Does Affirmative Action Help or Harm Asian-Americans? OZY Asked Them

Does Affirmative Action Help or Harm Asian-Americans? OZY Asked Them

Why you should care

OZY’s Take On America in San Francisco tackled affirmative action, Hollywood beauty standards and the ethics of tech.

Eddie Huang got beat up so many times as a kid, he still struggles with his masculinity today. Growing up in Orlando, Florida, Huang, whose parents are immigrants from Taiwan, was one of the only Asian students in his school.

Many of the other 100 Asian-American millennials in the audience for OZY’s innovative town hall series Take On America could empathize. They were also ostracized and “othered” by their White peers throughout childhood. But it’s a double-edged sword, emphasized Huang, an author, chef and restaurateur. “If you didn’t grow up around other Chinese people, you weren’t Chinese enough,” he said.

During the fourth episode of our show, filmed in San Francisco, many could relate to feeling uncomfortable with an Asian identity. Filipino-American Alyana Feliciano said she identified more closely with African-American culture than Asian culture growing up in San Francisco’s Excelsior District. Beatriz Datangel, also Filipino-American, said she was confused about her identity because the perception of Filipinos in the U.S. has fluctuated with each generation. Fashion designer Kimora Lee Simmons grew up in St. Louis without anyone else who looked like her. Because she’s Asian, White and Black, “there was no one to identify with,” she said.

Carlos Watson, host of Take On America and co-founder of OZY, wanted to know if the movie Crazy Rich Asians, with its all-Asian cast, has helped change that lack of visibility. Sameer Nayak, a Los Angeles native who identifies as South Asian, said he’s glad to see Asian representation increasing in Hollywood, but it’s unclear whether that will affect mainstream standards of beauty. Maeve MacLysaght, a subsidiary rights coordinator, cautioned that centuries of colonization have warped standards of beauty within the Asian community. “What Asian mothers are passing down to their children are things that have been given to us by a White culture,” she said. It will take time for those standards to change.

Harvard is profiling and discriminating against Asians, but I don’t think that’s a reason to drive a wedge between us and other communities.

Justin Lam, a law student at the University of California, Berkeley

The group was sharply divided on the question of affirmative action, in light of the recent lawsuit in which have plaintiffs accused Harvard University of setting quotas that restricted the number of Asian-American students accepted. Harmeet Dhillon, a lawyer and the national committeewoman of the Republican National Committee for California, believes that affirmative action is un-American. “Race is not a proxy for anything in America today,” she said. “We need to look toward a race-blind society.”

Many in the audience strongly disagreed with Dhillon, a first-generation Indian-American. Entrepreneur Amado Guloy thinks the notion that we live in a post-racial society is “a load of crap.” If we’re going to dismantle affirmative action, Guloy argued, we should also dismantle legacy-based admissions, which disproportionately benefit Whites. “Harvard wants its future doctors, lawyers and engineers to be Black, White, Brown and everybody across the spectrum,” Guloy said. “That’s how you enrich the community and give opportunity to the next generation. That’s why affirmative action is good,” he concluded to enthusiastic applause.

Dhillon countered that Harvard routinely labels Asian-American applicants as having “low personalities” without meeting them in person — a move that is certainly discriminatory. Justin Lam, a law student at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed. “Yes, Harvard is profiling and discriminating against Asians, but I don’t think that’s a reason to drive a wedge between us and other communities,” he said, arguing that abolishing affirmative action altogether would significantly harm other minority applicants.

When Watson asked how many people in the room work in tech, nearly every hand shot up. “Do you think Silicon Valley is doing good things for society or is it trouble?” Watson asked. Darren Hau, who works at Tesla, thinks Silicon Valley could do a lot more good if tech and government worked together. “Tech moves very quickly and government struggles to keep up,” Hau said. “We need to bring more technologists into government. People who understand technology need to be in the room when the decisions are being made.”

The discussion soon shifted to privilege and opportunity within Silicon Valley. Dhillon was the defense lawyer for James Damore, author of the infamous Google “diversity memo” last year. Many people took Damore’s message to mean that women do not excel in computer science because of biological reasons. But Dhillon argued that Google couldn’t recruit enough women for gender parity because there are too few female computer science graduates.

Huang strongly disagreed, insisting that the root of the problem is privilege. “I’ve seen it so many times — from law firms to restaurants to TV studios — dudes just hire their friends,” Huang said. “Privilege is so pervasive,” he added. “From the day someone is born, they either have it or they don’t.”

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