College-level activists know how invaluable their leadership experiences with student organizations become once they graduate and enter the professional world. Managing an office staff or working as part of a Board of Directors seems strikingly similar to serving as president of an undergraduate student association. For instance, the hierarchies and interpersonal relationships of corporate America eerily resemble participation in a social fraternity. These extracurricular activities prepare a young professional for her career more effectively than how seriously she took her academic major or that un-compelling internship she landed sophomore year where her most important duty each day was to present hot coffee to the boss. Yet academic studies and internships are the very activities that a professional resume emphasizes, meanwhile allowing no room for the activities that actually matter.
Large conservative corporations may be impressed by high GPAs or college degrees, but rarely do these same companies value zealous efforts in, say, the Asian American Student Union. Who cares that one published dozens of widely disseminated articles on human rights in China or spoke out against the political apathy of Diasporic Asians? In this entry, I want to raise an issue I see many APAs struggle with, but rarely has it been addressed in isolation with the attention it deserves: the professional stigma attached to being a political activist in one’s ethnic community.
As one who just graduated from law school and about to enter the legal profession, I notice that my colleagues who were social activists in their college days are also the most competent, passionate, and most impressive employees. Those who got the job because of their 3.9 GPA in electrical engineering turn out to be quite bland and utterly incapable of adapting to high-pressure social situations. I wonder if maybe these same individuals had gained foundational experiences as a member of a student organization e-board, they might have come out to be better prepared for the real world. As an employer, social activism would be the first thing I look for on a resume, since it shows initiative.
Recently, though, a mentor advised me to omit many institution names and position titles from my resume that may suggest “extremist views on race, gender, or other politically sensitive subject matter.” In other words, wipe out any traces of work I have done for Asian-interest and feminist groups.
You could call me a sell-out for taking my mentor’s advice, but I justify it to myself by saying I want to be in a position of power, where one day I may effectively contribute to those civil movements near and dear to my heart. I want to make enough money to donate to the charities I care about. I want to attain a high enough social standing in the community so my voice will be heard. How can I do any of the social work I want to if I cannot even get my foot in the door? If certain personal information on my resume closes that door of opportunity, then, balancing the costs and benefits, I would be imprudent to not follow the advice…right?
With that said, one deeply unsettling thought remains. What if all I am doing is rationalizing myself into passivity? Resistance is discouraged by the conservative mainstream. I want to be a resister. Work I did once upon a time shows my commitment to resistance. This newly revised resume of mine, however, reveals nothing, except the welcomed notion that I will likely be another cookie-cutter model minority citizen.
Handfuls of Asian Americans—quite possibly the most promising individuals from our community—will inevitably do the same as I have and cloak their passions. No wonder the civil rights movement is dead. Those APAs with the greatest potential for igniting social change end up conforming anyway, forbearing on those ambitions for social change because, frankly, they need to eat, too. Civil rights work doesn’t put food on the table. Investment banking, on the other hand, certainly does.
Regrettably, I am not resistant enough to refuse conformity. However, I hope at least one APA with the heart for social change is. I hope for at least one activist reading 8Asians, activism won’t end with college. The resistance of these activists may be our only chance at reviving the civil rights movement.
(Note: Thanks to Claire and John for the links and references. I felt better knowing I haven’t been struggling with these issues alone.)