May marks Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month in the United States. Throughout the month, our country recognizes the culture, achievements and contributions of Asian Americans to our society. As a second generation Korean American, I’d like to provide perspective on what this month means to me, as well what it means to be Asian in the United States.
The United States is the greatest country in the world. This is made most evident by the droves of people from all over the globe who wait years for a turn to immigrate here in hopes of finding freedom and opportunity, two concepts that provide the bedrock for American society. In fact, freedom and opportunity are the ideals every immigrant has sought since the first ship landed in Jamestown over 400 years ago.
These ideals are still the reason so many leave everything behind to start anew in this country. Many Asians and Pacific Islanders throughout history — and in the modern day — have come here to flee the tyranny, oppression and poverty that socialism and communism bred in their home countries.
For those like my family, it is the freedom we enjoy that is so enticing — the freedom that is easy to take for granted. In America, we are free to create opportunities for ourselves that our relatives could never have dreamed of back home, and that is what makes America special. Anyone can make something of themselves here, no matter who they are, where they come from or what they look like, and that’s been proven over and over again.
It is up to all of us as a citizenry to protect the American dream our ancestors and relatives came here to discover, and in turn, helped build. As an Army veteran and a mom to two daughters, I strive to do my part to keep this country free and full of opportunity, and hopefully expand that freedom to more people. As an Asian American as well, this duty feels especially heavy on my shoulders as members of my community continue to face violence, discrimination and infringements on our right to equal opportunity.
One of the most important battles facing the AAPI community right now is the fight over diversity, equity and inclusion. While these three words may sound benevolent, they are being used to justify anti-AAPI discrimination in our schools around the country. These “reforms” in the name of inclusion actually are excluding talented AAPI students from top schools, not because of their merit or qualifications, but solely because of their heritage and skin color. We cannot talk about fighting racism and discrimination without acknowledging this fact. Our nation has made enormous progress in recent decades, with the help of Americans of all backgrounds, in the fight for equality. We cannot allow policies to remain in place, even if well intentioned, that openly discriminate against any community.
One example of such discrimination in my community involves Northern Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, one of America’s top public high schools. Admissions policies aimed at increasing diversity have altered the competitive admissions process in a way that significantly limits the number of AAPI students admitted to the school. A group of parents, students, alumni, staff and community members created the Coalition for TJ in an attempt to stop these discriminatory practices, filing “a federal lawsuit challenging Fairfax County Public Schools’ race-based admissions scheme as a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee.”
On the higher education front, this fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear challenges to race-related admissions policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina — policies that create an admissions ceiling for AAPI applicants. When these schools and others punish hard-working students based on the color of their skin in the name of uplifting others, it is detrimental to all … and runs counter to the ideals, rights and freedoms that provide and ensure equal treatment under the law.
At Philanthropy Roundtable, we believe in True Diversity, and that is not based solely on our superficial traits but a much broader definition of diversity that includes diversity of experience, thought, talent and background. We celebrate all the rich identities and characteristics that make each person unique and special.
Similarly, we are not embracing or advancing true diversity when we turn away hardworking AAPI students because there are too many other students who look like them. Instead, we should see each student as an individual with their own talents, passions, hopes and dreams. We cannot allow our education system to pick winners and losers based on their race—elevating or holding back our children not because of their accomplishments or intellect but because of a physical characteristic they have no control over. Each school should have the freedom to welcome the best and brightest students from all backgrounds to freely exchange ideas, and in the process, better one another.
This May, I encourage you to take the time to enjoy some of the culture and heritage brought to our melting pot by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. I also hope you reflect upon the myriad reasons America is the greatest country in the world, starting with our freedom and opportunity that allow us to have agency over the trajectory of our lives. We should all do our part to protect those ideals … and the True Diversity that will keep them alive.