During my first year of law school, I volunteered at the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center (“APALRC”), a pro bono program coordinated by my law school and another neighboring school. Through the APALRC, I assisted members of the local Asian Pacific American community who either could not afford legal assistance or who had to overcome language and cultural barriers to gain access to legal resources. I also had the opportunity to help coordinate several outreach programs to mobilize the Asian-American community, including citizenship drives and voter registration drives.
In the course of my involvement with the community, I repeatedly heard individuals talk about facing prejudice and being ostracized. Listening to their accounts reinforced my own notions about the realities of prejudice in our society. I had already experienced racism and stereotying first-hand while working as a delivery boy for my mother’s Chinese restaurant. Riding my rickety bike around, I was often the object of cruel humor and pranks.
Many customers and passersby referred to me as “slanty-eyed” and “foreign”, and as a result my self-confidence suffered. These experiences, combined with my involvement with the APALRC, have led me to wonder about what every individual can do, even on the microcosmic level, to overcome prejudice.
During the course of my studies, I became fascinated by the two perspectives on overcoming discrimination against African-Americans that emerged in the early twentieth century. One proponent, W.E.B. Du Bois, advocated civil rights with a strong political voice; another, Booker T. Washington, advocated earning respect through hard work and results. I firmly believe that Du Bois and Washington’s ideas provide a good foundation for Asian-Americans in realizing our desire to overcome discrimination. Asian-Americans today face similar challenges of overcoming prejudice in our attempt to successfully integrate into society. However, before calling upon the government to implement specific remedies, we Asian-Americans must reflect on our own shortcomings and determine what role we should play in our desire to overcome prejudice.
Lack of initiative and apathy are chronic, pervasive problems in the Asian-American community and often hinder social and political assimilation. Much of the discrimination against Asian-Americans is the result self-imposed isolation, leading to cultural misunderstanding and negative stereotypes. Many Asian-Americans form closed isolated circles within their respective ethnic enclaves. Although building such niches might be comfortable, Asian-Americans risk social and political isolation when we refuse to integrate and participate in the community at large.
In order to remedy this situation, I believe that Asian-Americans should start exercising a political voice through community and civic participation. By failing to attend community meetings such as those of the local homeowners’ association, we show the community at large that we are unwilling to integrate ourselves into society, thereby reinforcing prejudice. Asian-Americans should make greater efforts to fulfill even the most basic civic duties — for instance, filling out census forms. Instead of saying “I do not speak English” in an effort to evade serving in a jury — a bewilderingly common practice — Asian-Americans should make an even greater effort to participate in the democratic process that is the foundation of our country.
Thus far, a legal education has allowed me to both develop my knowledge of the issues and reinforce my motivation for contributing to the political and social integration of Asian-Americans. Through the APALRC, I helped to coordinate a citizenship drive with the Cambodian Network Council to provide citizenship advice for the Cambodian community. Later on, working with a general voter registration drive for Asian-Americans, I disseminated voter registration information to mobilize Asian-Americans in exercising our right to vote.
As a student at the University of Virginia Law School, I will continue to refine the knowledge and skills I need to work effectively on advancing social and political welfare issues on behalf of Asian-Americans and society at large. I realize that it takes perseverance, drive, and passion to face the numberless challenges that come with such an ambitious undertaking, but I feel confident that my ability to work towards a long-term goal will allow me to pursue my objectives. I believe that, by continuing my legal studies at the UVA Law School, I will further shape my vision and strategy for social change, and I am confident that my endeavor will strengthen the school’s eclectic student body both within outside the classroom.