti-violence programs throughout the university to combat a culture which can lead to these types of incidents.”
Students and student council leaders also created a petition, calling for the immediate removal of offending parties from the football team’s varsity roster and the creation of an independent commission to investigate racism in the athletic community.
In short, the Columbia community was enthralled by the situation—even more so when the NYPD got involved. But the same cannot be said for other instances of racism towards Asians and Asian Americans on campus. Prejudice toward this group manifests itself in other ways that often go unprosecuted—even unnoticed—because they have become so commonplace and casual.
Peers have told me that they don’t like studying in the Science and Engineering Library because it has “too many Asians,” and that Asian students are “ruining the curve” in their classes. According to Gary Okihiro, a Columbia professor of comparative ethnic studies, microaggressions toward Asian Americans today have their roots in a far more sinister past.
“There is the notion of what Edward Said has called Orientalism in the West—that is, that people east of Greece are Orientals, and they are better represented by Europeans than themselves. As Said says, it is a discourse used to colonize and control those folk,” Okihiro says. “These ideas have had real impacts on Asian-American lives because they were the first group to be excluded by U.S. immigration laws. Before Asians began migrating to the U.S., there were no immigration laws or illegal immigrants, because all immigrants had come from Europe.” Since then, antagonistic feelings toward Asians have led to the idea of “yellow peril”—the widely circulated idea that Asians pose a threat to Western civilization and Christianity.
Such a mindset was particularly obvious in Detroit during the 1970s, says Okihiro, when workers vilified Asians as super-competitors because Asian-made cars were outdoing domestic models. This tendency to categorize Asians as the competitive “other” also manifests itself in microagressions on college campuses like ours, where— despite the value placed on diversity—harmful, homogenizing stereotypes still exist.
The Model Minority
Well-established Asian stereotypes recall the myth of the “model minority,” which identifies Asian Americans as more likely to achieve success, and leads in turn to the homogenization of all “Asians” in the American mind. Asian Americans seem to outperform other ethnic groups by large margins across a number of metrics, such as median income and enrollment levels in higher education. Although Asians constitute 4.43 percent of the nation’s population, Asian-American students make up a staggering 40 to 70 percent of the student body at some of the country’s most selective public high schools, such as Stuyvesant High School and Hunter College High School in New York, and Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia.
Ostensibly, these percentages reveal some truth to the myth of the model minority. Entrenched cultural values and a strong work ethic in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are usually cited as the explanation for this Asian-American success. Notorious “tiger mom” and Yale professor Amy Chua has been a high-profile proponent of the idea that certain immigrant communities achieve success by way of three distinguishing traits: a superiority complex, impulse control, and insecurity.
Many of us want to believe these generalizations are innocuous—that calling an Asian-American student an overachiever is no worse than a backhanded compliment. Certainly, the stereotypes of being good at math and extremely hardworking do not seem as acute a problem as the other forms of racism prevalent in American society, such as the structural violence and institutionalized racism often faced by African-American, Native American, and Hispanic communities.
But the catch-all label of “Asian,” or even “Asian American,” hides an incredible wealth of diversity in terms of culture, socioeconomic background, ability, and even aspirations. Although they may seem true—based on anecdotal evidence, or perhaps on perceptions of Asian-American students at a highly selective Ivy League school—many homogenizing stereotypes are simply unfounded.
In 2008, the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education—together with the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University, the Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy at New York University, and the College Board—released a report entitled Facts, not Fiction: Setting the Record Straight. Its purpose? Promoting education reform by empirically dispelling myths about the Asian-American demographic. The most malignant idea that the report tackles is that all Asian Americans are part of the model minority. The report also sets out to discredit three major myths: first, that Asian Americans are “taking over” U.S. higher education; second, that Asian Americans only attend selective four-year universities; and third, that Asian Americans are a homogenous racial group with “uniformity in education and financial attainment, culture, religion, and histories.”
So, just how damaging are perceptions that homogenize Asian Americans? Talking to students, leaders of campus groups, and professors, the answer does not immediately reveal itself. But generalizing such a large portion of the population, especially at universities like Columbia, certainly hurts Asian Americans in ways that play out on both personal and institutional levels.
No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal
Statistical evidence suggests that Asian Americans have been systematically excluded from top U.S. universities. Sociologists Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Radford explain in their 1997 book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life that, during the 1990s, Asian students were three times less likely to be admitted to selective universities than their white peers with similar academic records. Espenshade found that Asians needed to score approximately 140 more points than their white counterparts to be able to vie for the same spot.
In his comprehensive essay “The Myth of the American Meritocracy,”published in the American Conservative in 2012, Ron Unz, a California politician and businessman, details historical trends in Asian-American enrollment at Ivy League schools. The percentage of Asian-American students at Harvard jumped during the late 1980s to a high of 20 percent thanks to a burgeoning Asian-American middle class. From 1993 onward, however, Asian-American enrollment percentages declined, a result of quotas that were then put in place, which capped the enrollment of this group at a smaller percentage.
Examining the National Center for Education Statistics data on Columbia reveals a similar picture. In 1993, 22 percent of the undergraduate population was Asian, the highest it has ever been. What followed was a sharp decline in enrollment, and by 1999, the number had slipped down to 13 percent. Since then, it has gotten as high as 17 percent in 2006. In 2011, the percentage of undergraduate Asians at Columbia was 15.6 percent, the fifth highest in the Ivy League.
Unz points out that the generally static levels of Asian enrollment at elite institutions is remarkable given that Asian Americans have been the fastest growing minority racial group in America in the past few decades—their population has doubled since 1993. At the same time, a large proportion of the population transitioned from unskilled first-generation immigrant workers to second-generation middle-class professionals with greater ambition for their children’s education. Unz goes on to suggest that based on statistical evidence, Asian-American students face limiting quotas, a claim that schools continue to deny.
On the one hand, considering race in admissions may serve a broader purpose. The first affirmative action policies were retrospective attempts to correct historical barriers to education and social mobility. Since the outlawing of specific quotas in 1978 as decided by University of California, Davis vs. Bakke (a case that also upheld affirmative action and the consideration of race in college admissions policy), these same policies have had a different rationale: fostering diversity. Colleges like Columbia are not just looking to build a class of students with the highest academic aptitudes. Instead, they want well-rounded student bodies with as diverse demographics as possible. This can work to the detriment of ethnic groups who apply to selective institutions like Columbia in large numbers. That is, certain groups like Asian Americans may be incidentally, not purposefully, denied admission.
In 1996, California’s Proposition 209 outlawed the use of ethnicity or race in admissions policies. Without ethnic or racial consideration, Asian-American enrollment at the top five UCs—Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, Davis, and Irvine—range from 34 to 49 percent, while Asians make up 14.9 percent of California’s total population. Even when considering the fact that California has the highest percentage of Asian-American residents of any state, these numbers suggest that the lack of a diversity initiative creates a student population more reflective of the greater state population.
However, some claim that Asian Americans no longer apply to Ivies in as large numbers as in previous years, and this explains the decline in Asian populations over the past few years at these institutions. Still, this can’t be confirmed, because Ivies do not release statistics on the racial composition of their applicants.
There is, however, a precedent for the deliberate exclusion of minorities from Ivy League institutions. In the first decades of the 20th century, Jewish students were excluded from universities across the country, as Jerome Karabel, a Berkeley sociologist, details in his 2005 book The Chosen.
During the 1920s, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton sought to curtail Jewish enrollment. The initiative was purely anti-Semitic—and highly controversial. In an effort to maintain the racist initiative, then-president of Harvard A. Lawrence Lowell spearheaded an effort that saw admissions processes transformed from objective entrance examinations to complicated evaluations that were meant to be holistic and emphasized vague qualities such as “manliness” and “vigor.” In 1925, 30 percent of Harvard’s student body was Jewish. By the next year, the number had dropped to just 15 percent, where it would stay until the end of World War II. After that, according to Karabel, it was the efforts of powerful Jewish Americans with heavy ownership stakes in major media organizations—including all three national television networks at the time, eight of nine major Hollywood studios, and many top newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post—that really forced Ivy League schools to change their policies.
One might argue that the situation faced today by Asian-American students at Columbia and across the country is not one of deliberate exclusion by admissions. Rather, it is the result of efforts to diversify the student population, which might require rejecting deserving applicants from well-represented groups in favor of maintaining a balanced demographic. If Columbia’s undergraduate class of 2017 is a model, this “balanced demographic” is 39 percent white, 31 percent Asian or Asian-American, 14 percent Latino, 12 percent African-American or Black, 3 percent Native American, and 1 percent of other races.
However, Columbia sociology professor Shamus Khan, who specializes in the formation of elites and privilege, argues that diversity initiatives may in fact serve the purpose of excluding, rather than including, certain racial groups. He explains how a centuries-old system of discrimination is now employed to throttle Asian-American enrollment in both private schools and elite universities across America.
“Holistic admissions criteria were instituted to be exclusionary. Then, people realized they could be used to justify everything, and became inclusionary. In recent times, they’ve turned back again to start excluding Asians.” Indeed, these policy frameworks have moved beyond just Ivy League universities: There is a massive disparity between proportions of Asians at selective public schools and elite private schools. Asian-American students dominate selective public high schools, where admission is based on standardized entrance exams, but make up a small fraction of the student body at private schools with considerably more opaque admissions policies.
Referring to an “Asian-American community” at all has its problems, since some Asian-American groups suffer from misinformed perceptions more than others do. Sociology professor Van C. Tran—a scholar of immigration, social inequality, and race and ethnicity—says there is one subgroup that suffers greatly from the myth of the model minority: Southeast Asians. Immigrants from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and other Southeast Asian nations have had vastly different experiences than those from Korea, Japan, and China.
What sets these two Asian communities apart? According to Tran, Southeast Asians arrived in America with less than their East Asian counterparts. Many were refugees who fled atrocities and civil wars, the effects of which have been transmitted across generations. Most importantly, East Asians have been more successful in creating what Professor Tran called “ethnic institutions.” For example, the ethnic media and news sources in Chinese and Korean communities provide important information about school entrance exams at and rankings for schools. In this way, working-class East Asian parents have access to information that only middle-class Southeast Asian families may have.
More broadly, the composition of a child’s neighborhood, as Tran describes, “frames everything people have of their understanding of the social world and everything that is possible to achieve within it.” In tightly knit communities with high socioeconomic variation, “measures of success are often being referenced against the other people your parents know and that you know.” When affluent members of society are highly visible, they are more likely to serve as reference points for success.
Samantha Sar Hing—a Cambodian-American Columbia College senior and former president of the South East Asian Development league at Columbia (SEADS)—grew up in Long Beach, Calif., home to the second-largest Cambodian community outside of Southeast Asia. There, the socioeconomic distribution was relatively narrow: Most people came from lower-middle-class backgrounds. “The ones that are able to pull themselves up are living, ironically, in East Asian communities such as in Irvine,” Sar Hing says. “You don’t have those Cambodian-American doctors living in Cambodian-American communities.”
Sar Hing contrasts this drive to get out of the Cambodian neighborhood with the local Vietnamese-American community, which aspires to mimic East Asian social structures rather than physically relocate to East Asian communities. “If you go to Little Saigon, Orange County,” Sar Hing says, “you have restaurant owners and doctors, and they all live in the same community.”
The debate about socioeconomic diversity at highly selective schools—especially the Ivies—extends to more than just Asian Americans. But unlike other racial groups, Asian Americans are misrepresented as an ethnically homogenous, relatively wealthy group. This harms those who are underprivileged, regardless of their country of origin. One consequence of this misrepresentation is a limited number of scholarships available to Asian Americans.
In Long Beach, Sar Hing only heard of a handful of scholarships, all of which were personal efforts by successful Cambodian-Americans, not government- or organization-run efforts. The Facts, not Fiction report also points out that the idea of a model minority implicitly shifts onto individual communities the responsibility for their own well-being. Southeast Asians—many of whose experiences in the United States involve poverty and little education—are expected to achieve the same success as other, wealthier immigrant minorities, like East Asians.
When discussing admissions policies in regards to race and ethnicity, most people think first of the Asian-American students who didn’t get into their school of choice. But what about those students, our peers, who did gain admission—have their experiences been shaped by reductive stereotypes at all?
Sarah Ngu, who graduated from Columbia College last year, felt like her parents prepared her to expect some form of discrimination on campus. Now working full-time, Ngu feels more aware of her ethnicity in the workplace. “My dad, who is a senior-level engineer, always told me to push for and defend my opinions,” Ngu reflects.
Victoria Lai, a Barnard sophomore, experienced racial stereotyping early on in her college career. “I was in a first-year workshop and I was writing an essay. When in a meeting with the teacher, she asked if I was ESL, which was really rude. Then she apologized for being rude and asked me if I was bilingual, which is not any better and still insulting. I told her I was born in America and raised in America,” Lai says.
Christina Gee, a senior at Barnard, experienced something similar in high school. Her AP U.S. History teacher asked to speak with her after class about an essay. “This was a really poor essay, but I understand because English is not your first language, right?” said her teacher. The daughter of immigrant parents, Gee remembers being offended, because English was indeed her primary language.
Apart from being the focus of his research, reductive stereotypes have followed Okihiro—who was born and raised in the U.S.—throughout his distinguished academic career. “My capacity to understand U.S. history has always been scrutinized,”said Okihiro. “I still, after having published over 10 books, get asked by editors if I write my own stuff or if someone writes it for me.”
For Sar Hing, her experiences before Columbia were molded by stereotypes that run contrary to those normally associated with Asian Americans. Growing up in an area where Cambodian Americans were typecast as gangsters and thugs, she says that even her own college counselor at her high school, where she was one of two Asians in her AP classes, tried to dissuade her from applying to top colleges. Such stereotypes only pushed her to work even harder, to prove herself in every class.
Others, such as senior Daphne Chen, the current president of the Columbia College Student Council, consider themselves unaffected by harmful stereotypes. Chen, who is majoring in English and concentrating in Economics, never felt self-conscious of her race in the classroom. At the same time, she acknowledges that certain perceptions exist. “The stereotype is embedded in the way I think of myself. I will be in my creative writing or English class and I’ll see another Asian-American student, and I’ll wonder, ‘What’s their story?’”
Last year, a post on the Columbia Admirers Facebook page congratulated Chen for winning the CCSC elections as an Asian female. But to Chen, such an accomplishment is not so remarkable—at least not at Columbia. “The demographics of student councils at other Ivy League schools are very different. CCSC is not white-dominated at all, and I’m very proud of that,” she says.
In order to make visible the diversity within Columbia’s Asian-American community and dispel homogenizing stereotypes, many campus cultural clubs organize events and foster a supportive environment that shape perceptions toward Asian Americans.
Annual events such as the Korean Students Association Culture Show, the Chinese Students Club’s Night Market and Lunar Gala, and the Matsuri celebration organized by the Columbia Japan Society are all high-profile, large-scale affairs that serve not only to bring students from each community closer together through cultural celebrations, but also to showcase their unique cultures for the wider Columbia student body.
Another highly visible Asian-American group on campus is Lambda Phi Epsilon, one of two Asian-American fraternities at Columbia. Bernard Cheng, a School of Engineering and Applied Science junior and former president of Lambda, oversaw the fraternity’s successful acquisition of a brownstone on 114th Street. “Ours was the first brownstone given to an organization belonging to the Multicultural Greek Council,” he says. “It was very important to us to achieve this breakthrough. If we had not gotten it, who is to say when not just Asian Americans in general, but any minority group would eventually get representation on Frat Row?”
As former president of SEADS, Sar Hing has positive feelings toward the efforts taken to accommodate diverse voices within the Asian community. Columbia has allocated enough money and resources for Southeast Asian groups to put on their events, in Sar Hing’s opinion. To her, the real issue is not about student group budgets, but about admitting more Southeast Asians to populate these groups. When she was a first-year, the Vietnamese Student Association was active on campus. But as the majority of its members graduated, “there was no one left over that was passionate and wanted to take over,” she says.
Chatting with Columbia College junior Alex Xu, who just ended his yearlong term as president of the Chinese Students Club, it seems that the Asian cultural clubs on campus try their best to stay closely connected and inclusive. The difficulty, according to Xu, has been that groups such as his have a commitment to putting on time-tested, large-scale events that are time-consuming to organize and execute, and so cannot devote much effort to hosting pan-Asian events, regardless of whether or not they would like to.
Xu feels that disparities between the prominence given to events put on by different Asian cultural groups has a lot to do with time. CSC has long been established, and time and continuity give birth to tradition. Lunar Gala has been going on for over 35 years. At the same time, CSC and other Asian culture groups, such as the Taiwanese American Students Association and Liga Filipina, send their members to each others’ events to cultivate solidarity.
“One of our major missions is to spread Chinese culture to the greater Columbia community, and we—at the very minimum—invite all the other cultural groups, of which there are many Asian cultural groups. We ask them to attend and send them personal invitations,” says Xu. “I don’t think this is a zero-sum game, because every culture has its distinct elements. Even with cultures perhaps as close, if you will, as those of Korea and China, we are able to put on large-scale cultural events that are distinctive.”
As for sharing the stage with so many other cultural groups, Xu sees it as an opportunity to grow. “If anything, having different cultural shows pushes each of our groups to make our events more distinct, forcing us to analyze our cultures more deeply and think about how we want to represent them, as opposed to representing a broad-spectrum, stereotypical Asian presentation.”
The Asian American Alliance has been a vocal group on campus, advocating for political and social causes that concern Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. AAA President Jiawen Tang, a Columbia College junior, explained her group’s efforts to combat homogenizing perceptions of Asian Americans. “AAA used to be more social and cultural-oriented; it’s moved to become more political and advocacy-based,” Tang reflects. Many of the issues that AAA deals with, such as race and queer identity, sexual assault, and microaggressions, cut across racial lines.
For Tang, a frustrating aspect of the “model minority” myth is not only that it shapes perceptions of Asian Americans, but also that it obstructs close ties between them and other racial minorities. “It pits minority groups against each other. It was created to put Asian Americans on a pedestal above Latinos and Black Americans,” Tang explains. “It’s also hard to mobilize and try to build connections with other groups because they don’t see that ‘Asian American’ is an umbrella term that covers so much diversity in experiences.”
AAA has hosted events meant to de-homogenize perceptions of Asian Americans—such as cultureSHOCK, a yearly event that aims to highlight the diversity of Asian-American talent on campus. “AAA tries to foster a sense of awareness within the pan-Asian-American community. We’re trying to promote solidarity, but also valuing all the different identities that are represented by ‘Asian American,’” Tang explains.
As Columbia moves in the direction of University President Lee Bollinger’s vision of a global university, an ever-growing number of Asian students are applying and enrolling. If the percentage of Asians on campus is to remain at a fixed level, Asian students may find their chances of attending this school becoming slimmer. And if diversity among Asian Americans is not better recognized, marginalized communities may find their representation on campus also diminishing. In the face of these concerns, perhaps it is time we developed a more nuanced approach to how we define diversity.