Hmong American PhD Student Rejected Because She Is Asian

With such a headline, you may think that there is a story about a case of blatant discrimination. There is, but maybe not in the way you think.

Neuroscience Ph.D. student Kao Lee Yang was recently rejected from competing in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) Gilliam Fellowship because she doesn’t fit the eligibility criteria for “Racial/Ethnic Underrepresentation.”

In a case of what can be called ‘double racism’, Yang was rejected because Asians, although a minority, are well represented in the STEM fields and so she was passed over to find someone from a different minority group who is more ‘underrepresented’. Although the Fellowship takes race into consideration and Yang is a minority, the stereotype that Asians are good at math and science prevented her from being accepted. Yang says that Hmong are actually underrepresented and that there are no other prominent Hmong scholars in the field and says he is disappointed to be lumped into the group of “Asian” and was unfairly excluded from consideration.

So the summary of the decision is that Yang would get special consideration as a minority but she was not the right kind of minority. Think about the absurdity of that for a moment.

If ever there was one, this is a perfect illustration of why we should never, ever make race a consideration for decisions. Dr. and Rev. Martin Luther King applied the principle that we are all made in God’s image to the practical world when he said he dreamed of a day when we would “not be judged by the color of their skin but on the content of our character”. How can we ever get there if every job application, application to schools, driver’s license, and mortgage application asks our race? Implicitly, that keeps telling us that our race is an important consideration of who we are and our worth to the business and educational worlds. With technology and online processes today, that would be enough to make sure no one knows or considers race but we keep asking about it and then wonder why it still continues to be a problem? The answer seems pretty obvious.

At some point, we have to get to where we judge people on their abilities and their character. At some point, we have to stop saying “This is payback for the past” because when we say “It’s their time”, then there is no delay in the next group saying “when is it my time?”  To again quote Dr. King, “It is never the wrong time to do the right thing.” If we want race to be irrelevant to how we relate to one another, then start now.

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