BY ALANI FUJII
This piece was published in the 29th print volume of the Asian American Policy Review.
It is also harmful and unproductive to pit one marginalized group against another, particularly given the context of anti-Blackness that often pervades Asian American communities.
There is a complete absence of the voices of Black and Asian individuals on the topic of affirmative action. Black and Asian individuals are in a unique space in which their respective communities are often represented in contrast with each other. A series of “versus” comparisons between Black and Asian communities in the United States saturate the popular imagination and are carried between generations in many of our own families. Some examples include the Asian model minority myth vs. inherent Black laziness, dependence, and criminality, the implications of the 1992 L.A. riots that pitted Korean communities against Black communities, sometimes hostile Asian-owned business in Black neighborhoods, the Asian “whiz kids” versus the Black and Brown school-to-prison pipeline. Thus, this piece seeks to provide a platform for young Blasians, Blasian professionals, and older folks to voice their thoughts about affirmative action, and what it means to them as folks who embody both Blackness and Asianness and/or Asian Americaness.
It is vital, now more than ever, that more people speak up about their thoughts on affirmative action, given Edward Blum’s Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) lawsuit targeting affirmative action at Harvard. It is not just college admissions that are at stake; this lawsuit has the potential to legitimize the absence of people of color in positions of power in this country, in places such as judicial seats, federal clerkships, corporate boardrooms, and other leadership positions. However, affirmative action has stakes for us all, in that the issue of race in America touches us all. The consideration of race in affirmative action works alongside factors like gender, disability, veteran status, and more. These considerations ensure diverse spaces in all levels of power. Affirmative action encourages diversity, though it is important to keep in mind that diversity alone–simply having more seats at the table–is not an end-all goal. It takes a lot more than just diverse faces in a space to make changes and to undo the foundational preference for white culture and whiteness in spaces of power in the United States. However, the historical and ongoing barriers to equity, such as the school-to-prison pipeline for Black youth, economic disparities within both Black and Asian communities, Jim Crow laws, anti-refugee backlash, and sustained targeting of Black communities by the criminal justice system, are just some examples of the normalized violence and disparity that we all must live with. As folks living on land that has relied on indigenous erasure(s), our lives are intertwined with the legacies of historical violence that continue to affect all marginalized communities. Affirmative action as practiced will always fall short of its ideal, but it is a necessary mechanism that is being used now, and that acknowledges the historical barriers to access that were and are necessary for the proliferation of white supremacy in America.
Using this piece as an opportunity and platform for multiple voices to be heard, here are the thoughts of Black-Asian (Blasian) individuals about affirmative action. Let’s listen, because they have some important things to say that Edward Blum and other anti-affirmative proponents probably do not want to acknowledge:
What does affirmative action mean to you?
“Affirmative action has always meant systematic diversity to me. It is a way for everyone to be included but also mandatory (for good reason). Although, affirmative action makes minorities feel like they really shouldn’t be there even if their test scores or work ethic would have been accepted either way (college). It is tough to apply affirmative action to post-grad life because you’re not too sure how much it is applied, but thoughts on being the one diverse person in the workplace could make one feel inadequate and just a number to hit a quota.” – Owie
“Affirmative action just ensures that folks of equal qualifications are protected in their identities. Since the demographic standard in most quotas are usually below national average anyway (at least in schools they are), I don’t really see why people are so against it. Ultimately, affirmative action isn’t even the primary factor of being accepted into a position–being adequately qualified is–so honestly my take on affirmative action is that in the context of history and social politics, it needs to exist, albeit inherently flawed.” – Ali
“Affirmative action means weighing the effects race/ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, and disability have on an individual’s access to privileged spaces. When it comes to race, I consider it an important part of reparations. Post-college I think access to higher education should also be considered. Of course, there are jobs that require a degree, but too many positions require an expensive piece of paper when on-the-ground experience and willingness to learn would do just as well.” – Mieko
“Affirmative Action was and continues to be an attempt at (1) acknowledging there are communities in the United States that have been left out and (2) attempting to help applicants, whether throughout education or the workforce, be able to receive prioritization. I think the idea behind affirmative action makes a lot of sense. However, I do wonder, based on each institution’s acceptance or hiring metric, how far it goes. There’s another part of this that comes to mind and it’s that this stand-alone policy only helps when you ‘get to the door’. There is a misconception with Affirmative Action that (1) it’s only about race and (2) that it actually makes it ‘easier’ to get accepted into an educational program or get the job.” – Shiranthi
“To me affirmative action is, in its intentions, a form of reparations for communities of people marginalized along lines of race and/or gender. That being said, the system is flawed in the sense that it still relies on a status quo of systematically exclusionary dynamics, particularly in the way that it generally disregards internal hierarchies that divide members of the same marginalized group, such as socioeconomic status and the privileged wealth secures.” – Chris
How has race impacted your life experience? Does it matter to you?
“Race has a huge impact on my life especially because I am biracial (Chinese and Nigerian). You are bi-racial and part of many but at the same time unique in your own way. It’s like knowing you should feel a part of a lot of things, but really you are separate because you don’t entirely fit in racially to different groups. I have come to learn a lot about myself through race and finding out what accepted or frowned upon through being different races but that has not really hindered me, it only made me identify myself confidently a little sooner.” – Owie
“Being black has been one of the hardest things in my life, and I’m at the intersection of most identities may I add; and I’m not even that black according to the US Census Bureau– I’m 75% white (because being north African and Arab apparently equates whiteness). Race is always changing, and those who subscribe to it a-historically and outside of social discourse really just need to stop. Please.” – Ali
“Race impacts a LOT of my life. I don’t think I can extricate it from my gender, but existing as a Black/Mixed woman with an unconventional name has cost me a lot: Work, income, relationships, self-confidence, health, safety… I hold my identities precious and wouldn’t trade them for the world but, I get incredibly frustrated sometimes when I know that I’m capable but others don’t see me as such.” – Mieko
“Throughout my life, race has meant different things to me. I think a constant theme however is how I’m viewed from by my peers, colleagues and generally the rest of the world. For me, my race without context into my nationality, ethnicity and socioeconomic class, never seemed to fully portray what it meant for me to be Black and Sri Lankan. Race and ethnicity have always meant a lot to me, because it is essentially the story of who I am, how I came to be and how I navigate spaces.” – Shiranthi
“I would say race does impact and has impacted every aspect of my life since before I was even born. My racial and ethnic identity(s) inherently shape the way people perceive me (whether consciously or not) and shape the way I perceive others. Race certainly matters to me because as a social construct it has been made to matter to me and those with whom I interact on a daily basis.” – Chris
What do you think about the SSFA lawsuit’s usage of Asian American faces as victims of affirmative action?
“So… here’s my take: Yes, Asian Americans have it hard when it comes to getting into educational institutions, and I want to highlight that the major losers are Southeast Asians. But, it isn’t because of other minorities in America, in fact, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Americans are often under-represented from my observations of the stats. I would say that if Asian Americans want something to blame, it’s not affirmative action, which was enacted for your protection, it’s perhaps another demographic of very rich, ruling-class folk from abroad that need your attention…” – Ali
“It’s manipulative and I’m so pissed at the people who are falling for it. They’ve sold out their brothers and sisters, in order to maintain their own tiny piece of the pie, not thinking about how Ed Blum actually plans to take their piece too.” – Mieko
“Divisive politics within communities of color is a classic tactic from white folks to be able to use separatist ploys to get what they’ve always wanted. Ed Blum is yet another example of this tactic. From his track record of trying to attack civil rights protections, especially for communities of color, this is no surprise. Again, there’s a misconception that race, leaning towards preference of Black folks, is the only thing Affirmative Action is for. I would also ask whether there are Asian Americans that see themselves as victims of Affirmative Action? Or is Blum is taking it upon himself, as a white man, to speak for communities he doesn’t belong to.” – Shiranthi
“I think painting Asian Americans as the “victims” of affirmative action is again a failing of the system in its lack of deftness with addressing divisions within larger marginalized groups. It is also harmful and unproductive to pit one marginalized group against another, particularly given the context of anti-Blackness that often pervades Asian American communities.” – Chris
What do you think about the absence of Black and Asian folks in higher positions of power (examples include college faculty, tenured professorships, judges, federal judicial clerks, corporate executive boards)?
“Their presence doesn’t necessarily make an environment healthier, but their absence certainly makes it worse. Side note: I work at a college where the majority of my coworkers are black and brown. The camaraderie at work is amazing and a much healthier than any work environment I’ve ever had. No stereotypes thrown my way, nobody asking to touch my hair, no personal insults or invasive questions about being who you are. I didn’t realize how much I was missing it until I finally had it. It was like being able to breathe again after having smoke-clogged lungs.” – Mieko
“There a lot of dynamics that go into questions about lack of representation in various fields. The questions I find myself asking are:
- Do Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) see themselves (thriving) in these positions?
- What hurdles do BIPOC folks have to overcome to get a chance at filling these positions?
- When they’re in said positions, is the culture of the institution/space they’re in allow for retention?
When I answer these questions for myself, it makes sense why we don’t see higher representation from BIPOC communities in certain positions. On a personal note, I think there’s also something to be said about whether BIPOC folks feel that these positions and spaces will help them create tangible change for their respective communities. Personally, I am in more community spaces, rather than politics because I believe I can elicit more change at a grassroots level.” – Shiranthi
“I think it is a mixed bag of thoughts and emotions. On one hand, I am outraged that there aren’t biracial people in positions of power. At the same time, there are not many black and Asian people in general, making it harder for you to come across a black and Asian person. That being said, the first person in a higher power that I have met that is black and Asian is the CEO of my company, who I met this past year. 24 years old is the first time I’ve met a biracial person in a high position (first-hand). There are also not many people of color in these same positions, so to find a biracial one in the mix of that is even harder.” – Owie
“Institutions cannot hope to achieve any semblance of truth without giving a platform to a variety of voices. A college cannot hope to teach histories of Asian or African and diaspora communities without members of those communities contributing significantly to those discussions without losing a nuanced lived connection to those topics, histories, and experiences that cannot be captured in academic reports or ethnographies. The failing of so-called liberal institutions to employ and give a platform to Black and Asian faculty only serves to reinforce the unequal power dynamics that they claim to condemn by furthering racist, colonialist ideologies without including the critiques of the very subjects and victims of those ideologies.” – Chris
Alani Fujii studied Urban Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College. She was the Development and Operations Manager for Blasian Narratives (BN), a multimedia project that seeks to spread visibility of and share the Blasian and multi-racial experience through storytelling in order to bring together Black and Asian communities, and imagine and work toward multiracial coalition and solidarity building. She has performed at the 2017 Boston Asian American Film Festival, helping win BN the film-wide Audience Award, alongside performing and discussing the project at UCLA, University of Pennsylvania, Barnard College, Colorado State University, and Harvard University.