I am a Korean-American mother whose children are in or about to start college. During the college application process, they scorned my short sightedness in choosing our last name. Their father is white. When we married, he changed his last name to mine. My kids lamented that the admissions process was not fair. “I’m never getting in with this last name even if I don’t check the [ethnicity] box! There are too many Asians applying.”
Multiple reports suggest that Asian Americans would have the most to gain if affirmative action was reversed and academic admissions were solely merit-based. If admissions were determined by formulas of grade point averages weighted by class difficulty and SAT scores, Asian Americans would dominate the enrollment at top tier selective schools.
Although reversing affirmative action could benefit my own children, and I risk outrage from other Asian-Americans, I still support it. Or at least some form of affirmative action, just not one that uses race or ethnicity as determinants.
Race and ethnicity are not static nor definitive. My children are as equally “white” as they are “Asian,” but because of their last name are most likely considered Asian regardless of checking “the box.” My future grandchildren could be a gorgeous mix of white, Asian, black, Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islander. What box would they check? Their race may not be the same as their ethnic identification and both could be different than the origin of their last name. Checking the box for “Asian” or “black” or leaving the boxes blank will not change that child’s potential.
So what other method should be used instead?
Some have suggested using income. In the US, race and ethnicity is associated with income and assets. Those who are economically disadvantaged are also more likely to be an underrepresented minority and the same applicants identified under current affirmative action policies.
Asian-Americans are neither economically disadvantaged nor educationally underrepresented In fact, Asian-Americans have the highest income and educational attainment as a group in the US. No process of affirmative action will ever benefit Asian-Americans leading some to say it is reverse discrimination. The only way to benefit Asian-Americans is to implement a numbers-based calculation of quantifiable past performance.
As an Asian-American, why then do I want any affirmative action?
Like all parents, I want my children to have a happy and rewarding life. Their education, not the diploma, is a stepping stone toward that. I want them to explore different interpretations of literature, history, and current events. Investigation of other world views cannot happen without diversity. Learning and experiencing the sensitivity needed to have these sometimes difficult discussions cannot happen in a text book bought from Amazon or a lecture seen online. These are unquantifiable and necessary skills they will need to navigate and contribute positively to society. Without diversity, this type of learning is lost.
Affirmative action does not threaten the education of my children, but enhances it. They need to be with other potential leaders who may not have been studying for the SATs but instead were laying an unmeasurable foundation toward a better future for all of us. I want them to share in that energy of possibilities, many of which they will not have thought of on their own.
I don’t want my children to specifically go to an Ivy League or other highly selective school. I want them to learn the skills that make them compassionate hardworking, successful adults who become leaders. I may be one of the few, maybe only, Asian-American Tiger Mothers who supports affirmative action. But I know if my children can communicate sensitively and collaborate with all types of people, they will do well in life, no matter what their diploma says.
Julie Kim, M.D., Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College and a Dartmouth College Public Voices Fellow.