“Passing” for White to Get Into Harvard? By Grace Yia-Hei Kao

“[G]rowing numbers of Asian Americans are not taking a ‘wait and see’ approach about whether elite colleges are discriminating against Asian Americans on account of their race, but have been acting under the assumption that they have been and still are.”

Asian Americans and Harvard University have been in the news and on my mind recently. The bigger story has been about the “Linsanity” surrounding (Harvard grad) New York Knicks player Jeremy Lin who continues to take the NBA by storm.

The smaller story, though one that also made national headlines in early February, is of the recent decision by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights to investigate a complaint that Harvard and Princeton Universities discriminate against Asian Americans in admissions.

According to Daniel Golden of the Bloomberg News who first broke the story:

Like Jews in the first half of the 20th century, who faced quotas at Harvard, Princeton, and other Ivy League schools, Asian-Americans are over-represented at top universities relative to their population, yet must meet a higher standard than other applicants based on measures such as test scores and high school grades, according to several academic studies.”

In one widely-reported study, Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade reviewed data at ten elite colleges in his co-authored book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life. He found that Asian Americans must score 140 more points than whites, 270 points more than Hispanics, and 450 points more than African Americans out of a maximum of 1600 on the math and reading sections of the SAT to have the same chance of admissions at elite colleges.

To be sure, these and other findings of test score disparities are not sufficient to establish that these schools are in fact discriminating against Asian Americans in a way that would violate civil rights laws. Indeed, since official statistics from the College Board have long revealed that Asian Americans have the highest SAT scores of any racial group, we should not be surprised that Asian Americans as a group at top institutions have been outscoring their white (and other) counterparts on the SATs.

Not surprisingly, officials at both Harvard and Princeton have denied that they discriminate against Asian American applicants. They’ve each reiterated how competitive their respective admissions process is and affirmed that every applicant is assessed “holistically” on a “case-by-case” basis as they take into account a variety of factors.

I’ll leave it to the Office for Civil Rights to complete its investigation before I render judgment on the existence of any such “Asian [glass] ceiling” or quota. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I am an alumnus of Harvard University (Ph.D. 2003) who has since Fall 2011 been volunteering my time interviewing applicants for undergraduate admissions to the College. Still, my interest in withholding judgment until the facts come in has more to do with prudence, in a “boy who cried wolf” kind of way, than any desire to avoid tarnishing Harvard’s (or Princeton’s) reputation.

Acting “As If” Discrimination Exists

What I’ve discovered since that story first broke is that growing numbers of Asian Americans are not taking a “wait and see” approach about whether elite colleges are discriminating against Asian Americans on account of their race, but have been acting under the assumption that they have been and still are.

There have been multiple stories, articles, and blogs about a rising trend among unknown numbers of Asian American applicants suppressing their racial identity. A Dec. 4, 2011 Associated Press article entitled “Some Asians’ College Strategy: Don’t check ‘Asian,’” noted that some believe so strongly that the “system” is rigged against them (i.e., in favoring other racial-ethnic minorities and even whites over them) that they are either “declining to state” their race, or are only checking the “white” box if they have one Asian parent and if their first or last names don’t give away their Asian heritage. James Chen of The American Thinker has noted that Chinese American applicants with “ethnically ambiguous surnames such as ‘Young’ or ‘Shaw’ or adoptees from Asia” might increase their chances for admission “merely by rendering hazy their ethnic origins.” He adds that native-born Filipino Americans who pursue a similar strategy would even have a “greater admissions advantage, as their Spanish surnames may mislead college admissions offices into believing that they are Hispanic.”

“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 my parents 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 are 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 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 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. 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. Read more about her work on her website.

This blog is cross-posted at Taiwanese American.org and an earlier version appeared in SUBTLE magazine. 

Author: Grace Yia-Hei Kao

I'm an ethics professor, author, Christian feminist, and married mother of two. Thanks for stopping by.

14 thoughts on ““Passing” for White to Get Into Harvard? By Grace Yia-Hei Kao”

  1. This really upset me to read because I had in my mind the image of my best friend from Stanford class of 1967 Gail Kong, who at that time was one of only a handful (yes, I think I am right here) of Asians in our class. There were more Asians, mosly males and many foreign-born, in the Engineering School.


  2. Carol – understood; I don’t at all mean to apply that most Asians who “got in” pursued this strategy, only that I, too, was totally shocked and saddened to have read about this apparently new phenomenon.


    1. I wasn’t criticizing what you were saying only to say wow, not so long ago there were hardly any Asians and now…somebody thinks there are too many.


      1. Right – I didn’t take your comments as a critique at all. But you are right, unfortunately, since the 1980s, there have been several investigations at elite colleges (including Stanford) of bias against Asian Americans. Let’s see what happens with this latest one.


      2. responding to your below comment here, i am sure there was bias against Asian Americans, Blacks, Hispanics, and Jews at Stanford when I was admitted. There was also bias against all women as every class was by design 2/3 male — I think I am remembering this correctly.


  3. So intriguing since I – with no indicators of my Asian heritage in my name – went out of my way to make very clear that I identified as an Asian-American when applying to the private denominationally-affiliated Christian college I attended for undergrad, so that I could leverage my “minority” status in a denomination that is historically quite “un-Asian.” Thanks for sharing, Grace.


    1. Jimmy: understood. In grad school and for jobs, I believe my female and Taiwanese American identities were considered to be assets since they distinguished me from the pack. But for many Asian American prospective undergraduate students, the feeling apparently is that being Asian is a liability (because then one will just be lumped into the mass of Asian Americans with the various stereotypes that come with that).


  4. Two ironies of white privilege and its accompanying sense of white-centric analysis from my own life strike me. First, because I was adopted by a white father, my name was legally Rita Brock, so on paper, I was whitewashed. Friends suggested I just add a Japanese middle name, but this seemed too arbitrary, and, at that time, opportunistic, since in the 1960s Asians were regarded as an oppressed minority. I wanted a name that meant something to me. I added my original legal last name, Nakashima, as a middle name in 1983, after I discovered I had been adopted.

    In the 1970s, APIs were deemed honorary whites–legally so in CA– (highly offensive for the reason I explain below). I still find white feminists read me as a white feminist, without any sensibility toward or understanding of how my work is Asian American, so I’ve been tapped as honorary white in that community–part of white privilege is the white bubble of isolation and ignorance of other U. S. sub-cultures and imperialist nostalgia/essentialist tourism about us.

    Second irony, after APIs were deemed white, we were ignored. In education circles, experts were trying to discover what white parents were doing that helped their kids succeed in school, so Black, Nat Amer, and Hispanic parents could learn to be white parents. By then, APIs were outperforming whites on measures of educational success, but the experts never asked why white parents should be more like API parents–after all, white is the default norm.

    I once in the 1980s, I was interviewed for a teaching position in a mid western town. When I asked the all-white interview committee what kind of API communities existed in the town, they looked puzzled, said they would check, and mentioned a couple of Indian restaurants and stores. I was told later by a white feminist on the search committee that I did not move forward in the process because the committee was totally baffled about why I asked such a question. More appalling, she had no idea either and could not say why to the search committee.


    1. Rita – what a rich set of reflections, thanks so much for sharing them. Yes, the “honorary white or perpetual foreigner” question is still with us today. I know of many who are frustrated by the fact that many institutions love to count Asian Americans as racial-ethnic minorities for the purposes of reporting how diverse they are (i.e., Asians counted as “black”) but do not generally give preferences or scholarships to Asian Americans, even to historically underprivileged and underrepresented (like Cambodians, thus counting Asians as “white”).

      On an unrelated note, I want you to know that when we read your work in my Asian American Christianity course in Fall 2009, the class read you as an Asian American feminist theologian! :)


      1. Grace–glad to be included in that class! One heartening thing since my first book is how my API sisters and brothers don’t have any trouble seeing how my work speaks to them. There are subtle issues around how perception and feeling are shaped by language and culture that are invisible to people who have no similar experiences. While we are not all alike, there are some deep cultural similarities in East Asia, esp, because of the history of contact and colonization internal to that area.

        For all the successes of APIs, we still have the highest percentage of undocumented workers, and high poverty rates in some subpopulations. When I worked with the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence in Boston, Asian women had the highest rates of being victimized by intimate violence. Here in the Bay Area, we have the highest rates of entry into the military of any minority group.


  5. Passing to get into things is sad in this day and age, so I do hope they do a thorough investigation of the Ivies to make sure they are not rigging the system yet again.

    I find the whole thing fascinating, because when I’m on the phone, the person on the other end does not know I’m a lesbian. In person, unless they are incredibly dumb, I do read as lesbian.
    The better service, the more accomodating voice on the phone is always an indicator of how much lesbian hatred is out in the world.

    The idea that Asian American parents are aware of the utter hypocracy of “meritocracy” within the Ivies is just another reversal. Asian American students could be scoring higher on tests anyway, but even when this dedication is out in force, white supremacy figures out another way to keep non-whites out of elite universities. I know the game well, and even when I outproduce my sexist white male counterparts, believe me, they still keep the good old boys in the limelight.

    Let’s see if Harvard gets fully investigated, and we need to hold their feet to the fire 24/7. We need to hold their feet to the fire when women are raped on those campuses by preditory men, we need to hold them to it when they fudge the test scores…. a level playing field would mean a complete and utter change in the status quo and they know it.


    1. Turtle Woman – thanks for sharing your reflections – your heterosexual-lesbian context of “passing” was particularly helpful. So, we will “wait and see” indeed what happens at Harvard and Princeton.


  6. Gracie, ni hao ma? First off, I want to say how saddened I am to hear this. I am not ethnically Asian but am multi-ethnic and have had both sides of these stories happen to me throughout my academic endevors thus far. I was told by a transfer advisor back up in Northern California that I could get into UC Berkley more easily if I stressed in my personal statement all the various “misfortunes” I had faced in my life already (i was around 20, I am now 29). He wanted me to make sure that I put down that I was multi-ethnic, came from a single parent household, was the first in my family to go to colllege, and have been a survivor of various and multiple abuses.Apparently, this would give me some type of “edge” over the majority of applicates to that school at the time which according to him (being a white heterosexaul cisgendered male) were Asian Americans. This was before I got into my current WGSS program at a Cal State school, where I learned about the “model minority” being…drum roll please…Asian Americans.Unfortunatly, for a while I was lead to believe that Asian Americans were my tougest competition in order to get into a “good” University, when in reality it was white males.

    I also, have come across issues of being asked what my racial identity is on a regular basis and feeling the need to have to “pass” in order to achieve my goals. In some ways, this passability I have has been helpful especially with perfoming as various characters when I was a performer. But in an academic setting or any setting, who is too make me feel as though I have to be inauthentic to myself? Shouldn’t my work speak for its self? Not the my sex, gender, or racial identity? These are things I obviously learn a lot about in my studies and part of the reason why I am a firm believer in intersectionality and hybridity! I am so glad that you gave your sons unquie names that tell who they are on both sides. Hopefully they will never feel the need to have to hide any part of themselves, let alone their race, their heritage, their culture, and above all there agency.


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