By: Rehana Paul
Harvard has a problem. It’s not privilege, a high suicide rate, classism, sexism, or even ineffectual, overpaid professors. Those aren’t problems, they’re just hallmarks of the Ivy League. The problem is Asians. This is highly unusual in several ways. Firstly, Asians don’t do this. We don’t make a fuss. We’re quiet, some could say complicit. We say nothing about our oppression, stay quiet, go to medical school, and buy a nice house in the suburbs.
In a way, it’s fitting that this is where Asians drew the line: not getting into Harvard. Since we could say “Harvard”, we have wanted to go to Harvard. Harvard and Asian go hand in hand. The problem is, Harvard doesn’t like that.
In 2018, the story broke that Harvard discriminates against Asians. They discriminate against Asians based on our personalities. Or lack thereof. Harvard tends to rate Asians lower on a personality scale: blindly buying into the stereotype that Asians are spiritless, piano-playing, brilliantly smart robots.
This stereotype comes from somewhere. It comes from every Asian kid who was always told schoolwork was more important than friends. That classical violin was a better choice than theatre. That math was more important than English (the only place that this did not hold true was the SATs; where both math and English had to be perfect. It comes from every Asian parent who worked multiple jobs to give their child a good education; an education they never had the opportunity to receive themselves. An education that would put them higher in the world than their parents, and grandparents before them. That stereotype comes from immigrants who didn’t understand the American standard of “fun”. To them, fun was not having to wonder where your next meal came from, or where you would live next month. Fun came from knowing you did not owe anything to anyone. Fun was knowing you had made something from yourself.
In a way, it’s fitting that this is where Asians drew the line: not getting into Harvard.
I am not condoning this. I am not condoning the incredible pressure put on children, the resentment so many Asian kids hold towards their parents for pressuring them, leading to strained (or nonexistent) familial relationships. This is also not to say that I am condoning following our parents’ example of working until you drop. But I am also not condoning Harvard University, one of the top universities in the world, grouping an entire ethnicity together, slapping the same stereotype on them, and choosing that stereotype over the individual personalities, journeys, and experiences of thousands.
This isn’t the worst of it. Stereotyping, discriminating against, and invalidating an entire ethnicity is not the worst of it. The worst of it is that this has happened before, and it took the Nazis to stop it.
In the early 1900s, Jewish people were in much the same cohort as Asians today. They were regarded as affluent, well-educated, and privileged. Their name and Harvard was synonymous. In the late 1930s, it was revealed that Harvard was using race quotas (requiring a particular number of one ethnicity; no more, and no less), and discriminatory admissions practices. Just like they are doing to Asians today. Then, in the 1940s, with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, and the atrocities of the Holocaust revealed, anti-Semitism started becoming a bad look. Just as quietly as they began, Harvard’s anti-Semitic admissions practices ended.
The common factor here is the perceived socioeconomic status of both groups. It is assumed the children of both groups would have every opportunity afforded to them: tutoring, extracurricular activities, excellent schools, and supportive parents. Why is the same not assumed for white children? One could argue that not all white children are wealthy and privileged; but then, neither are all Asian children. The same goes for Jewish children. White children have the same level of privilege (and then more) as Asian children. So why doesn’t Harvard have race quotas and discriminatory admissions practices for them?
The worst of it is that this has happened before, and it took the Nazis to stop it.
To solve the problem, we first need to admit there is one. Harvard is racist towards Asians. One of the top universities in the world is deciding the future of children based on a stereotype bandied around in high schools.
One could say that this isn’t as big a problem as it may seem. There are, after all, worse problems in the world than not getting into Harvard. But this is much bigger than not getting into a university, bigger even than what Harvard is doing. The problem is that we do not care. The problem is that we have become this complicit in our own oppression. This is a direct result of Asians staying quiet and not making trouble. For generations, we have been the butt of racist jokes, did not react when people called us racial slurs to our faces, been the victim of hate crimes, and never spoke up to defend ourselves when Asians were spoken about derogatorily. We did all this to protect our future. But now, ironically, this has cost us our future.
We cannot stay quiet any longer. If we do not react, if we let this go, and hope someone else will take care of it, this will not end at Harvard. It will grow to the other Ivy Leagues, and trickle down to the state universities. It will extend to our potential future employees; who will choose someone of a different ethnicity over us, because they think we have no personality. It will extend to every non-Asian person in this country. This is more than a headline ; this will have real, serious repercussions on your life directly.
So: what now? It’s all well and good to talk about taking action, but this is new territory for us. Do we boycott Harvard? Protest in the streets? Demand action, real action from the Justice Department? They’re all good options, but the real path is less labor intensive, but much harder. We need to start standing up for ourselves, and other Asians. Call people out for yellowface, cultural appropriation, and casual discrimination. We cannot let people get away with racist jokes, or stand quietly while they stereotype Asians as apathetic geniuses. And most importantly, you need to start unlearning every racist, offensive thing you have ever heard about yourself. Your future depends on it.
This is new territory for us.
Rehana Paul is an Indian-American journalist and food blogger. She founded Overachiever magazine in 2018 to give a voice to Asian women from all over Asia, living all around the world.