I’m Asian-American. Affirmative Action worked for me, by Young Jean Lee.

I'm Asian-American. Affirmative Action worked for me.

Other Asian-American students should have the same opportunity.

by Young Jean Lee.

I am a first-generation Korean-American and I'm frustrated by the lawsuit against Harvard, in which the judge will hear closing arguments on Wednesday. The plaintiffs claim that the college should end its very modest consideration of race in admissions. They wrongly assume that Asian-Americans cannot benefit from affirmative action.

That wasn't true for me. I needed affirmative action to have a chance to succeed, because almost nothing in the community I was brought up in encouraged me to realize that I had talent.

Growing up in a small, predominantly white town in Washington State in the 1980s, I felt alone and invisible. Surrounded by racism, I spent most of my time reading alone in my room.

Despite my love of books, I felt no motivation to succeed and was a mediocre student. I didn't even excel in English because I would read all of the assigned books in the first week of class and then forget what was in them. My father, a professor of chemical engineering, tried for years to help me with math, to no avail. If you looked at me then, you wouldn't see any indication that I had any talent or a chance at success in college.When I was a junior in high school, after a dispiriting summer working at a fast-food restaurant, I realized that I wanted to go to college. I bought an SAT prep book and began studying nonstop. Nevertheless, I wound up with an unexceptional score thanks to my abysmal performance on the math section.

Not knowing any better, I applied to only three schools: Rice University; the University of Washington; and the University of California, Berkeley. In my applications, I wrote about wanting to study literature. The last two schools accepted me.

My father was shocked. Based on only my test scores and grades, there was no way I should have gotten into Berkeley. He surmised, and I now agree, that it must have been because Asian-Americans were underrepresented in its English department. Luckily, this was in 1992, some years before Proposition 209 outlawed affirmative action in California's public schools. At least one person in Berkeley's admissions office recognized the value of adding diverse voices to a department that had long been filled with mostly white students.

I'll never forget walking onto the Berkeley campus and, for the first time in my life, seeing all different kinds of people. Every day I encountered a new perspective as my circle of friends, worldview and intellect expanded.I went to Berkeley anxious just to pass my classes. I ended up excelling beyond what I thought was possible. I was admitted to Phi Beta Kappa in my junior year. I was a nominee for Berkeley's highest honor, the University Medal, in my senior year. And the same year, I was admitted to almost every doctorate program I applied to, including one at Harvard. When I graduated from Berkeley, I had a 3.98 grade point average. So what happened?

To me, it's no mystery. Having grown up surrounded by racism, I had learned to hate myself. I had little hope for the future, which, in turn, made me unlikely to excel. Once I got to college, the diversity of the environment allowed me to discover my talents. Last year, I became the first female Asian-American playwright to have a play produced on Broadway.

I was fortunate to begin my playwriting career in New York's downtown theater community, which was full of organizations that cared about challenging and diversifying the predominantly white theater world. I was also lucky to follow in the path of trailblazers like David Henry Hwang, the Tony-winning playwright of "M. Butterfly."

David got his big break at the Public Theater in New York after it faced protests over the casting of a white actor in an Asian role. Joseph Papp, the Public's founder, hired one of the protesters to seek out plays by Asian-Americans. That led to the production of David's play "FOB.""I really consider my career to be the beneficiary of affirmative action," David told me recently, "because that's what affirmative action does: It recognizes a social need and creates a program in order to address that."

I've seen how increasing diversity can cause a field to flourish. The theater world is in the midst of a golden age of playwriting, and this has coincided with a concerted effort by theaters to diversify their programming. The next step is for theaters to produce more work by playwrights who come from low-income backgrounds, as our field is still dominated by the voices of the middle-to-upper classes. To achieve real diversity, I believe that affirmative action should be a holistic process, as it is at Harvard, encompassing class as well as race.

Affirmative action exists because people of color — predominantly black and brown people — have fought for it in the face of centuries of discrimination. The Harvard admissions lawsuit is a cynical manipulation that urges Asian-Americans to sell out other people of color. As an Asian-American, I know too well that we face discrimination. But, in the end, this lawsuit will benefit well-off white people the most.

The plaintiffs' sole proposed solution, eliminating affirmative action, would be incredibly harmful to all people of color, including Asian-Americans like me. We can't let this happen. We must protect diversity.

Young Jean Lee is a playwright. With the 2018 production of Straight White Men at the Hayes Theater, Lee became the first Asian American woman to have a play produced on Broadway. She wrote this op-ed for The New York Times, on February 9, 2019.


February 11, 2019

Post Script. The Playwright Young Jean Lee explains why diversity matters and works. We need to go forward, not back. This is a terrific piece. Read and share.#AffirmativeActionMakesAmericaGood

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