“I got into medical school because I said I was black. The funny thing is I’m not.”
That’s the sentence that greets you at AlmostBlack.com, a website listed on the Twitter page of Vijay Chokalingam. Chokalingam is the older brother of sitcom star Mindy Kaling (birth name: Vera Mindy Chokalingam), and he’s made waves this week after claiming that, in 1998, he got into medical school by posing as a black man. Pitching a book about his experiences over the last month, Chokalingam has shared his bizarre tale: he changed his appearance and even joined black student organizations in an effort to get accepted into medical school and is now intent on beating the drum for doing away with affirmative action on the grounds that it is discriminatory.
“I was determined to become a doctor and I knew that admission standards for certain minorities under affirmative action were, let’s say… less stringent?” he writes. “So, I shaved my head, trimmed my long Indian eyelashes, and applied to medical school as a black man. My change in appearance was so startling that my own fraternity brothers didn’t recognize me at first. I even joined the Organization of Black Students and started using my embarrassing middle name that I had hidden from all of my friends since I was a 9 years old.”
“Vijay the Indian-American frat boy become Jojo the African American affirmative action applicant to medical school.”
He was eventually accepted to a school—the St. Louis University School of Medicine, not exactly a stellar, renowned institution—and used that acceptance as fodder for his claims that he only got accepted because he was black and this is what’s “wrong” with affirmative action. On his site, he claims that he “became a serious contender” for schools like Case Western and Columbia, but after posting screenshots on his Facebook page, it appears that Chokalingam was only invited to apply. His screenshots are only of empty invitation letters—the kind they send to students after standardized tests or college fairs—and his one acceptance letter to the St. Louis University School of Medicine.
As for his med school performance, he reportedly washed out within two years.
But Chokalingam, in his effort to “expose” truths through his twisted approach, inadvertently came into contact with a little bit of what it means to be black in a world that sees black people as different, threatening, or something to be fetishized. “Not everything worked out as planned,” he wrote on his website. “Cops harassed me. Store clerks accused me of shoplifting. Women were either scared of me or couldn’t keep their hands off me. What started as a devious ploy to gain admission to medical school turned into a twisted social experiment.”
Chokalingam’s admitted experience as “a black man” revealed the inherent cultural bigotries that feed systematic racism, but he chooses to sidestep, downplay, or flat-out ignore how the same racism that led to him being harassed by cops and store clerks keeps black applicants on the fringes of elite educational institutions for generations. It’s easier for him to tap dance for the right wing as the brown man who “gets it,” while conveniently missing how ongoing racism makes affirmative action absolutely necessary.
“I became a serious contender at some of the greatest medical schools in America, including Harvard, Wash U, UPenn, Case Western, and Columbia. In all, I interviewed at eleven prestigious medical schools in 9 major cities across America, while posing a black man,” he writes. But he doesn’t specify whether or not he’d applied to all of the same schools before undergoing his little identity switch and gotten rejections. Chokalingam seems to have assumed that he would’ve gotten nowhere as an Indian American applicant and dived head first into this poorly-conceived “experiment” before determining otherwise.
In the affirmative action debate, if one believes that affirmative action opens the floodgates for less qualified individuals to be accepted into schools they wouldn’t be accepted into otherwise, that person must ask themselves why they believe that only lesser-qualified minorities benefit? Is it because that individual believes that minorities—specifically, black people—are generally less qualified than whites? One shouldn’t operate under the assumption that all whites who are accepted into prestigious education programs are the absolute cream of the crop, and one also shouldn’t think that the only reason non-whites get accepted is because they aren’t white. These students have to meet qualifications and standards, and it stands to reason that Chokalingam would’ve gotten a similar response from most of those schools had he not committed fraud to prove a racist point.
For generations, the struggles of black people in America have been dismissed or diminished by some individuals in various immigrant communities, as uncomfortable as that can be for people of color to admit. Chokalingam’s parents immigrated to America in the 1970s, and there can be a “If we made it, why can’t you?” attitude as it pertains to black people’s hardships in this country when compared to Asians and Africans who come to America and seem to achieve at a high level more consistently. It’s not unusual to downplay the institutional obstacles blacks face by comparing their struggles to the individual exceptionalism of first- or second-generation American immigrants. Those who think this way rarely compare the struggles of black people in America to the persecution that many brown people face in their homelands that have fallen into the grips of structural oppression born of economic exploitation and ongoing colonialism. From his approach, it’s obvious that Chokalingam believes that black people are uniquely entitled. He tweeted a link to an anti-affirmative action essay from Russell K. Neili, proclaiming: “Great discussion of Affirmative Action why aa racism survives: simple explanation—blacks are as racist as whites.”
Vijay Chokalingam’s “experiment”—whether real or an elaborate troll—is insulting to what black people endure in this country, both institutionally and culturally. And as a person of color, it’s irresponsible for him to be so invested in the idea of individual exceptionalism that he ignores structural inadequacies. Black people can’t be as “racist” as whites societally, Mr. Chokalingam. You didn’t spend your time applying to black colleges in the hopes of finding work as a doctor in black-owned and -operated hospitals. And a major reason why you were in a position to be considered for entry into any white institution is because black people generations before you made that possible through sacrifice and hard work. The attempt to undermine their work for the sake of promoting false “equality” is truly regrettable. But when you conduct social “experiments” that cite C. Thomas Howell’s Soul Man as an inspiration, it’s obvious that you don’t take these issues all that seriously. This entire enterprise was a joke.
Leave the comedy to your sister Mindy. At least she’s intentionally funny.