Vijay Chokalingam, the brother of the actress Mindy Kaling (whose real name is Vera Mindy Chokalingam), has written a book about his experiences posing as a black man, in order to take advantage of positive discrimination policies and gain acceptance to medical school.
The book, titled Almost Black, will describe how, between 1998 and 1999, its author, an Indian American, “shaved my head, trimmed my long Indian eyelashes, and applied to medical school as a black man”.
Chokalingam was motivated to commit the fraud by the fact that he had a relatively low Grade Point Average of 3.1. Suspecting that certain US universities were employing affirmative action and positively discriminating in favour of candidates with an African American background, he decided to “test” his theory by rebranding himself as a black man.
As well as shaving his head and trimming his lashes, Chokalingam also applied to colleges using his middle name, Jojo (his parents were inspired by the African American basketball player Jo Jo White) and emphasised the fact that he had spent time in Nigeria as a child in interviews.
According to his website, as a “black” candidate with a 3.1 GPA, Chokalingam was considered by medical schools including Harvard, Pennsylvania and Columbia, and was eventually accepted by St Louis University in Missouri. He later dropped out, after changing his mind about pursuing a career in medicine, and now works (in a somewhat ironic twist) as a resume writer and graduate school application consultant. He hasmade it clear that he lied only about his race: all other details on his application were correct.
The website Buzzfeed has pointed out that Chokalingam has not clarified whether or not he first applied to colleges using his real racial identity, or whether all his applications were made as an African American. Therefore, while Chokalingam asserts that he most likely would have been rejected had he applied as an Indian American, there is no direct evidence for this.
Another website, Reappropriate, has also indicated that the writer may well have been accepted by St Louis regardless of his ethnicity. While his GPA was lower than the average score achieved by those with a place at the university, other factors – Chokalingam’s academic record showed that his low GPA was improving, for instance – may have been taken into account.
The author says that his decision to write the book was inspired by a desire to challenge the “racism” behind affirmative action policies.
“My experiences applying to medical school as a black man impressed on me the injustice created by the system of legalised racism called affirmative action,” he writes on his website.
“This system destroys the dreams of millions of Indian-American, Asian American, and white applicants for employment and higher education. It also creates negative stereotypes about the academic abilities and professional skills of African-American and Hispanic professionals, who don’t need special assistance in order to compete with other minority groups.”
n an FAQ section on his site, Chokalingam also addresses the issue of whether or not his “disguise” was really all that convicing.
“No, I was not able to convince everyone I was black,” he says. “In fact, the climax of my book is when an Admissions Officer at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine confronted me about my fraudulent racial identify. I think that several other admissions officers were skeptical about my race but decided against confronting me about it.”
Chokalingam is by no means the first man to disguise his racial identity and document the results of the experiment. In the Fifties, a white man named John Howard Griffin took medication to transform his skin colour and “understand” life as a black man: he detailed his experience in his book Black Like Me.
Chokalingam has also compared his story to the (fictional) 1986 comedy Soul Man, in which a white student “transforms” himself into a black man in order to win a scholarship to Harvard Law School.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chokalingam’s revelations have provoked an online backlash, with many describing the writer’s actions as “racist”. An article on The Daily Beast described the experiment as “insulting to what black people endure in this country, both institutionally and culturally”.
Some observers have even speculated that the entire story might be a fabrication, and an attempt by Chokalingam to “troll” readers. It is currently unclear exactly when Almost Black will be published.