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What It Means to Be Asian American in the Era of Affirmative Action

A Q&A with Dr. OiYan Poon

OiYan Poon and Asian American Is Not a Color
Author photo: Anna Cillan. Cover art: Carol Chu

Before being struck down by the US Supreme Court in June 2023, affirmative action remained one of the few remaining policy tools to address racial inequalities, revealing peculiar contours of racism and anti-racist strategies in America. In Asian American Is Not a Color: Conversations on Race, Affirmative Action, and Family, Dr. OiYan Poon looks at how the debate over affirmative action reveals the divergent ways Asian Americans conceive of their identity. Through personal reflective essays for and about her daughter, Dr. Poon combines extensive research with personal narratives from both herself and a diverse swath of individuals across the Asian American community to reflect on and respond to her daughter’s central question: What does it mean to be Asian American? Beacon Press publicity assistant Mei Su Bailey caught up with Dr. Poon to chat about it.

Mei Su Bailey: One of the most poignant and unique parts of your book is how you begin and end each chapter with a letter to your young daughter, Té Té. They’re so moving and really show how these policy issues are so personal and impactful. How did you make the decision to address this book to your daughter and structure the chapters this way? 

Dr. OiYan Poon: I had been trying to write a book on Asian Americans and affirmative action since at least 2012. Each time I started, I couldn’t figure out who my intended audience was. As a result, my writing process kept stalling out. I was accustomed to writing for scholarly and technical audiences but had a hard time explaining things to wider audiences—people who are intelligent, curious, and civically engaged.

Like many toddlers, my daughter started to ask a lot of questions when she became verbal. I found myself talking with her and asking questions, driven both by a curiosity of how she was thinking and a desire to support her exploration and learning of what it means to be Asian American. The decision to adapt an epistolary approach was a way to keep me accountable to being nurturing and supportive in sharing things I’ve learned through my lifetime and career, while remaining caring and curious in conversation. It challenged me to tell a compelling story about how people who identify as Asian Americans have made meaning of race and racism in different ways.

MSB: In chapter 1, you write about the importance of intergenerational stories and how the “ancestry of changemakers” is so influential in defining Asian American identity. Who are some of these changemakers you think more people should know about? 

OP: There are so many changemaking ancestors across generations and global diasporas! I included some in the book, but there are so many others! I would love if people learned more about and from people like Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, Gabriela Silang, Mamie Tape, Patsy Mink, Dalip Singh Saund, Connie Wun, Anurima Bhargava, Larry Itliong (check out the new musical—Larry the Musical: An American Journey!), Taz Ahmed, Corky Lee, Deepa Iyer, Sahra Nguyen, Bill Ong Hing, Al Robles, among many other individuals. I think it’s also critical to learn from contemporary and historical community organizations and movements, including AAPI Women Lead, the Coalition to Protect Parcel C for Chinatown in Boston, the Asian American Studies Movement and Third World Liberation Front, Tuesday Night Project in Los Angeles, VAYLA in New Orleans, the Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM), Khmer Girls in Action, National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Americans, Desis Rising Up & Moving (DRUM), Asian American Midwest Progressives, Freedom Inc., the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, and so many more than I can name here. These are just some of the public figures and organizations I know about. There are countless teachers, community leaders, and members who identify as Asian American making a difference every day!

MSB: Throughout your research, you spoke to thirty-six Asian Americans about their stances on affirmative action as well as how they conceived of their Asian American identity. What were some of the most surprising things you learned in your research? 

OP: There are so many things that surprised me through this research project. Allow me to share three things I learned.

First, it surprised me to learn that Asian Americans who opposed affirmative action understood that racism was a significant problem in the US that needed to be addressed. This stance on racism is different from traditionally White affirmative action opponents, who have argued that racism was not a problem that needed fixing.

Second, both Asian American supporters and opponents of affirmative action were generally equally misinformed about how affirmative action worked. How they felt about affirmative action had much more to do with how they understood racism. If they understood racism as a systemic problem, they were more likely to support affirmative action. If they felt that racism was an individual or interpersonal attitude problem, they were more likely to oppose affirmative action.

Finally, I was really fascinated that I generally enjoyed getting to know people who held policy opinions that were very different from my own.

MSB: When writing about the many conversations you had with these community members, you say that you came into these interactions with the attitude of “I love you, therefore, I challenge you.” It was really striking to read this, especially since we live in an era in which political disagreements and divides often seem uncrossable. How did you balance standing up for your own beliefs while also centering humanity and love in the debate? 

OP: The balance requires taking on an educator’s mindset—one that respects that everyone, myself included, is always learning and evolving. In my engagements with policy debates, I’ve come to realize that there is a vast majority of people who are uncertain about their stances on any given contentious policy. This majority in the middle are watching and listening to those of us who are key players in policy debates. Earlier in my career, I would furiously assert my arguments and evidence, assuming everyone listening was my opponent. Then I started polling my audiences at the start of many of my public talks. In a crowd of 100, there would always be a small group of firm supporters and another small group of ardent opponents, but the majority expressed uncertainty. I realized that audiences were curious and wanted to learn, and that my role was to be a caring teacher.

Good teaching requires skillfully guiding people to follow their natural curiosities to explore and consider evidence and facts as they engage civically in the world. It requires teachers to also examine our understandings. I wish people engaged in political discourses would take several moments throughout the day to lead with curiosity and examination of evidence and ideas.

MSB: I really enjoyed reading about how you are teaching Té Té about political activism and the importance of being engaged in her community, like going to protests and neighborhood campaigning. What are some other ways that parents and young activists can get involved and build solidarity? 

OP: Parents and young activists can get involved in building solidarity and solutions to social problems in all kinds of ways. Children and teachers at Té Té’s elementary school recently started a Kindness Club, which is currently learning about poverty and class inequalities. They recently launched a toiletries drive for their community—an idea that the third- and fourth-grade members of the club designed with support from their faculty mentor. Recently, she has been asking me a lot of questions about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. We have been leaning into our community of friends and families with elementary-aged children to support each other in learning more about the conflict and helping our little ones build their analyses, too. Collectively organized by a local grassroots group called Portraits 4 Palestine in Chicago, we have written letters to our Congressional representatives, local electees, and attended a Letters for a Free Palestine action to write to the Biden Administration. In every case, I follow and support my child’s curiosities, and offer ideas to take action.

MSB: Now that we’re approaching the one-year anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s June 2023 affirmative action ruling, what do you hope readers take away from your book as we move into the future? 

OP: The ruling in 2023 was devastating. We know that without an acknowledgement of the role racism plays in producing persistent inequalities in education and other social systems, colleges and universities in states that have had affirmative action bans have been losing out on talented students across racial demographics. This will have negative effects on achieving a more robust multiracial democratic society, unless community, institutional, and elected leaders take action.

The 2023 ruling ended the consideration of race at the decision point in selective admissions. One critical tool was taken away. However, there are many other approaches and strategies that can be adopted to continue advancing diversity and fair access to the benefits of higher education. The ruling did not outlaw targeted recruitment efforts, scholarships, ethnic studies academic departments, initiatives to pursue minority serving institution (MSI) status and funding, and the collection and analysis of demographic data for organizational changes—to name just a few tangible strategies by public universities in states with affirmative action bans implemented prior to 2023. Yet today, we are seeing higher education leaders follow the fear of litigation in ending targeted scholarships for example, rather than their stated institutional mission statements and values. We need courageous and creative collective leadership to stand up for what’s right and morally just.



About the Authors 

Mei Su Bailey is the publicity assistant at Beacon Press. Prior to joining Beacon in 2024, Mei Su worked at various youth advocacy and literary organizations, including 826 Boston, Dear Asian Youth, and the Fir Acres Writing Workshop. She holds a degree in sociology and anthropology from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and graduated from the Columbia Publishing Course at Oxford. Outside of work, you can find her playing with cats, making things with yarn, and enjoying many bowls of noodle soup with chili oil.

Dr. OiYan Poon is a codirector of the College Admissions Futures Co-Laborative ( Her research agenda brings together organizational theories and race and ethnic studies to study rejective admission and selection processes, the racial politics of Asian Americans and education, and affirmative action policies. She has received grants from the Gates Foundation, Joyce Foundation, and Spencer Foundation to support her research, and her work has appeared widely in national media outlets including the New York Times, the Washington PostThe Atlantic, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the New Yorker. She is the author of Asian American Is Not a Color: Conversations on Race, Affirmative Action, and Family. Follow her on Twitter (@spamfriedrice) and Instagram (oiyanpoon).