In the Shadow of Whiteness: Asian Americans’ Racial Positionality

A few days ago, I had a conversation with someone close to me regarding the purpose of affirmative action and its effect on the admission of Asian Americans. This person, an Asian man, began by saying that he was anti-affirmative action, and that affirmative action harms the chances of Asian Americans who deserve to be admitted to top universities and job positions just to increase diversity. Affirmative action was an attack on individuals who are “already smart”, who have the potential of being the leaders in our society when given the chance. During his whole spiel, I wondered how many Asians, and white people, were actually informed about the purpose of affirmative action, and why it was created in the first place. Affirmative action as we know it was policies and programs put in place for the first time in the 60s as a explicit corrective for the historical injustices that marginalized communities such as African Americans  and women experienced by giving them opportunities of higher education and employment. Increasing the diversity of these spaces would expose people to different perspectives and life experiences that would allow for the enrichment of knowledge and more representation. Why was my friend and so many other Asian Americans against this?

Recently, Asian Americans have become the center of affirmative action discussions with the lawsuit filed against Harvard by several groups of Asian Americans for discrimination against Asian Americans in the admissions process. These groups, such as the Asian American Coalition for Education, are speaking against affirmative action as restricting admissions of Asian Americans and favoring other marginalized racial groups for the sake of increasing and preaching inclusion and diversity. Yukong Zhao, the president of the Asian American Coalition for Education, has been an active advocate of eliminating affirmative action programs after his son had been rejected from three ivy league schools despite having credentials that proved him to be ‘deserving’ of being admitted to these top schools. He argues that his son was rejected because he was Asian, and that consideration of race in admissions denies Asians like his son of these spots at these universities. He tells Vox that “In the future, our dream, just like Martin Luther King, is we want every child to be judged on their talent and content of their character, not by their skin color.” He adds on, “We’re hardworking, we never ask for any government favors. But you blame us as overrepresented. We contribute to society. … Why are Asian Americans being punished?”

Affirmative action’s discrimination against Asian Americans has been continuously argued for decades: In 1988, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division at the time who heavily opposed affirmative action, said in a speech that “rejection of [Asian-American] applicants ironically appears to be driven by the universities’ ‘affirmative action’ policies aimed at favoring other, preferred racial minorities”, blaming other marginalized racial groups for their rejection. These lawsuits and debates however, are more of a continuation of those that argued against affirmative action for discriminating against white students who believed that they deserved to be admitted to their dream universities. There have been many cases of this ‘reverse-discrimination’ against white folks, the most recent case involving Abigail Fisher, a white student, claimed that she was rejected from the University of Texas, Austin, because of affirmative action which limited admissions from students of her race. This suit went to the Supreme Court in Fisher v. the University of Texas in 2016, which ruled against Fisher as they affirmed the university’s goals to increase diversity. She was supported by Edward Blum, who formed Students for Fair Admissions as an opposition group for affirmative action programs and who realized that she was the wrong claimant to use in this case as her credentials were not extraordinary. He then took on the lawsuit against Harvard for Asian American discrimination, knowing that he would gain more popular support for fighting for these Asian Americans, claiming that they are innocent victims who aren’t responsible for the oppression of blacks and Latinx people, and who are deserving of those positions for being hardworking and smart.

This kind of discourse only serves to benefit white people who are using Asian Americans to deny the existence of racism and to pit Asians against black and Latinx folks that they argue are too aggressively and wrongfully asking for equal opportunity when they are lazy and less intelligent. The debate about affirmative action is used to exemplify the narrative of the model minority myth, which has been used throughout recent history to depict all Asians as obedient, diligent, successful people. Although this societal perception does not seem harmful to Asian Americans at first glance, it is in fact extremely harmful in that not only is it psychologically detrimental to Asians who do not fit in this description but it also erases experiences of discrimination against Asian Americans, rejects the diversity of the Asian-American category (specifically shining light on East Asians and disregarding Southeast and South Asians), and comparing and dividing people of color. In these affirmative action discussions, Asians are caught up in this process of racial mascotting, a term coined by Sumi Cho, where white supremacy has spread the narrative of these programs hurting deserving Asians, which has been widely successful in not only convincing others in how affirmative action is discriminating against white people and Asians, but also telling Asians how they should feel hurt that they are not being considered based on their merit.

These definitions of merit and deservingness—constructed by white people as a way to put them on top—has become accepted as a universal truth and have been internalized by Asians who base their perception of success on these definitions. This concept of merit and meritocracy that is “fluid and tends to reflect the values and interests of those who have the power to impose their particular cultural ideals” has become an essential part of whiteness and the path that it paves to success in this society. Of course, most who come to this country and live in this country want this success and live the “American Dream” that tells them that if they work hard, they can make it, and surely, Asians have fully accepted and embodied these beliefs, especially with the model minority myth (which, to reiterate, is constructed to serve white supremacy) telling them that they were living proof that this was true.

In a sense, Asian Americans are seeking to get closer to whiteness, which has been the case for a long time. Back in the 1920s, Takao Ozawa and Bhagat Singh Thind both challenged denial of their citizenship through arguments of claiming to be white and Caucasian, respectively. Fast forward to more recent times, thousands of Chinese Americans protested in 2016 against the conviction of NYPD officer Peter Liang for killing Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man, because white police officers who have committed the same crime would get off with little to no punishment. We can’t really blame Asian Americans for wanting to have the same privileges as white people and wanting to succeed in life; however, by allying with the privileged group, Asian Americans are being used to divide and pit people of color against one another, which also includes Southeast and South Asians in which communities are suffering from high poverty rates, unemployment, limited access to education, and other disadvantages similar to those of black and Latinx communities. This also means that they look away when there are injustices that are oppressing other people of color, only focusing on their own social and economic advancement and protesting only when their own rights are threatened. As they advance towards whiteness, they push black and brown bodies down so they themselves can rise up, which makes “Asian Americans white supremacy’s one success” among other successes. College admission falls under this reach to success, and as Michael Wang—a student who was denied a chance to get into an Ivy League due to affirmative action, he argues—says, “Someone has to lose for someone else to win.”

Of course, Asians are not white and do not fully get to experience the benefits of white supremacy. It is so crucial to recognize and teach how Asians have had a long history of receiving violence and discrimination in this country, ironically, by the people they so desperately want to become: The exclusion and murder of “coolies”, the derogatory term used for Chinese laborers in the late 19th century. The displacement and incarceration of Japanese Americans as enemies of American society. The ghettoization of the refugees of the Cambodian genocide that have left them to constantly feel “unsettled” physically and psychologically in the U.S. The racialization and criminalization of Pakistani Muslims—and Muslims in general—who are constantly under surveillance and the threat of being eradicated from society. These issues are ones that have to be continuously taught and discussed in reflecting on the history of the Asian and Asian American diaspora, which has been repressed and erased for too long from discussions about this history, or is dominated by narratives of white American exceptionalism and heroism that have in turn erased how the American empire has harmed Asian bodies and lives. White people have perpetually used Asian bodies as a way to fulfill their own self-interests, whether it is the use of these bodies in labor, or in denying the existence of oppression against people of color through the model minority myth. To dismantle these narratives that have been constructed by white supremacy as well as patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism, and nativism, therefore, we cannot stop highlighting the ways in which white people in this country have established a history of anti-Asian violence that have aftereffects persisting into the now and that cannot be pushed aside as a ghost from the past.

However, along with fighting against our oppression, Asian Americans must also stand beside other communities of color and show resistance against their oppressions. The way white supremacy has harmed us cannot be dissociated from how white supremacy has harmed other communities of color, as they are intrinsically connected and feed off of one another. Although we are in this “in-between group”, as Jeff Chang calls it, where we experience both the privileges as well as the disadvantages of white supremacy—experiences which are complex and valid—we cannot just be complicit in our positionality in this gray area and actively take action to be anti-racist. This means engaging in discussions around race, showing solidarity and genuine care by speaking out against all violence that white supremacy has inflicted on people of color; our liberation depends on the liberation of all people of color, especially black folks who are closer to the margins of society. By focusing on those who live on the margins and fighting for the liberation of those who experience multiple intersections of oppressed identities, one is able to encompass all who live within the margins to the center and achieve liberation for all. We need to fight for those who live on these margins, who are fighting for their own freedom and helping fight for our freedom as well. As #Asians4BlackLives states, “Black communities have paid dearly for resisting their own oppression, and in doing so, they have also paved the way for our resistances. The time has come for our resistance to be in solidarity with theirs.”

Support for affirmative action is a start. Rather than being so focused on our economic and social advancement as individual people, it’s time for us to work towards the betterment of other marginalized groups and make progress towards the aim of liberation for all.


Written by Takami Nishimoto