Refusing to acknowledge high-achieving Asian students as people of color dismisses the challenges they face as minorities



Farah Javed, Managing Editor

One Washington state school district recently announced that Asian students would no longer be considered people of color.

The question of whether or not Asians are people of color has been one asked for decades now in the United States, yet it should not even be a question.

North Thurston Public Schools, which has about 16,000 students, when reporting school statistics, combined its Asian student population with its white student population. Then, the district compared that total group to students they deemed were students of color.

“Black, Latinx, Native American, Pacific Islander and Multi-Racial Students,” their latest equity report stated. No mention of Asian students.

Essentially, since Asians perform better academically at North Thurston Public Schools, they are no longer considered people of color. The district does not count Asians as those who have experienced “persistent opportunity gaps.”

Thus, their statistics were manipulated to showcase an “increased growth rate of underperforming groups eliminating achievement and opportunity gaps,” the district said in a statement released following backlash.

In doing so, they stripped Asian students of their identity by categorizing them as white.

The underlying issue present in the equity report is that identifying as white no longer indicates race or the color of one’s skin. Instead, it has come to mean success.

Yes, Asians outperform other students in certain areas, like wealth or education, compared to others in the United States, but not all Asians fall into this situation.

Lewis Killan’s article, published by the Michigan Sociology Association, about defining who and what a minority is discussed the concept of victimization among people in the minority groups.

“In the United States today when one speaks of fair inclusion of minorities in schools, employment or political appointments, the sweeping term may encompass a variety of groups,” he said. “‘Hispanic,’ an administratively generated category, may refer to Chicanos and Puerto Ricans, relatively disadvantaged groups, and Cubans, who are much better off,” he wrote.

Yet still, the Hispanic group is considered to be a minority, though encompassing a wide array of countries, with some comparatively better off than others in the same category.

It begs the question of why Asians are not minorities if they too are of varying levels of education, wealth, language proficiency and other demographics. This composition follows the Washington school district’s definition of a minority.

So, by proxy, Asians are people of color. The Washington district’s decision also highlights the use of Asian Americans as a racial wedge.

Director of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park Janelle Wong detailed the strategy that allows Asians to be weaponized against other ethnic groups.

First, it involves “ignoring the role that selective recruitment of highly educated Asian immigrants has played in Asian American success,” Wong said.

Then, “making a flawed comparison between Asian Americans and other groups, particularly Black Americans, to argue that racism, including more than two centuries of black enslavement, can be overcome by hard work and strong family values,” she said.

These steps lead to Asians being called the model minority.

Now, this all remains relevant because by making Asians fall into the same category as white people and saying they are no longer people of color, it once more depicts the Black population, along with other minorities, as failing to emulate Asian’s grit.

As done for so long in the United States now, Asians are then being used once more to craft a narrative that minority groups are severely behind the white majority.

For instance, in 1998, journalist Eugene Volokh had written about how the University of California reported the school’s minority admissions dropped 61%.

“Actually, the total percentage of racial minority students at Berkeley, Asians included, fell from 57% to 49%. If you exclude the burgeoning group of people who decline to state their race, the minority percentage fell only three percentage points, from 61% to 58%. The drop was exclusively among blacks, Hispanics and American Indians. Asians, who make up less than 10% of the California population, apparently aren’t a ‘minority,’” he wrote.

Though Asians made up such a minuscule proportion of California’s population, they still were not considered a minority.

Now, Asians are being deemed white due to their success, but let’s examine this from the aspect of physicality too. Of course, by saying Asians aren’t people of color, it is inferred they are being deemed white-skinned.

By saying Asians are not people of color, it is only feeding into the anti-Asian sentiment that has plagued the United States for decades.

Americans perpetuated the idea that Asians have yellow skin through “yellow face” in movies and drawings.

At one point, they were even referred to as “the yellow peril,” sweeping across the nation and disrupting the peace in the “white man’s country.”

That depiction is highly offensive, considering Asian individuals are of varying skin colors due to different climates.

Take Pakistan for example. People in farmlands are darker due to the intense heat and being in the sun, while those from the mountains have a fairer complexion.

Just as it is racist to say Asians are “yellow,” it is racist to Asians are not people of color.

The fact of the matter is that Asians are a minority group facing discrimination for their background.

In the United States’ history, Asians and those who look like they are Chinese, Japanese or Pakistani have been discriminated against many times during the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment camps and the anti-Pakistani sentiment after 9/11.

There have been many times that Asians were not welcomed. Even more recently, Asians face discrimination and hate crimes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which U.S. President Donald Trump calls “the China virus.”

Now, although it was unfair of the Washington district to ignore Asians in their classification of people of color, they did issue an apology.

“We feel it is important to continue the practice of disaggregating data . . . [which] shows that currently our Asian and white students are showing continuous growth while our system is not meeting the instructional needs of our Black, Indigenous, Multi-racial, Pacific Islander and Latinx students,” the apology read. “The intent was never to ignore Asian students as ‘students of color’ or ignore any systemic disadvantages they too have faced.”

This apology, however, comes too late.

The fact of this matter is that the thought process behind their decision is the same antiquated one used to create the image of a thriving Asian monolith, towering over all other non-white groups in the United States.

It once more ignores the challenges of Asian Americans, many of whom are immigrants, and instead clumps them together as one achieving machine, devoid of any variances in identity.

Making the sweeping generalization that all Asians are successful is ignorant, and quantifying them all as white and not people of color is dismissive of the racist, xenophobic and economic challenges Asians face.

To put any lingering questions to rest, yes, Asians are a minority in the United States and yes, Asians are people of color.