Some Truths About Being Asian In America: A Growing Voice
Updated: Nov 21, 2021
When actor Daniel Dae Kim testified before Congress last week to speak about anti-Asian violence in America and pushing through legislation H.Res.908 to better protect this group, he recounted asking a pollster during the recent election about why he rarely saw “Asian Americans” as a separate category when results were broken down by race. The response he received was that “Asian Americans are statistically insignificant.” He interpreted this to mean that “we don’t matter.”
The Asian American population in the United States is estimated to be approximately 20 million, or about 5.7% of the total population. It’s a fast-growing demographic: The U.S. Asian population grew by 72% between 2000 and 2015, according to the Pew Research Center—and the U.S. Census Bureau projects it to grow another 100% by 2060.
After the shootings of six Asian women at three spas in Atlanta—Soon Chung Park, Yong Ae Yue, Hyun Jung Grant, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, and Daoyou Feng—anti-Asian violence got increased attention. Spikes in violence and discrimination have been happening since the onset of the pandemic, as nearly 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents were reported to Stop AAPI Hate between March 19, 2020 and February 28, 2021, with women reporting incidences at a rate 2.3 times higher than men.
Regardless of the percentage of the population a demographic makes up, or whether incidents involve physical violence or threatening words (phrases such as “Go back to your country,” and “You’re the reason the coronavirus is here,” have been reported), discrimination is wrong. It not only hurts those who identify as Asian, but all of us, creating a more divided and fear-fueled country.
I spoke to senior leaders on how anti-Asian discrimination has showed up in their own lives, and ways we can help overcome it.
Anti-Asian Discrimination Didn’t Start With the Pandemic
Asian hate crimes had risen by 150% in 2020, but Asian Americans have been experiencing discrimination long before Covid-19. Ingrained biases against Asians may be in part rooted in history, with policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, blocking Chinese from testifying in court, banning Chinese from entering the country, and essentially framing them as “forever foreigners.”
“Asians are a huge group with many different cultures mixed together, but one common truth is we have been on the sidelines in America for a long time, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act,” says Jennifer Kohl, executive director of integrated media at VMLY&R who lives in Westchester, New York and is the daughter of Chinese and German immigrants. Asian Americans represent many different countries and cultures, including China, Korea, Japan, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and many others.
"These issues have been around for a very long time; Atlanta is just what has finally gotten the media's full attention," says Kohl. "The Asian community is known for being quiet, heads down, hard working, not wanting to 'rock the boat,' the model minority, the perfect immigrant. Because of this, we have been quiet about the abuse, the attacks, the micro- and macroaggressions. Thirty years ago as a child, I was called "chink" and taunted for being "yellow." I thought we had advanced, but I saw the same Asian taunts against both my children. Within the last few years, my son was called a "Chinese dumpling” and my daughter was asked if she was a “chink.” Clearly we have not advanced, which breaks my heart."
Dispelling The Myth Of the Model Minority
The myth of the model minority perpetuates the narrative that all Asian-Americans excel in math, are non-confrontational, and are successful. This stereotype may have contributed to divisions among America’s marginalized groups and may be a contributing factor for Asian Americans who experience discrimination being less likely to speak out. The stereotype also goes against the fact that all Asians do not benefit from a high socioeconomic status; the wealth disparity between the richest Asian Americans and the poorest is larger than for any other racial group in America.
“In comparison to the Black Lives Matter movement, the discrimination against Asians doesn’t get as much press time,” says Moonsun Park, CFO/SVP of finance at Sharp Electronics Corporation who lives in New Jersey and is the daughter of Korean immigrants. “I think one reason is that Asians tend to be reserved and don’t like to make waves, but also because there is a perception that Asians don’t need help because many are in professional positions and have a higher education. In the workplace we experience bias. Although I have not experienced this personally, there are times when an Asian person doesn’t get promoted because they are not the ‘squeaky wheel’ or aren’t perceived to need the help.”
Create Workplace Cultures Where People Don’t Have To Cover
Feeling like you have to cover, or downplay certain aspects of your identity, may be common in the workplace. One report found that 61% of employees feel like they have to cover parts of their identities. “I decided if I was going to fit in and make things better for myself, I am going to forget about the Chinese part of myself and be the Caucasian person,” says Steven Chu, an account executive at Microsoft who lives in Kansas City and whose father was Chinese and German mother was from the Midwest. “People didn’t make fun of me as much, so throughout school and then in the workplace, I learned to show up more as that Caucasian person. I felt like that was the only way I could be a legitimate sales professional and thrive.”
Chu started to embrace his Chinese heritage after taking an allyship program at Microsoft. “A couple of years ago, my company found ways to encourage people to show up at work as our authentic selves. They explained the concept of covering, and I hadn’t heard the term before. I started to have revelations that I have some amazing family history from my Chinese side, and I began expressing that outwardly. I realized I could produce more and be more effective if I showed up to work and my community as my full self, and became an ally for other Asians who may not have felt like they had the courage to defend themselves, whether through microaggressions or being the model minority.”
Here are some small steps for helping to address and start to overcome anti-Asian discrimination.
Expand Your Circle And Be Curious
Kohl says the biggest action step each of us can take is reflection. "Ask yourself: Do I have Asian friends or colleagues? Do I know them and their stories? What sort of bias might I have about Asians? Start by being curious and asking questions."
There is strength in numbers: Sharing our stories helps create community and support networks. If you are a leader, look for ways to leverage your position to get a dialogue going. “After the incident in Atlanta, another Asian woman in my workplace who I don’t interact with often sent me an email saying she hoped me and my family were safe, and that she and her family were shocked, scared, and angry,” says Park. “By reaching out she took that first step. We need more of us reaching out to different individuals who can make a difference. I never thought of my position, and how I could use my leadership to make changes. It took her email to open my eyes to say, maybe we should be talking more about it as a management team.”
Become Conscious Of Your Unconscious
If you are human, you have bias. Some biases help us by speeding up our decision making process, while others hold us back and impact who we choose to promote, hire or even be our friend. “The first thing is for people to look at their own unconscious biases and think, ‘Do I have this preconceived reaction about who a person is when I see someone who is Black, or Asian, or Middle Eastern—and what can I do about it?’” says Chu. “We all have unconscious bias, including Asians. I’d also say we need to actively promote Asians into leadership, vote them into office, and give Asians a collective voice so we are not just the quiet minority.”
Photo by Viviana Rishe on Unsplash.
Article originally published in Forbes.