The Model Minority Paradox

Chloe Ho, Contributor
Justine Hong, Contributor
Lee Wang, Contributor

Exploring Asian identity and minority politics beyond the SFFA v. Harvard lawsuit

On Lee’s first call with his MBA admissions coach, she told him, bluntly, that he’d drawn one of the worst hands for admission to HBS: Asian-American, heterosexual, male, with a background in finance and technology. There were simply far too many people “like that” applying.

She was confirming what all Asian applicants already knew: that to have a chance at education at a top-tier institution, we would have to overcome the assumptions of sameness, of interchangeability, of academic aptitude but social tedium, that are often ascribed to our racial identity. We had to be more “interesting” than that to get in.

Yet, like many of our fellow Asian admits, once we (Chloe, Justine, and Lee) were admitted into HBS, we stopped thinking actively about these challenges. Perhaps we believed that we got in on our merit alone, that we happened to be interesting enough to pass the bar. Either way, we had gotten what we wanted, so we could relax and enjoy hard-earned potstickers at the next Dumpling Night in the dorms.

But this is not enough. With the increasing media (and slowly, HBS MBA) attention on the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case, we have come to realize the importance of addressing these issues, and we are now calling on ourselves, our Asian peers, and the broader HBS community to dive deep into our assumptions, question our privileges, and take a stand for what is right—beyond the immediate impact to the specific identity groups to which we personally belong.

There are pervasive structural inequities that disadvantage many minority groups in our society. For Asians, the challenge is that of being the “model minority”—of being viewed as different but safe, as hardworking but unthreatening, of being “not a real minority” because as a group we have achieved considerable presence in some higher education and professional circles (Silicon Valley, anyone?). At the same time, recent studies cited in the Harvard Business Review have found that Asian-American white-collar professionals face the highest attrition rates and are the least likely to be represented in management relative to the percentage in entry-level roles. More broadly, Asian-Americans also have the highest in-group income inequality of any ethnic or racial group in the United States, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center. Thus there is significant dispersion in performance and wellbeing even within this “model” group, which highlights the importance of continuing to level access to opportunities and resources.

However, the journey towards a more just society cannot be a selfish one that is undertaken only for ourselves or “our own people.” There is a tremendous amount of work left to do in enabling equality of opportunity for many minority groups—African-Americans, Hispanics, LGBTQ, most certainly women, just to name a few—and it is important that we do not develop tunnel vision into our particular pains and struggles, and ensure that we contextualize our fight among others’ fights as we push for a more equitable society.

As such, we believe that it is too soon for race to be removed from consideration during the university admissions process, as Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) seems to be pushing for. Upon initial examination, our stance may seem counterintuitive to most, especially as the SFFA suit is often characterized as an effort to combat discrimination against Asians, our own racial group. We are not denying that implicit bias or harmful stereotyping exists for Asians in admissions. Certainly, there is something deeply problematic and worth rectifying in the dismissive response of Harvard administrators to derogatory comments against Asian-Americans, made by stakeholders such as Harvard donors.

However, removing race from consideration in the admissions process is a superficial and lazy solution to the problem of discrimination. It only pushes race further under the surface, farther from any corrective action that could be taken to counter systemic inequalities of access. In fact, as race is highly correlated to socioeconomic mobility and opportunity, it would further exacerbate inequalities, as those with better scores and stronger participation in activities, supported by well-resourced schools, tend to be those from majority groups who have traditionally benefited from the current system. While some small well-to-do groups of minorities—Asian-American, African-American, or others—may benefit from the removal of race from admissions, even larger numbers from the same minority groups who have not enjoyed the same upward mobility thus far would suffer.

We believe that race should continue to be considered in the university admissions process—but with the appropriate awareness, training, and safeguards against its wrongful interpretation or implicit bias in the decision-making process. So what should we do as individuals and leaders? How can we take action against stereotyping and bias, not only in admissions, but in our daily lives?

We ask our Asian peers to think critically about their own beliefs and then be vocal and engaged members of our communities. We encourage you to think about the second- and third-order implications of your opinions. How equitable should our society be? How can we account for the impact of historical injustices on access to opportunities today? What role should educational institutions play in broadening access to opportunities? In order to avoid confirmation bias, start with asking the right questions before forming your opinion on the legal case at hand.

As you encounter bias in your daily life, how will you hold yourself accountable to speak up for yourself and others? Justine’s former manager, an Asian-American male, once told her, “I didn’t expect you to be so opinionated.” She asked him what he meant by that, which required him to explain his rationale behind this piece of “feedback.” It wasn’t a direct challenge, but it pushed him to think about the underlying assumptions that he held. As a community we owe it not just to ourselves, but more importantly to those who will be in our shoes in the future.

As for the broader HBS community, we ask that you join us in questioning and re-evaluating deep-set assumptions about others’ identities, particularly those of minority groups. Much like your own, the “Asian” identity is complex and nuanced; within our apparently “same” racial group, there are varying ethnicities, nationalities, socioeconomic experiences, and notions of community. For example, despite her American accent (and aptitude in flip cup), Chloe’s experience as an “Asian” who was born and raised on the continent, in Hong Kong, is markedly different from that of Justine’s growing up as a first-generation Asian-American in the San Francisco Bay Area. In turn, Justine’s experience growing up in an area with high Asian-American representation (and the oldest Chinatown in the United States) is also vastly different from that of Lee, who grew up in the South and attended a high school that was 80% African-American and Hispanic. We invite you to reach out to us, to learn more about our identities and self-perception, as Asians but also as individuals living and working in your community.

Each of us will graduate from HBS with more security and privilege than when we started. It’s our responsibility to think deeply about the causes to which we lend our voices and platforms. By committing to looking beyond our own lived experiences and learning what it means to be a dedicated and present ally to others, we will be better leaders that make a difference in the world.

Chloe Ho (HBS ’19) hails from the city of Hong Kong, but has spent the past ten years developing street cred on the East Coast. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012, she spent five years in New York working in financial services and data science. She is forever looking for ways to make life better – whether professionally in the pursuit of artificial intelligence, systematically in advocating for women / minorities, or personally in the exploration of food and drink.  

Justine Hong (MBA ’19), a proud Bay Area native, graduated from Duke as a Cameron Crazie and Public Policy major. Prior to HBS, she worked in management consulting and international development. She is often found around campus engaged in heated debates about capitalism, politics, and the meaning of life.

Lee Wang (MBA ’19) is a second year MBA. Born and raised in Texas, Lee attended the University of Texas at Austin before moving to San Francisco where he worked in investment banking and corporate development. Before HBS, he traveled around the US and Canada living in a van he converted and believes in the importance of developing perspective through meaningful conversations and stepping outside of one’s comfort zones.