The Social Reality of Whiteness & Asian Americans in Higher Education: Creating & Confronting Myths about Affirmative Action


When trying to get into college without affirmative action, students of color are at an immediate disadvantage. With white privilege and the legacy system present at almost every major university, the need for affirmative action is clear. However, it is wrong to argue that affirmative action is an unfair system and allows people of color to get into college based purely on their race and not merit. Such an opinion is rooted in the privilege of being unable to realize that the system is pointed in one’s favor. While the legal system is not perfect, it is easy to say that everyone is “equal” when one has always received fair treatment. Additionally, it is easy to ignore privilege when one has not been accused of getting into college because of his or her race. The reality is white privilege is very real.

Yet the immediate reaction of whites when they hear this is typically avoidance and denial, perpetuating white privilege in the first place. A person has privilege when he or she will never have to face or even think about some aspects in life. Whiteness manifests itself in the college admissions process. It is in this way we must observe racism and inequality in society as a whole. Looking at the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College case, it is questionable if Edward Blum, the white founder of SFFA, really acknowledges the inequity at institutions. I trace several myths made by non-ethnic folks throughout my paper, to confront how such mythical visions are often discriminatory. I include essential American court cases and talented Asian American scholars involved with the affirmative action case. As I provide personal experience and knowledge, I draw from arguments people of color have already produced. The subject matter ranges from institutional examples to insights from scholars of color. I deconstruct what white privilege might mean in political and institutional terms. In doing so, I regularly use personal narrative and analysis.


In addressing the broad issues, and personal experiences and stakes during this time when affirmative action is attacked, I offer questions such as: Is this case really about Asian Americans defending elite institutions? Are people of color actually “stealing” white applicants’ spot in college admissions? Is race a “problem” to be solved? These questions are especially important when white folks create and confront myths about affirmative action. White arguments against affirmative action tend to follow a visible pattern. I reproduce the most common ones I have encountered under “Content.” I paraphrase these perspectives from conservative editorials and real conversations with white people, and examine social attacks on affirmative action to show that the policy’s purpose is being curtailed. I agree with scholars and individuals who lean on answering ‘no’ to my questions, and claim that fostering equity starts with defending the consideration of race in policies. I contend that this case is about our values, a long history of violence against people of color as well as educational inequality tied to race. So what should we accomplish when inequality is present in how some students acquire higher education? I conclude that we must all face the engraved racism and revoke the myths that white folks create out of comfort. Indeed, we must identify those who hold onto antiquated values, heir lines and perhaps legacy students. We should stand in solidarity with students of color such as Asian Americans who succeed in spite of the odds in colleges across America.


The first myth is a student of color who performs at a lower standard shouldn’t be accepted to a university over a white student who got better test scores and grades. Here, the questions arise: What “standard” is this claim using? Why should “performance” and grades be the criteria for the opportunity of education? Universities such as Harvard reject over 90% of their many applicants annually. Julie Yao, a student at Barnard College, states that “no one is entitled to a spot at schools like Harvard and Columbia, which have admissions rates of 4.7 percent and 5.5 percent respectively” (2018). For one, it is a misconception that all students who demonstrate “good” test scores deserve to get in their school of choice, as everyone deserves to learn. Although whites make the assumptions that all students of color have certain grades, in general grades do not define their potential as undergraduate students. Depending on the high school one attends, for instance, a white applicant’s grades may involve the opportunity and privilege to take SAT courses that are available to him or her. Whereas “bad” grades can be attributed to lack of attendance and transportation due to personal reasons, violence, and other social issues that white folks are not aware of due to having privilege. Through reading some of the misleading SFFA studies, Edward Blum, a conservative activist who has undermined civil rights for people of color and immigrants, wishes to rely on test scores, GPAs and other quantitative measures in admissions. He knows that this approach would harm East Asian, South Asian and Southeast Asian American communities, and especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. It is shameful to ignore compelling and diverse histories, stories and cultures, as his approach would shadow the idea of strength of immigrant and refugee families. Yao explains that “we are so much more than our scores” since the “information from essays, interviews, career interests, family background [and] neighborhood is not included as an attempt to compensate for academic deficiencies, but to recognize diversity of talents and the complexity of merit” (2018). She continues by underscoring that “a holistic admissions process, favored by [elite] schools, presents us as authentic, whole people, rather than just sets of numbers.” Yao’s description reminds me of my cousin who will be applying for college soon. Affirmative action enables colleges to see our whole selves, benefitting all people of color, including my cousin. However, due to centuries of systematic oppression and institutionalized racism, it is obvious people of color face major disadvantages. In her article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, a commenter states that she “learned about structural inequality and the policies that shape people’s lives” (Wong, 2018). Wong’s quote also reminds me of my colleague’s comment: “We must make this about class, not race.” Although I disagree in that race does matter, the inclusion of socioeconomic status of individuals benefits all. We should not ignore and create invisibility around low income Asian Americans. It is important to recognize that disadvantaged groups of Asian Americans do not have the luxury of time to explain their side of affirmative action. In turn, we will be able to recognize individual circumstances and responsibilities. While affirmative action will not solve everything and take away all disparities, it is a critical step that we must act upon to reduce some of the inequality in America. Without affirmative action programs, the population of ethnic students in American colleges will shrink, leading to universities filled with mostly affluent white students. I am afraid that this will create fewer opportunities for people of color with no hope for getting out of unemployment or into education to become more autonomous individuals.

Another common delusion is that applicants should only get into college based on achievement, not race. But it is wrong to assume someone was accepted solely based on his or her race, and it is quite possible for a person of color to be accepted based on his or her achievement. To assume people of color are unable to get admitted based on outstanding merit is racist. This attitude suggests only white folks have the ability to become successful. In this particular context of education, racism involves a past of segregation and prejudice that benefitted a number of white people as much as it kept down people of color. White folks have been freely able to enjoy access to institutions based on their whiteness for centuries. It is clear that affirmative action seeks to disrupt this system by moving towards diversity. Looking over my own grad school applications, I wonder if I should have skipped checking off the ‘Asian’ box, and the more specific box labeled ‘Korean.’ As an Asian American young woman, I now find myself wondering how I should identify on any kind of application. I realize that The Department of Justice alleged discrimination against Asian American applicants. But in view of the Harvard investigation, I am not sure if I believe this. It is true Asian Americans have suffered discrimination in America, considering the Japanese incarceration and more during World War 2. However, we must be cautious when we assert ‘racial discrimination.’ As Yao notes, “research shows that Asian Americans are not harmed by and actually benefit from race-conscious admissions policies” (2018). Indeed, Harvard’s Asian American enrollment has increased by almost 30 percent. Clearly, Yao adds, “Asians haven’t been hurt by the current policy regarding race. In fact, racial quotas have been ruled unconstitutional since the 1978 case of UC Regents v. Bakke” (2018). Although personally, my test scores were not close to perfect, and I am not an undergraduate student, I am an example of what is possible when checking “Asian” does not mean one will get rejected from a school such as Brown. We need to continue to educate ourselves about college admissions. In the end, I firmly believe that it is not right to hide my Asian American identity.

A third myth is affirmative action allows ‘unprepared and unqualified minorities’ into positions where they may not succeed. This argument makes it appear as if all “minorities” are unprepared and will fail. However, white folks are not always prepared and do not always succeed in academia and elsewhere. White folks must not decide the capabilities of people of color, since they have designed and upheld systems of oppression in education by excluding people of color for centuries. Affirmative action provides the necessary intervention to create change in these systems. The main focus here should be on the opportunity that may arise from applying to schools. In attempting to prevent racism in admissions processes, affirmative action policies give fully prepared applicants of color an opportunity that did not previously exist. Rather than creating preferences, these policies enact changes within the system. Yao notices that “we are only [Blum’s] token leading his lawsuit to the Supreme Court” (2018). “When all is said and done,” Yao admits, “Blum is actually not that into us” (2018). Yao’s catchy language demonstrates how white people in power can advance a “white supremacist agenda by perpetuating hate.” It becomes apparent Blum’s “weird obsession” with opposing affirmative action as seen in Fisher v. University of Texas contributes to his efforts to strike down immigrant voting rights in “SCOTUS cases” such as Shelby County v. Holder (Yao, 2018). Indeed, white folks assume they are essentially more “qualified” than people of color, for not only a seat in a classroom but also for a job position, for a right to vote and for calling themselves American. This myth shows how whites believe affirmative action gets people of color admitted over well-deserving white applicants, simply because people of color are not white. In any case, it is difficult to discern how many applicants personally know fellow applicants, as well as the credentials  of fellow applicants. Besides, race is one of the many aspects of a student’s college application that the admissions committees consider. It is important to note that whites do not have the capacity to be ‘disenfranchised’ when they have been in control of the franchise after all this time. A growing myth is it’s unfair to allow anyone to get ‘special treatment’ because of their race. However, for centuries, whites have been giving themselves special treatment. To create access to institutions and opportunities that have been, throughout time, secured for white people, affirmative action must remove racial barriers that have been in place for centuries.


Some of us have sided with SFFA and Edward Blum after feeling invisible, caught in a racial binary. This paper aims to provide a more complete account of why race and affirmative action matters in universities. It seeks to show that white people have had the indulgence to produce knowledge about themselves and people of color for years leading up to this point in time. Furthermore, it calls for greater recognition of why Asian Americans must defend affirmative action, and how removing race-conscious affirmative action in colleges will do more damage than good. Importantly, opposing affirmative action hurts our ability to build solidarity among communities of color who have all suffered discrimination in America. More broadly, Asian Americans also must consider how we fit into the complex racial landscape of America. I recall my white friend told me about Hope High School here in Providence. I learned how it was called Hope(less) High partly due to the run down resources. One of my professors from this semester talked about her experience teaching a class there. She stated that during one class session, many students of color such as Cambodian youth came together to speak about their shared experiences. It was a moment of pure inspiration. I conclude my analysis with Julie Yao’s inspiring vision, which uses language that unites us: “The only way to fight racism is not to submit to white supremacy, but rather to recognize that we are all bound in the same struggle. Asian Americans, we must reject this white supremacist ploy, celebrate our diversity and resilience, and find power in our shared struggle for freedom … Let’s defend affirmative action in the name of self-love.”


Written by Regina Kwon