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This post is authored by Alice Li, a Principal Email Engineer at Litmus.
Early on in my career in email marketing, a new director joined my team. On our welcome lunch with him, he made time to chat with every one of his new reports to get to know them. When it came to me, however, all he wanted to talk about was his frequent trips to Thailand. I made it clear that I had never been to Thailand, nor was I Thai, so I had no context for anything he was saying and was honestly puzzled as to why he kept pressing the topic.
Later on, an Asian colleague (who was also, decidedly, not Thai) revealed to me that the director did the exact same thing with him, yet went on to speak with our white colleagues about their actual hobbies and interests. It was difficult to avoid concluding that this director simply didn’t see past our race when it came to relating to us, and therefore wouldn’t take the step to get to know us as individuals who could speak on topics outside their ethnicity.
These aren’t unusual or isolated incidents. Asians in America are often stereotyped as homogenous monoliths and perpetual foreigners. It didn’t matter that my colleague and I were both Chinese American; Thai was close enough, right? Aren’t all Asians basically the same anyway? The “American” part clearly didn’t factor in either. We were all American and therefore already had a shared culture to draw from—one that I’m definitely more familiar with than Thai culture.
These microaggressions are akin to behavior that many Asian Americans face on a regular basis in the workplace. They may seem trivial on the face of things but are rooted in a long history of anti-Asian racism in America that still has a substantial impact on the lives and livelihoods of Asian Americans today.
In recent months, COVID-19 has shone a new light on the old problem of anti-Asian racism. On top of a massive increase of hate crimes against Asians and Asian-run businesses as well as the resulting spike in mental health crises, Asian Americans are now experiencing the highest increase in unemployment filings among any ethnic group—a 10,210% year-over-year increase versus 3,222% for Latino Americans, 2,904% for white Americans, and 1,927% for Black Americans.
It’s become exceedingly clear that the coronavirus has unearthed the xenophobia that many had presumed buried beneath the so-called “Model Minority” myth. Coined in 1966, the Model Minority myth “characterizes Asian Americans as a polite, law-abiding group who have achieved a higher level of success than the general population through some combination of innate talent and pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps immigrant striving” according to Tolerance.org.
Although many Asian Americans have embraced this as a positive stereotype, it actually subverts the progress of racial justice not only for other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities but also within the Asian American community itself.
The supposedly “good” stereotype of the Model Minority contributes to the harmful phenomenon of the “Bamboo Ceiling.” Coined in 2005 as a variation on the “Glass Ceiling” metaphor that stunts women’s career paths in the workplace, the Bamboo Ceiling is another example of a barrier that prevents Asian Americans specifically from climbing above a certain point on the corporate ladder. This is substantiated by the fact that Asian Americans make up 27% of the corporate workforce, but occupy less than 14% of executive roles and only hold 2.6% of Fortune 500 board seats while making up almost 6% of the U.S. population.
How is this massive underrepresentation at the top levels possible, if we experience “good” stereotypes? The double-edged sword of Asians being perceived as heads-down, quiet but diligent heads-down workers undercuts many traits that corporate America would deem “leadership material”—i.e., assertiveness, risk-taking, and confident communication. It also prevents Asians from receiving the support they need if they don’t live up to what’s expected of a Model Minority—not only on an individual basis in school or at work, but also on a macro level where Asian Americans receive proportionately far less funding for social services despite having the largest wealth gap and rates of poverty.
On a societal level, the Model Minority myth has also been frequently used to drive a wedge between Asian Americans and Black and Brown folks. With the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and so many others throwing #BlackLivesMatter into focus recently, many corporations, marketers, and individuals have been asking how they can communicate their support for the Black community.
One of the first things that we Asian Americans can do is to bust the Model Minority myth and the associated stereotypes of passivity in order to stand up against white supremacy in solidarity with Black and Brown folks.
Asian Americans have historically benefited from Civil Rights progress that has been pushed forward by Black people, and have historically stood by the Black community during the Civil Rights Era. It’s time to rise to the occasion again.
Casual racial microaggressions that Asian Americans often encounter underscore a far more destructive legacy of xenophobia and anti-Asian racism. Although the Model Minority myth has since whitewashed this history of racism, continuing to feed into “positive” Model Minority stereotypes of us does far more harm than good in the long run. Not only does it impede our career paths by supporting the Bamboo Ceiling, but it also allows Asian Americans to be used against Black and Brown people as examples of why systemic racism doesn’t exist. But we know it does, especially with COVID-19 reigniting old prejudices against Asians across the globe.
It’s time for us to unite in solidarity with other BIPOC by pushing for anti-racist practices— not only in the workplace but also for the rest of society. With Asians representing a significantly larger portion of marketing professionals in comparison to other BIPOC, we must use our collective voices to demand anti-racism in the workplace. Here are a couple of resources I would recommend:
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CM Group is a family of global marketing technology brands including Campaign Monitor, CM Commerce, Delivra, Emma, Liveclicker, Sailthru, and Vuture. By joining together these leading brands, CM Group offers a variety of world-class solutions that can be used by marketers at any level. Headquartered in Nashville, TN, CM Group has United States offices in Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New York City, Pittsburgh and San Francisco, and global offices in Australia, London, New Zealand, and Uruguay.