I Am An Asian-American Who Benefits From Affirmative Action

Diversity may be a buzzword to many; for me, it has always been an alien concept.

Growing up in South Korea, a nation that is essentially ethnically homogenous meant that I was always surrounded by people who looked like me, spoke the same language, and shared the same culture. In Korea, I was never uncomfortable, my identity was never challenged, and I always felt safe. I always counted this as a blessing. At the same time, however, I could never get rid of the nagging feeling that I wasn’t truly Korean, even after living all 18 years of my life in the heart of Seoul.

Speaking English at home and attending an international, American-styled school meant that my Korean was noticeably clumsy, my vocabulary was at a sixth-grade level, and English mixed incoherently with Korean when I spoke more often than I wished. In my home country, I was asked why I wasn’t “Korean” by my neighborhood friends whenever I forgot a basic word or when they learned I was an American citizen. During my summers in the United States, however, I learned that I also wasn’t “American” by the way people would look at my brother and me on the streets of suburban Maryland and ask us, with a strange combination of suspicion and politeness, where we were from.

I have always wished that I could label myself conveniently, that I didn’t have to explain my nationality and identity. In my first few months at Harvard, however, I have met countless people who struggle to label and identify themselves, just like I do. It was the diversity that exists in Harvard’s student body that, ironically enough, allowed me to feel at home for the first time in my life. This is why I cannot disavow affirmative action, both as a policy and as an ideal, even though the recent lawsuit against Harvard alleges that my university has been discriminating against people like me for years.

My response to the admissions lawsuit is simple. Although there may have been instances of discrimination in the admissions process, affirmative action remains a goal and policy worth pursuing. Discrimination against Asian-Americans is in no way a product of affirmative action; it is the result of centuries-old, deeply-rooted racism that has persisted ever since the first Asian immigrants came to America. Of course, biases in Harvard’s admissions process must be investigated, tackled, and resolved; but to even pretend that demolishing a policy designed to promote historically excluded groups will somehow achieve racial equality is absurd and counterproductive. Ultimately, arguments against affirmative action amount to an excuse used by those in power to maintain traditional structures of privilege. The fact that racial biases plagued Harvard’s admissions process only further demonstrates the need for race-conscious education and training — in other words, discriminatory admissions processes constitute an argument against structural and institutional racism, certainly not against a policy designed to tackle it.


Importantly, affirmative action also celebrates the idea that diversity is a fundamental good in college communities, an idea I have personally come to appreciate these past few months. During my short tenure as a Harvard student, I have heard Farsi, Serbian, and Russian from my friends, eaten food and listened to music I never tasted or heard before, and most importantly, met people who have revolutionized my way of thinking just by being who they are.

Last semester, for the first time in my life, I talked about religion and my struggle in understanding it when a Muslim friend discussed her faith with me for hours past midnight. I learned so much about public service and struggle in the week I spent with community organizers, activists, and passionate fighters during my pre-orientation program. I have been more vulnerable in this community than I have ever before — the openness and inclusivity that the Harvard community promotes is derived from the idea that there is no one correct way to think, no one correct way to live, and no one correct way to “be” a Harvard student. The diversity of experiences and perspectives that every student brings to Harvard is what prevents the institution from becoming even more isolated from the average American experience than it already is. It is this diversity that sparks intellectual discourse and allows for such a vibrant extracurricular life to thrive. Ultimately, diversity means that the true teachers at Harvard are often the students, constructing a community that is always learning from itself.

Having lived my entire life alone in a sea of familiar people, I am not an Asian-American who is harmed by affirmative action; quite the opposite, in fact. I benefit every day from living in a community that is so rich, so strange and quirky and interesting and wonderful, and one that I can confidently call home.

Andrew S. Ham ’22, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Thayer Hall.