Ivy Coach, a Manhattan company directed by Brian Taylor, is urging Asian Americans to “appear less Asian when they apply” for college applications. It is highly recommended that they lower their “Asianness” by picking another musical instrument or playing a different sport in high school, all in an attempt to avoid what James Chen, the founder of Asian Advantage College Consulting, calls “the Asian penalty”. This does not surprise me.
As someone who is a white-passing multiracial Chinese teen, I have had to deprogram much internalized sinophobia and racism. I am certainly beginning to better embrace my “Asianness”, but I still experience much erasure of who I am. I have had many people tell me that I am not really Chinese and that I only pretend that I am in order to talk about racism.
While it is true that I do not experience racism in many of the ways mono racial people of color do, I still experience it and I offer a unique perspective on the topic. In many situations, my passing privilege is conditional and I am then left fighting for who I am.
However, as much as I dislike the fact that I am read and perceived as white the majority of the time, I cannot deny that it has granted me many privileges. Last year, in order to finish year 12 Chinese, I had to take my oral examination. Although I do not live in America, I went through a similar situation as these students because I was urged to completely pass as white by my teacher. She warned me that examiners are more lenient and give preferential treatment to white students learning Chinese. If I wanted to get the highest mark I could, I had to take advantage of my passing privilege and pretend that I and my family were white.
This clearly perpetuates the erasure white-passing multiracial people of color experience. We are told from day one that we must pick a side and that we should be grateful we ‘have some white in us’ to purify and balance out our color. But my teacher had a point.
In a world that is mostly dominated by white supremacy and in which there is a racial hierarchy in place, passing as white is more than just how we look; it is survival.
I would not be in the circumstances I am in today if I were not perceived and read as white. I would not be given the same opportunities and privileges if I passed for Chinese. As much as I hate to admit it, I acknowledge that being white-passing has allowed me to be where I am today.
There are many cases throughout history where people of color have fought to be legally recognized as white. This is because the term “white” has always been an indication of superiority and has historically come with legal rights such as claims to land and property. Takao Ozawa was a Japanese-American who fought for the right to be legally considered white. Despite being fluent in English, living in the United States for 20 years, practicing Christianity and being married, Ozawa was ultimately deemed “racially ineligible for citizenship” by Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland on November 13, 1922. This is just one example of countless cases in which people of color would fight for the right to be white and were often denied.
I am not surprised by the fact that Asian American students are being advised to appear “less Asian”, as I did and it worked. I was able to achieve a somewhat higher score for Chinese than quite a few of my peers who pass for Asian.
At the root of this issue, Asian American students should not be pretending to be someone they are not in order to fit into a racially biased system that is rigged against them. But in a world dominated by white supremacy, sometimes the most important thing is survival.