The Euphemism Of The “Uncomfortable” Truth

There have been a few posts written about Asians being the “wedge” in the Affirmative Action question. Some have simply denied it, hiding behind empty rhetoric to avoid admitting there is a problem. Jeannie Suk Gerson faced it head on.

The Harvard lawsuit does raise uncomfortable questions, especially in a time when it is also becoming less comfortable to be an immigrant. 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?

Asians are a minority in the overall population. Asians are overrepresented in the pool of qualified applicants for the best schools in America. That’s a very awkward place to be. Hence, the title of her article:

The Uncomfortable Truth About Affirmative Action and Asian-Americans

That Asians are in a very different place than other minorities in the scheme of affirmative action is why they are being used as a “wedge” minority. They are put in an untenable position if they simultaneously support affirmative action while getting screwed by having too many Asian students worthy of Harvard, so that they’re “throttled” from admission.

Buried in Suk Gerson’s article is a bit of reality that might not be well-understood by those who aren’t already familiar with the problem.

I would not relish seeing the nation’s most élite colleges become majority Asian, which is what has resulted at selective high schools, such as Stuyvesant, that do not consider race in admissions at all. It is also extremely troubling when solely test-based admissions such as Stuyvesant’s reflect the failure to remedy structural disadvantages suffered by black and Latino students.

Stuyvesant refers to Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School, the most selective of New York’s public high schools, focused on STEM, whose students are admitted based on special tests. About 30,000 students try to get in. Only 935 make it. And they’re mostly Asian. There is no holistic approach here; it’s pure meritocracy. And Asians are kicking ass.

This means, of course, that blacks and Latino students aren’t getting in, because they’re getting walloped on the test. Guess what else it means? White kids too. Suk Gerson says she “would not relish” seeing this happen at the “nation’s most élite colleges.” She doesn’t quite say why. Does she have a thing against Asians? Does her feelings about diversity create an irreconcilable conflict that defies rational explanation?

It’s awkward. It’s, well, uncomfortable.

In reaction to this article, recognizing that the situation for Asian students isn’t the same as for black, Latino, Laplanders, I twitted that the word “uncomfortable” was a euphemism. Suk Gerson called me out on it, twitting back at me to explain. My response was poor, lacking the right word.

While I understand why this is very “uncomfortable” for Jeannie Suk Gerson, it’s not at all uncomfortable for me. The word that failed me at the time was “unproductive.” We’re constrained to dance around discussions of racism so as not to offend, not to violate the rules of engagement, not be a racist or be called a racist.

So we lie to ourselves and call it uncomfortable when what we really mean is that we can’t talk for real because we’re subject to the rules of feelings and attacks that might actually produce some honest answers to hard questions. It’s not uncomfortable. It’s unproductive.

Jeanie Suk Gerson writes of her experience, where she was told that she was one of the “special” Asians with something that distinguished her. She wasn’t just another “ordinary” Asian with perfect grades and SAT scores, who played cello like Yo Yo Ma. This is pretty much the same as a white kid who isn’t a legacy admit or whose daddy isn’t a potential megadonor. They weed them out somehow.

The conversation is all too familiar to me. My son was an elite fencer, training a few times a week with his class of fencers, most of whom were Asian. We parents hung out together as the kids trained, and we talked. When it came time to apply to college, I spoke of the chances a nice white Jewish kid from Long Island, a demographic that nobody needed more of, would get into a good school. The Asian parents went off on me:

“Are you kidding? Do you have any idea what it’s like for an Asian kid with perfect scores to get into Harvard?”

I never saw their kids as any different than mine, except to the extent they were better fencers and, some were smarter and harder working. If they were more deserving than my kid, why the hell wouldn’t Harvard let them in? They should get in. They deserved to get in. They did the work, had the ability, and what possible difference did the shape of their eyes have to do with anything? It was old school racism.

For first place at the Fencers Club High School Invitational, 2012, the only “loving cup” my son won as they mostly gave out medals.

There was nothing uncomfortable about this conversation. We were all friends and could speak freely. There was no, “you’re a white man, so you can’t tell Asians how they should feel” nonsense. There were no concerns that if I said the wrong word, expressed the wrong idea, I would be a racist and be shunned, or worse, burned at the stake. We spoke to each other like adults. We told each other the truth as we understood it. There were no limits and no hard feelings.

But here’s the kicker. One of the parents was black. His kid was black. His kid was a great fencer, one of the best in the group. And he kind of laughed at us griping about admissions, until he finally said, “well, my son is getting phone calls begging him to come to their school.” His son was brilliant, an incredibly good fencer and one of the nicest kids around. He not only had the brains, grades and scores to make the cut, but he had that “special” thing that set him apart from others in his fencing.

The Asian parents then went off on him, shouting how jealous they were that he fell on their right side of the race curve, while they were sucking wind despite their kids having done everything possible to assure future collegiate success. The black father beamed, and told them to “suck it up,” that he finally got an advantage from his skin color (he was also Muslim, but that wasn’t considered a plus at the time) and he was loving it.

Medals. Lots of medals. What to do with lots of medals?

Nobody begrudged him. We were just jealous, because we all wanted the best for our own kids. We also wanted the best for all the other kids in the group, having spent a decade together fencing, holding them when they lost a hard bout* and their parents weren’t there, fixing their weapons and binding their cuts. Each one of these kids was like our own, and we wanted all of them to get what they wanted, what they deserved.

This wasn’t at all uncomfortable. It was enlightening. It was just a bunch of people talking without rules that said we couldn’t talk. And all of these kids ended up going to excellent colleges, even if not their first choices. As each one got their college acceptance, we celebrated their achievement as if it was our own child.

No, it wasn’t uncomfortable at all. But this happened years ago, before the rules of social justice made open discussion “uncomfortable,” among people of difference races who cared more about each other’s kid than about their racial differences. Or as I see it, unproductive. And that’s my truth.

*These kids flew around the country, fencing the North American Cup circuit, Junior Olympics and the Summer Nationals. Sometimes, a parent couldn’t go, and so a parent who was there would sub in. They were all “our” kids, each one of us.

12 comments on “The Euphemism Of The “Uncomfortable” Truth

  1. Lee

    Maybe the correct word is cowardly. But if we don’t confront these issues, they will only fester.

    But what do I know – I’m just some white cis-gendered guy in Texas.

    1. SHG Post author

      Another excellent word choice. So afraid of saying the wrong thing, using the wrong word, expressing heresy, that we hide behind euphemisms so nobody hates us and thinks were awful, because that would be uncomfortable.

  2. Jake

    Images in an SHG post! I admire how proud you are of junior.

    MIT is where the serious students go, in Cambridge, so I think you came out ahead.

  3. B. McLeod

    I suppose it gets uncomfortable when we have to start focusing on who is “overrepresented” or “underrepresented” because such general statistical measures of ethnic “representation” are treading close to ethnic stereotypes. Although statistical measures by ethnicity are apparently a necessary component of “affirmative action,” stereotypes are evil and wrong. So it’s uncomfortable.

  4. Jardinero1

    Asians in the USA, have historically, and until very, very recently suffered significant structural disadvantages. That is another truth that gets lost in the conversation. No one likes to bring that up, because if you do, then it leads to the question of why have Asians overcome these disadvantages so well, while others have not. Nobody wants to go there. If the purpose of affirmative action is to offset structural disadvantages then Asians should be as worthy as any other group.

    1. Lee

      Yes, that would a truly uncomfortable conversation for some.

      Why, for instance, do African immigrants (true African Americans) tend to do better economically than Blacks born in the US?

      And why do these structural disadvantages continue to plague Blacks so long after the abolition of Jim Crow laws?

      And should affirmative action programs be aimed at the economically disadvantaged, regardless of race, instead of being race based?

      Unfortunately, I see little chance of any rational public discussion of these (and many other) issues in our currently political climate.

      But, as Dr. Pournelle warns us, despair is a sin.

      1. B. McLeod

        Long ago, when I was in undergrad, one of my Sociology profs attributed this to a “subculture of poverty,” by which people have learned to spend everything they can get as soon as they get it, instead of investing in disciplined, long term strategies to improve their situation. Basically, they accept their poverty as permanent, and have good days and bad days in that limited context.

        1. Lee

          That is sad. And I cannot help but believe that this phenomenon is supported by the poverty pimps such as Al Sharpton who tell the poor blacks that “it’s all Whitey’s fault.”

          1. B. McLeod

            The notion that “I can’t change this” is a justification for not trying, and takes on a self-fulfilling quality.

    2. Fubar

      An incomplete list of structural disadvantages endured and overcome by some American citizens of Asian ancestry within many of our own lifetimes¹.

      Minidoka, Heart Mountain, Jerome,
      Tule Lake, Manzanar, far to roam.
      From Granada or Poston’s
      A long way to Boston.
      Find a Topaz boat. Rohwer back home!

      FN 1: In the interest of “ecumenism” across ancestral origins and generations, see Bret Harte’s 1870 satire The Heathen Chinee.

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