This seems like a simple enough sentence, but there are places and industries where I believe this sentence needs to be said a little louder: Anti-Asian bias is never okay.

As an admissions consultant, especially one that works in the college admissions scene, it is not hard to find anti-Asian bias. I work hard to champion diversity, equity, and inclusion ideals and values not only in my own independent educational consulting practice but also in the profession as a whole. While it is never easy, it is seen as virtuous, it is praised, and it is uplifted to be a champion for Black and Brown students. The majority of colleagues applaud the commitment to fighting systemic racism in education as it relates to students of color, even if they themselves are not yet ready or willing to take on the fight.  

It is less popular, however, to talk about another form of discrimination that is prevalent and rampant within higher education. We do not speak about the emotional toll of our Asian students to try to rise above the model minority stigma. We do not speak about the even higher test scores Asian American students are expected to achieve. We do not speak when we see our Asian American colleagues and consultants silent in the corner, silenced by the fear and feeling that their advocacy for their own community would not be met with warm welcome.

In 2020, I penned an article titled “Combating Systemic Racism as an IEC,” which appeared on the front cover of Insights. In that article, I posed the question:If you are genuine about anti-racist work and committed to dismantling White supremacy, the question you must ask yourself is whether you feel just as passionate about helping dismantle systemic racism for the wealthy Black student with a 4.0 GPA as you do the archetypical “low-income” Black student from a poor neighborhood.”

Understanding, of course, that the issues are nowhere near the same, and that I am not equating the struggles of one group with another, I now pose a similar statement: If you are genuine about anti-racist work and committed to dismantling White supremacy, the question you must ask yourself is whether you feel passionate about helping dismantle systemic racism for Asian American students.

Since the beginning of COVID-19, we have seen a rise in anti-Asian racism, violence, and discrimination. The media coverage of this has been nowhere near what it should have been. However, prior to this rise, the question of bias, especially as it relates to college admissions, was not a new topic. This question was posed on a public stage with the 2014 federal lawsuit filed in Massachusetts by a group representing Asian Americans claiming that Harvard University’s undergraduate admissions practices unlawfully discriminate against Asians. On October 1, 2019, in the case Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the Honorable Allison Burroughs rejected the plaintiff’s claims, ruling that Harvard’s admissions policies did not unduly discriminate against Asian Americans and did not violate the constitution. In February 2021, Students for Fair Admissions petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States to hear the appeal.

Within the Asian American community, there is a deep divide on this issue. The voice that spoke to me the most, however, was that of one of my favorite Harvard Law School professors, Professor Jeannie Suk Gersen. Her August 2017 article, “The Uncomfortable Truth about Affirmative Action and Asian Americans” highlighted nuanced issues that were being lost in sensational headlines and oversimplified bylines. Gersen explains: “At selective colleges, Asians are demographically overrepresented minorities, but they are underrepresented relative to the applicant pool. Since the 1990s, the share of Asians in Harvard’s freshman class has remained stable, at between 16 and 19 percent, while the percentage of Asians in the US population more than doubled. A 2009 Princeton study showed that Asians had to score 140 points higher on the SAT than Whites to have the same chance of admission to top universities.”

Gersen goes on to explain the uncomfortable “wedge” felt by Asian Americans on the issue of affirmative action. Many are caught between being used as a political pawn to support anti-affirmative action policies that may hurt Black and Latinx students and pretending as if the current affirmative action policies do not disadvantage Asian American students. The questions she poses are ones that I have wrestled with for some time: Is an admissions process that disadvantages a minority group benign, or even desirable, if that minority group is demographically overrepresented in higher education? Should colleges pursue their interest in a diverse class by limiting admissions of a minority group whose numbers may otherwise overwhelm the class?

What I know is that seemingly “benign” discrimination can spread like wildfire into overt, hateful, violent, and even deadly racism. If we tell ourselves it is okay to discriminate in one area because it is better “overall,” what signals and messages are we sending over time? What messages are we telling our Asian American students about their value and worth?

I have had students tell me that they are afraid to mention they play piano or violin on their applications for fear that they will seem “too Asian.” I have had students ask me if they should take up a non-stereotypical sport just to “stand out” from other Asian applicants. What I want to say is that they should engage in the sports and the instruments that bring them joy, regardless of external appearances. I want to say this, but sometimes I do not.

To be consciously anti-racist is to actively seek out ways in which we can change both in ourselves and in society. Ibram X. Kendi in his book, How to Be Anti-Racist explains that racist is not a static label affixed to a person permanently. Rather, we are all at once racist and anti-racist: upholding and perpetuating certain racist policies while dismantling others.

I know that I have both racist and anti-racist thoughts. Even as I strive to do this work, I am constantly checking, correcting, and reevaluating myself. Yes—it is hard work, and it is exhausting at times, especially as it relates to internalized racism. But it is necessary work, and it is work I will never be finished with.

On March 19, IECA released a statement and in that statement posted these resources. I share those with you below as an invitation to begin this work.  

By Sydney Montgomery, Esq., IECA (MD)

Sydney Montgomery, S. Montgomery Admissions Consulting, can be reached at [email protected]