In Wake of Lawsuit, Students Reflect on Asian-American Identity


Around 60 students crowded into a Boylston Hall classroom Friday to discuss their perceptions of the term “Asian American” in light of the admissions lawsuit challenging Harvard’s affirmative action policies.

The event entitled, “What is Asian America?” was the result of collaboration between the Asian American Women’s Association and six other cultural organizations. Organizers said they were inspired to host the event after seeing or taking part in a number of campus-wide events about the lawsuit and Asian-American identity.

Cayla S. Lee ’21, a Asian American Women’s Association officer, said that a lot of the discussions were focused on the opinions of Asian Americans and whether or not they benefit from affirmative action admissions policies.

“We thought it was necessary to have an on-campus dialogue about how we can complicate our notions of what it means to be Asian American, and in that way, make campus discussions a little more nuanced,” Lee said.


In November 2014, anti-affirmative action group Students For Fair Admissions sued Harvard, alleging the College’s race conscious admissions policies discriminate against Asian-American applicants. The case went to trial for three weeks in October and November and will extend until at least February 2019.

Though prompted by the ongoing lawsuit, students primarily discussed their personal conceptualizations of the term “Asian American.”

Participants discussed the political and social history of the term “Asian American” and what they considered the advantages and shortcomings of the classification. Attendees shared anecdotes about how the term has been applied to them by others. They also discussed intersectional representation within the Asian-American community — particularly focusing on how Southeast Asians, South Asians, and Pacific Islanders are often underrepresented by Asian-American advocacy groups.

“I had not really considered the distinction between Asian American and Pacific Islander from more than a geographic perspective,” Starr H. Rhee ’21 said. “I always thought we were grouped because people think we look alike and so because of that we have shared lived experiences, but really, Pacific Islanders have to deal with a whole different power dynamic that we usually don’t have to think about as Asian Americans.”

G. Stewart Barnes, a former chaplain of Harvard and notable donor to the Boston Asian American Film Festival, was also in attendance. He said he was encouraged by the dialogue and is eager to see how conversations regarding race and its impact will develop over time.

“It is a fact that students, not just Harvard students, but students everywhere, are going to be more focused on personal identity issues,” he said. “But you have a lifetime ahead of you to focus on that, and I fully understand the focus here.”

Jasmine Y. Parmley '21, a member of the Asian American Women’s Association, said the group plans to host similar discussions on Asian-American identity in the future, particularly focusing on the the identities of female and queer Asian Americans.