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Affirmative Action: Forging Our Own Identity

This is the last part on a series about how data effects Education and Affirmative Action. You can catch up with Part One here and Part Two here.

Recap: We’ve discussed our need to be seen as a distinct group from the rest of Asian America and we’ve also highlighted some of the obstacles we’re running into, with regards to our push for personhood.

As I noted in the last segment (part 2), creating our own Lao American platform, with a good amount of distance from the rest of Asian America, is not about hostility or division: it’s about priorities. As a less-resourced, less-accommodated ethnic group, we have to prioritize ourselves because the big players in Asian America (typically East Asian American groups) don’t seem to have our community’s concerns within sight.

Luckily though, work to prioritize Lao Americans has already begun to take root, being championed by our own community members.

Know Your Role

I mentioned before that Southeast Asian Americans worked to win Asian American educational data disaggregation in Rhode Island. Lao Americans were part of that too. Laotian Americans Vimala Phongsavanh with the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, Anasone Silivongxay with the Laotian American National Alliance, and Annie Ratanasim and Chanda Womack from ARISE were all part of that work.

You can see that Lao Americans making waves in the political arena is a possibility, but even smaller scale actions can be great ways to engage with inequalities within Asian America. In Columbus, Ohio this past November, I came together with other Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander Americans to host an art show for our respective communities called Brand New. During Brand New, we highlighted the resource and educational inequalities that affect Asian (& Pacific Islander) America, and many people left, learning about a topic they hadn’t really encountered before. It was something small, but it made an impact which can serve as a foundation for future actions and initiatives.

Of course at some point I (in standard angry minority fashion) would like everyone to take the debates around education, affirmative action, and intraracial inequality head on with the rest of Asian America, but doing small things to raise awareness is important too. Whether or not all Lao Americans working around issues related to education and affirmative action agree, with distancing themselves from the “Pan-Asian-American” umbrella, it is clear that many of us refuse to have Lao American experiences obscured under that umbrella.

Don’t Be a Pawn

By creating our own independent relationship to affirmative action, Lao Americans can also avoid being used as a pawn in the racialized fight against affirmative action policies. Mark my words, Asian Americans who fight against the entirety of affirmative action will have their efforts co-opted into a Right-wing agenda that will destroy opportunities for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. Why? So that the co-opting Right-wing parties can energize a predominantly White swath of conservative voters – voters who view the toppling of affirmative action as a victory of meritocracy over government handouts (these voters consistently fall for these Right-wing tactics, ignoring the fact that affirmative action promotes meritocracy by leveling the playing field for everyone).

This co-opting of Asian America’s educational interests will likely be done much in the same way that Edward Blum found a face for his anti-affirmative action crusade in Abigail Fisher. Fisher is the student whom I mentioned that blamed affirmative action, not her own mediocre academics, for her failure to be admitted to UT. So Asian America, please don’t play the Blum-Fisher game, and attack opportunities for other marginalized people just because we have our own educational concerns to address. But if you do so, know that Lao America can distance ourselves from that BS anyway.

Be Lao’d

Our data is distorted.

Our stories are obscured.

Our struggles are co-opted.

That is why we Lao Americans need to be bold and bounce out of Asian America. Emphasis on being bold; on being Lao’d. Don’t be scared to make a fuss, because that’s how we’re going to make things better. We’re often presented with only two options for addressing social issues like affirmative action: take it or leave it. But activists and advocates have shown us that, if we can be bold enough, there are other options. We can change data analyses. We can change social interactions. We can be creative and change whatever we want!

The fight for Asian American data disaggregation has already proven itself possible, so now, we need to use these gains as a new platform upon which we Southeast Asian Americans create new visions for our own communities. I see us winning national Asian American data disaggregation in all social areas. I see us winning separate consideration for marginalized Asian American groups, with regards to affirmative action policies. I see us embracing our uniqueness as Southeast Asian Americans. I see us educating other Asian American groups on why affirmative action is still important to many other groups of people. Maybe one day we’ll even tackle the very static way that higher education is structured in our market-driven society.

That is, unless any of you have even Bolder and Lao’der plans for justice in education.

-Timothy Singratsomboune,

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