Lisa Ko, a novelist, says that in every job she's had there's been a coworker who mistakes her for another female Asian-American. She looks Asian, being the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, but that mistake always disturbs her. It's as if people can't tell one Asian American from another. She feels that she's being told she lacks individuality: "You are invisible. You don't matter."
In a piece for The New York Times last week, Ko revealed her wounded feelings about ethnic identity and by implication asked for understanding. The term Asian-American has been used since the civil rights era of the 1960s, but has never become widely familiar. Ko's article, headed The Myth of the Interchangeable Asian, is one among many attempts to articulate the issues surrounding Ko and those like her.
She's chosen a significant moment. In a Boston courtroom this month, after four years of pre-trial litigation, Harvard University is in a lawsuit claiming that Asian-American students are victims of illegal discrimination. They believe that Harvard's affirmative action program favours applications from African-American and Latino students at the expense of more qualified Asian-Americans.
Students for Fair Admission (SFFA) is suing Harvard. It's the creation of Edward Blum, a financial adviser whose personal crusade involves challenging every reference to race in college admissions. He hopes that this case, and possibly others like it, will end affirmative action. Scores of other specifically Asian-American organizations have interested themselves in the case, their existence proving that Asian-Americans are growing in self-consciousness, pride and their desire to be noticed. (In Canada no such movement has been detected among Asian-Canadians, but it seems likely that Canada will follow the U.S. pattern, as it often does.)
The story of "affirmative action" and its popularity goes back generations.
The term itself seems designed to evoke approval: Who can deny a word like "affirmative"? In itself it implies positive qualities. Its first official appearance was made in 1961, when an order from president John Kennedy declared contractors had to take "affirmative action" to follow non-discrimination clauses in government projects.
The U.S. has 21 million Asian-Americans, if you count Filipinos and Koreans as well as Chinese and Japanese and all the others. Establishing their individual as well as collective identity can't be easy, as Lisa Ko has discovered.
Or consider Sarah Jeong, who was born in South Korea in 1988 and moved to America with her parents when she was three. Like many U.S. citizens, she's a severe critic of American democracy. She describes the majority of Americans as "white people," which her critics have called racist. Her sharp tongue attracts people who jump on her when they think she's made a mistake.
She was the recent subject of a discussion among three white male editors of Commentary magazine, on their regular podcast from their office. All three expressed their distaste for her comments, and for her lack of some quality they didn't mention (I'm guessing it was humility).
Certainly Jeong has flourished to a degree that would inspire envy in anyone who believes that immigrants should know their place. She flourished at Berkeley, the scholarly jewel in the University of California system. She then distinguished herself at Harvard Law, where she was editor of the Harvard Journal of Law & Gender. After deciding she did not want to be a lawyer, she joined the staff of The New York Times editorial page. And all this before she had reached the age of 30.
One of the Commentary editors recited her career, remarked on her success, and contrasted her negative attitude toward America with its generosity to her. She had been welcomed by three great U.S. institutions (Berkeley, Harvard, the Times) and her response, he said, was to crap on the whole country. Instead, one of the editors remarked, her treatment deserves "immigrant gratitude." That three-way exercise in bitter condescension adds up to another reason for the dissatisfaction of Asian-Americans.