Updated at 5:46 AM on December 17, 2012.
I’ve got a bone to pick with myself regarding affirmative action. Earlier this semester, I mentioned in an op-ed of a local e-newspaper that race was the last thing that came to mind when I thought about diversity. Also earlier this semester, I mentioned in a national radio talk show that I didn’t know how I felt about affirmative action (because it coincided with and conflicted with my values). While I still have certain reservations on the issue, all I can do to react to my then self now is to shake my head, “Wow.”
That was in October. It is now December and I am absolutely astonished at everything I’ve come to realize in just two short months.
Before, I wasn’t for affirmative action but I was fearful of it being taken away. The only thing that ran across my mind was how crucial exposure to diversity is in producing quality college graduates and ultimately, a quality American population and workforce. Affirmative action didn’t matter to me as much on the basis of equality because I’ve experienced discrimination throughout my entire life but I made sure to bust my butt enough to get where I am. All I could think was, “Life is unfair. Some of us are just going to have to work harder.”
Now, after some truly disheartening but eye-opening personal experiences, I finally get the equality side of it all. Throughout college, I’ve been beating myself up for not getting that almost-perfect GPA as many other Asian Americans achieve who have a similar family background. I knew it wasn’t because I didn’t have the cognitive ability to do so – I’ve always scored extremely well on standardized tests (mid-90th percentiles, to be exact). And although I’m susceptible to procrastinating at times like any other individual, anyone who knows me will tell you that it’s certainly not because I have a poor work ethic. Recently though, I’ve noticed that it’s because I’m in a whole different position; I tend to go where Asian Americans typically don’t. I can’t spend as much time studying because I’m spending so much time fighting for myself – and other Asian Americans in the process – in areas where we’re not represented. We have minimal presence in government and politics at all levels and it seems that when we do, we experience backlash – albeit silent – like no other. We’re the “model minority” after all (total crippling myth, by the way) – typically hard-working, upper middle class individuals leading perfect lives. Why would we even need anyone to listen to our voices? Because many people don’t. I can’t even begin to count the number of times my thoughts have been ignored and highly disregarded (also probably because I’m female). And even though affirmative action doesn’t necessarily help Asian Americans out, I now feel extremely compassionate towards anyone who experiences perpetual discrimination on a daily basis, racially-based or not.
Ironically, I’ve been mistreated countless times in the past as well but never acknowledged it. For example, once in the fourth grade in South Carolina, I received the highest number of demerits from a substitute teacher for disrupting the class. The funny thing is, I never once spoke out loud – my peers kept talking to me and all I did was smile and nod because I knew we weren’t allowed to speak. Those who talked to me didn’t receive demerits. When my teacher came back the next day, she promptly forgave anyone who received a demerit because she knew she had to in order to forgive all of mine – because she knew I was far from being a troublemaker. Another example, in the sixth grade, I was at the mall and squeezed past a Black lady at a store who then turned around and screamed at me, “In America, we say ‘Excuse me’!” (apparently, minorities don’t even always respect other minorities). I was terrified and wanted to cry. My knees turned to jello. I was only eleven-years-old. And FYI, I’ve lived in this country since I was two – I know what American customs are. Even at UT, I once had a professor who made blatant, snide remarks during lectures about how displeased he/she was about Asians “taking over” our schools (excuse us for working hard).
So, why did I ignore the fact that I’ve been seriously mistreated in the past? Probably because, fortunately or unfortunately, I like to see the best in everyone. I also don’t like to complain about this kind of thing because everyone goes through their own set of problems. But most importantly, it’s probably because I don’t like the idea of being discriminated against. It makes you feel like less of a person. It diminishes the importance of your humanity. It makes you feel like you’re unworthy of existence. Even though discrimination does not necessarily directly affect a person’s future success, it can really break people. And when you’re feeling that low, when your spirit gets that broken, you begin to believe that you’re just not going to get anywhere no matter how hard you try. For those of us who are lucky enough to have people around who encourage us, we get out of the rut. Wouldn’t a university love to have someone who has comparable competitive academic and extracurricular credentials and who possesses qualities such as determination, persistence, and an ability to endure dispiriting obstacles? It’s not like colleges are going to accept a student of incomparable quality because quota-based affirmative action was ruled unconstitutional a decade ago.
It’s not just race either. It’s any kind of characteristic that warrants discrimination, such as disabilities, homosexuality, and even being female (because we’re totally not post-gender either). Everything needs to be considered. We need that holistic of an admissions process. Affirmative action isn’t only about the lack of access to good public education systems. I’ve realized – and experienced first-hand – that it takes so much more for those who experience discrimination just to get to the same place. And it will for the rest of our lives. For many people, even with a holistic admissions process, life is still unfair, and some of us are still just going to have to work harder, sometimes just to gain a bit of respect.