Half-Taiwanese, half-Norwegian Lanya Olmstead, who entered Harvard as a frosh in 2011, declined to indicate her multiracial heritage “because [her] mom told [her] there’s discrimination against Asians in the application process.” (image source)
“Passing” for the Sake of College Admissions?
I have had multiple layers of reactions to these stories. Initially, I imaginatively placed myself back into my high school senior self and thought that I could not even have fathomed concealing my Taiwanese American heritage as a college applications strategy. It’s not just that I could never have gotten away with it—as a name like “Grace Yia-Hei Kao” doesn’t exactly scream either ethnic ambiguity or Caucasian—it’s that it would have felt so desperate, dishonest, and disrespectful to have done so.
So in those first moments, I was simply aghast that friends, parents, and even high school guidance counselors (if these blogs and articles are to believed) are apparently now encouraging some high schoolers either to avoid disclosing their Asian racial-ethnic identities or attempt to “pass” as white for the purposes of admissions. I also wanted to know what else Asian kids were being encouraged to do. Explicitly ask their teachers to avoid mentioning their race or ethnicity in their letters of recommendation? Hide their leadership in any race- or ethnic-specific activities or organizations? Better yet, avoid getting involved in them in the first place so that no one would have to lie (e.g., in my case, that would have involved switching to a white church instead of the Taiwanese American one in which I was raised)?
After realizing that I had applied to college more than twenty years ago and that admissions to top colleges have since become even more selective, my next thoughts quickly turned to my two hapa (i.e., half-Asian) boys (ages 2 and 4). Still, my horror didn’t abate.
Instead, I became pained at the prospect of them trying to “pass” as white for any real or perceived competitive gain. Both my (Caucasian) husband and I don’t want our children to go to a top college (or to any college, for that matter) if that means that they must lie (by omission) about who they really are in order to get in.
In fact, my husband and I deliberately gave our boys Chinese middle names so that they would be recognized even on paper as Taiwanese/Chinese and so they couldn’t be mistaken as only white. To be clear, they have English first and last names (Preston Walker and Keenan Walker), but everyone regularly calls them by their nicknames—“PJ” (which stands for Preston Jia-Ying) and “KC” (which stands for Keenan Chuan-Sheng). We figured that even if PJ and KC someday tell others to call them by their (formal) first names, they would still have spent a lifetime explaining to their peers what the “J” or “C” in their nicknames, respectively, stands for and means.
There is much more that I could say about this topic. I’ll close by reiterating the feelings of sadness and shock I still feel about this all and then by commenting upon one more emotion I have—relief—that I’m surrounded by family and friends who would never pressure my boys to deny who they really are racially out of any (mistaken or real) prospect of competitive gain. Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is working on a second book manuscript on Asian American Christian Ethics.