Exploring what it means to be Asian-American

BY TITUS LIN

What does it mean to be Asian American?  Are racial and ethnic distinctions to be endured or celebrated?  What role can identity politics play in responding to such events as Texas Rep. Betty Brown’s statement that Asian Americans should adopt names “easier for Americans to deal with?”

With those questions in mind, Harvard Law School’s Asian Pacific American Law Students Association convened its annual conference on Saturday, February 27th.  The 16th Annual National Asian Pacific American Conference was titled “What Identity?  Whose Politics?” and brought together hundreds of law students from across the country to discuss the effectiveness and legitimacy of identity politics as a mechanism for positive social change in the Asian American community. The Conference was organized by Jenny Lee ’11 and Helen Lu ’11, leading a team of more than fifty volunteers.

“The Conference is not only a forum for discussion of important issues facing Asian Americans today, but the year-long process of putting it together is also a key community builder for Harvard APALSA,” said Helen Lu.

In addition to keynote addresses delivered by James C. Ho, Solicitor General of Texas, and Yul Kwon, Deputy Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau for the Federal Communications Commission and winner of Survivor: Cook Islands, the Conference featured seven substantive panels, a networking luncheon and career fair, and an evening banquet at the Harvard Faculty Club.

To start the day off, Phil Lee ’00 delivered a short presentation on the history of discrimination against Asian Americans, guiding the audience through key Supreme Court jurisprudence that affected the status of Asian Americans. Solicitor General Ho, who gave the morning keynote address, took up the question of what it means to be Asian American. He urged the attendees to be aware of the real struggles that Asian Americans face, but also to be wary of self-pigeonholing and inadvertently reinforcing divisive labels. The audience appreciated his speech for being simultaneously uplifting and cautionary—striking a balance between celebrating how far the Asian American community has come and how far it must go toward achieving racial and cultural equality.

The seven substantive panels covered a broad swath of topics ranging from the role of Asian Americans in academia to making partner at a large law firm as an Asian American. On “Finding Our Place in the Academy,” Asian American law professors from around the nation talked about their personal experiences and contributions and gave attendees an inside look at what it takes to land an academic job in today’s teaching market. At “Steering the Discourse on Asian American Issues: Blogging and Social Change,” Phil Yu, the creator of AngryAsianMan.com, spoke about militating against stereotypes of Asian Americans in media. “Thinking Outside the Bamboo Box: Innovators in Activism” featured a full panel of community activists and leaders in the public interest sector. “I really enjoyed hearing about the panelists’ experiences and personal inspiration for public interest work,” said Katy Yang ’12. “And while the panelists’ diverse backgrounds and careers made it clear that everyone has a different approach to social change, I thought it was particularly interesting to see common insights – such as the importance of political engagement – emerge across different issue areas.”

On “Toward an Asian American Jurisprudence,” Professors Neil Gotanda, John Park, and Rick Su ’04 explored the meaning of Asian American Jurisprudence, its motivation, history, and future. Professor Gotanda, one of the foundational figures in critical race theory, delivered a short lecture on meaning and scope of the field. John S.W. Park, professor of Asian American Studies and Dean of the College of Letters and Science at UC Santa Barbara, and Rick Su of the University of Buffalo spoke on the history of immigration law and its implications on the status of minority groups.

The Conference also featured two practice-oriented panels. Asian American partners from Choate, Gibson Dunn, Hogan & Hartson, Kirkland & Ellis, Sullivan & Cromwell, and Wachtell shared their insights on what it takes to make partner at a large law firm today and offered students candid advice for this always challenging path. And Asian American and Asian partners from Davis Polk, Jones Day, Milbank, and Ropes & Gray spoke about the globalization of the practice of law and trends in international business.

Deputy Chief Kwon, who delivered the evening keynote address at the Faculty Club banquet, spoke about his experiences in law, business, government, and television. His speech mixed light-hearted anecdotes with more serious insights. He shared with the audience that his decision to audition for Survivor was motivated by a desire to shatter racial stereotypes about Asian Americans, since there were and still are very few positive Asian American figures in television or film. Jeremy Tran ’12 reflects, “Yul challenged me to really think of how I want to create change for our community.  Law school easily identifies the traditional means of social change—community organizing, academia, or even diversity at firms—but I never thought of entertainment, let alone reality-television, as a means of initiating change.”

“Deputy Chief Kwon’s keynote speech was the most inspiring portion of the conference for me,” recalled Robin Achen ’12. “It was clear he was speaking candidly and from the heart as he told stories about his life as an Asian American that resonated throughout the crowded banquet room. One of the things that impressed me most was that he seems to be a perfect example of exactly what he was calling all of us to be–Asian Americans willing to work to break the mold society imposes and willing to support one another in the endeavor.”

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