To the mostly white leadership teams across the US: Don’t just stand* with the Asian community. Act.
*Note: As many organizations are using language “standing” with their Asian employees, this language is intentionally included as an example of what to avoid. Although the language may be an attempt to evoke feelings of assertion, the metaphor linking the physical ability to stand with a sentiment of courage and action is rooted in ableist ideas that erase many in the disabled community who cannot stand physically.
As videos and news of anti-Asian violence continue to surface, many companies are realizing that their anti-racism work needs to include Asian folx and those within the broader Asian and Pacific Islander (API) community. What does that look like though?
For many organizational leaders who are exploring this area for the first time — including those who have perhaps bought into the model minority myth, this one seems to be a puzzler. No one appears to be physically assaulting Asian employees within the company. Is it enough to release a statement denouncing the attacks and donate funds to API organizations recommended by your API ERG?
The answer is no.
Statements and donations (especially to local grassroots organizations that support cross-community coalition-building!) are a start, but as many will tell you, those initial acts mostly signal your commitment to engage in deeper anti-racism work. Top-down statements (thinking particularly of those written by mostly white leadership teams) and donations sourced by the labor of your API employees should not be the end result. Personally, statements and donations mean little to me, besides serving as a means to preserve external brand perception, if it is not accompanied by a meaningful interrogation of the ways in which anti-Asian racism and xenophobia play out within your organization internally.
To be clear, I am speaking specifically to the leadership teams across that country that are comprised of mostly white Executives with the positional power to enact institutional change. If you have not been doing so already, this is a time to show up in the ongoing process of allyship for your API employees. I have heard stories of so many API employees organizing and pushing their organizations to act over the past few weeks, so many Black and brown colleagues and friends acting in solidarity. They are doing amazingly important work to move the work forward, and many are tired of carrying the labor that should not have to fall on their shoulders in the first place. When I talk about action and institutional change, I am not talking to them. I am talking to the predominantly white leadership teams, responsible for directing organizational policy-making and culture-shaping, who need to continue showing up for all their employees of color.
“Our API employees do not experience inequity within our organization though,” many will challenge. “They are overrepresented (looking at you, tech industry), and compared to their Black and Latine counterparts within our team, many more API folx have already ascended into leadership roles.”
All right, everybody, deep breath.
The purpose of this resource is not to convince others that inequity and oppression against the API community is real and very much plays out in organizations across the country.
The purpose of this resource IS to help organizations identify concrete ways to act upon their commitment to racial justice for their API employees. To do so, I do think it is important to briefly contextualize API identity and experiences in the United States:
- The model minority myth is a false narrative surrounding the API community — the Asian community, in particular — in the United States. Popularized in the 1960s by a white sociologist, this myth positioned Japanese Americans as apolitical and quietly persevering in the face of discrimination and adversity. This New York Times “success story” of the “model minority” eventually came to encompass the Asian diaspora. The timing of this racist narrative was also rooted in white supremacy and not coincidental, pitting Asians against Black communities during the Civil Rights Movement. Since its popularization, the model minority myth has attempted to create division across communities of color (when there are, in fact, many examples throughout the course of history of API communities working in solidarity with Black and brown liberation movements and vice versa) and positioned Asian communities with conditional privileges while simultaneously erasing its struggles. This image of the quiet, hardworking, doesn’t-rock-the-boat Asian individual is insidious, and while I personally do not know if there are direct numbers to support this next claim, I would be willing to bet that this stereotype contributes to inequities impacting API employee experiences in most organizations.
- Identities are complex, and experiences often sit at the intersections of multiple identities. The experiences within API diasporas are no exception. Because of legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act and other pieces of immigration policy that prohibited or limited immigration from Asian countries through the mid-1960s, modern immigration waves mean that many of us hold a relationship to immigrant status, with family members or as individuals ourselves who have emigrated to the United States and many family members who have not. Although the data is unclear, existing evidence does point to a non-insignificant undocumented API population in the United States, and an incredible number of Southeast Asian folx continue to face the threat of deportation. API communities also experience some of the highest poverty rates in some parts of the country (like NYC on Lenape land), many face language barriers to access much-needed social services, and many live in multigenerational households — partly a byproduct of socioeconomic disparity. Connected to this, many serve as language translators or cultural brokers and hold different caregiver responsibilities outside of the immediate family. In a pandemic heightening anti-Asian racism and that has severely impacted service industries, many API-owned small businesses and predominantly-API service roles have been decimated, further exacerbating poverty rates and family support responsibilities — including for Asian women, who held the highest long-term unemployment rate in the latter half of 2020. API youth are experiencing bullying at devastating rates, and our elderly face severe harassment and hate attacks (not just during this pandemic). Immigrants from Asian countries make up some of the largest group of refugees in the United States, and culturally-responsive support is critical for addressing trauma and mental health needs. LGBTQ+ API communities experience multiple layers of invisibility and erasure. Despite being overrepresented in some industries, promotion rates for API employees — especially for Asian women — lag behind other racial groups, and the pay gap for API women continues. The model minority myth erases these struggles.
- The API community is NOT. A. MONOLITH. While data is again lacking, some sources will indicate that the API community encompasses over 50 ethnic groups and over 100 languages. This umbrella term includes East Asians, Southeast Asians, South Asians, Native Hawaiians and Indigenous Pacific Islanders, and more. Those identities and experiences are vast. I specifically called out the model minority myth above because of its relationship to the considerations I put forth below, but this stereotype is just one slice of anti-Asian racism that centers on East Asian experiences. Many other incredibly dangerous and pervasive narratives exist, including the perpetual foreigner that assumes API people are not born in this country, terrorism stereotypes that compromise the safety of South Asian communities, yellow peril and just the long-standing history of scapegoating of the Asian community in times of crisis to serve political agendas. In addition to the violence happening right now, many have not forgotten the American Concentration Camps/Japanese Internment Camps during World War II (also originally called Concentration Camps by President Roosevelt himself, before euphemistic language was employed to downplay the shameful mark on US history), the perceived threat of Asian people “stealing jobs” during the 1980s automation era that resulted in Vincent Chin’s unjust death, or the more recent Islamophobia that targeted Muslim communities after 9/11.
I recognize this contextualization is incomplete, and there are so many nuances within this broad swath of a community that are often overlooked due to narrow perceptions and definitions of API experiences. I myself write with the social location of a cisgender East Asian woman, specifically of Chinese and Taiwanese heritage, who was born and raised in LA county on Tongva land to immigrant parents and who has has operated with middle- to upper-class privileges and the privileges of perceived able-bodiedness for most of my life.
With even the limited context that is provided here though, I challenge those who say that API employees do not experience racism within their organizations to consider:
Hiring Criteria, Career Coaching and Development, and Performance Reviews
- How do you interrogate cultural norms and white-patriarchal-centric archetypes of professionalism, leadership, communication styles, etc. in your hiring criteria, feedback processes, and performance reviews? For example, when US dominant culture norms operate heavily from a place of individualism, how are you actively working to be inclusive of API cultures that can be more collectivism-based and understand how collectivism norms may impact the way API employees approach their work?
- What debiasing and equity tools or strategies do you use to mitigate bias when a candidate or employee does not fit those norms and archetypes?
- How are people managers, mentors, career coaches, and employees generally at your organization trained to deliver culturally appropriate feedback that ensures removal of personal bias from the person delivering the feedback? How do you challenge inaccurate perceptions of employee competency based on stereotypes about API accents, social ineptitude, or passivity and lack of assertiveness?
- How are you approaching coaching and feedback intersectionally? For example, how do you support your Asian women employees who navigate professionalism double-binds of often being told to “speak up,” only to be ignored or told that they are being “too aggressive” when they do?
Promotion and Compensation
- Are API employees paid equitably across racial demographics and role band? Are you disaggregating and evaluating pay data with an intersectional lens (to ensure there is no gender pay disparity among API employees or race pay disparities relative to white peers, for example)?
- Are API employees promoted at the same rates within your organization? Is promotion data disaggregated and evaluated intersectionally?
- Are API employees in positions equal to their qualifications, or are they under-leveled? Are they hired in at the appropriate levels? If so, do your API employees progress into appropriate leadership-level roles at the appropriate time during their tenure at your organization? Is your employee level data disaggregated and evaluated intersectionally?
- Is your Paid Time Off policy accrual-based, contingent upon duration at the company? Is there a probation period before accrual begins? If so, have you considered the impact on employees with a relationship to immigrant status, whose immediate families may be in Asia or the Pacific Islands that require multiple days of travel to reach?
- Given that the reality of many in the API community encompasses multigenerational households and/or caregiver responsibilities for extended family members, how are your benefits inclusive or exclusive of non-immediate/non-nuclear family members? How do you define family member when your employees need to take leave as part of caregiver programs or bereavement leaves? How do you define dependents in your childcare and other dependent care programs?
- If you offer tuition assistance or loan repayment, do your policies allow your undocumented API employees to partake in these educational benefits?
- Does your holiday policy allow API employees to celebrate cultural and religious holidays without needing to use a general vacation day?
- Do you have HR leaders and people managers who are equipped to address the specific manifestation of anti-Asian racism and harassment, including micro- and macro-aggressions rooted in the quiet model minority myth, perpetual foreigner stereotype, yellow peril ideology, and/or the radicalized terrorist trope?
- Are your leaders and managers provided training and resources on how to respond to these harassment reports and support employees in a culturally appropriate way?
- Besides a corporate statement, are you creating space for employees to process and grieve during this time of anti-Asian violence? Are there resources available for mental health, workload shifting, time off?
Products and Services
- Do you have a clear understanding of your organization’s role in dismantling anti-Asian racism and moving towards equity and liberation? If you work in entertainment, do your content creators tell multi-dimensional and nuanced stories about API people? If you work in government and policy, are you enacting legislation and developing programs that include our elderly and low-income groups (to name a few)? If you work in education, especially if your organization focuses on students in poverty, do you include API students, recognizing that many API communities live below the poverty line?
- Do you have API perspectives in your product focus groups, design sessions, and decision-making and approval process?
- Recognizing the limits of representation, have you worked to ensure that there are multiple API perspectives in the room so that your team can have multi-faceted and nuanced discussions, rather than a single (perhaps tokenized) voice?
- Do the contributions of all your API employees carry weight, rather than being invisibilized or glossed over?
- Have you created a culture at the organization where open dialogue about racist or problematic products and services is normalized, without fear of retribution, to ensure that employees are comfortable sharing honest feedback?
For many organizations, the answer the answer is no…or “I don’t know” or “maybe” or “we do some of these things, but not all…” If you find yourself in that bucket, the great news is that you now have an entire set of questions to explore and help guide your path. Now that you have made your commitment to API equity and liberation clear, you can demonstrate the authenticity of your commitment to your employees by moving to make actionable, tangible changes for a more inclusive workplace. Let this resource be a starting point because, if you read any of these questions and could not answer yes definitively, you now also know that there is more work you can do.
Additionally, for those who are reading this list and thinking that these questions are not necessarily specific to API employees because they can benefit other groups, I agree! If your equity work is truly intersectional, it should benefit other communities of color and communities across other lines of identity. That is all the more reason to enact these changes.
Finally, if you read this article and found yourself exhausted as a non-API ally or co-conspirator — especially white leaders of teams and organizations, I would also agree that this work is exhausting. I have been particularly exhausted these past few weeks to be processing the immediacy of anti-Asian violence and to simultaneously navigate institutions whose culture contributes to the tenured othering, invisibility, erasure, and inequity for API folx. Your API employees are likely tired, and many are warily watching to see if this moment becomes a movement for change within your organization. You might not be able to address every item on this list, but you can identify what is feasible and continues to advance API equity for your teams.
But please, for the love of API people, stop sending out vague and inadequate statements denouncing violence against Asian communities by connecting API equity to business value. Don’t just say you support your API employees — go do the work of actually supporting them.
This article is written in the hopes of contributing to the long-term change of dismantling white supremacy and anti-Asian racism. As the immediacy of violence continues to harm our community, my hope is that our energy and resources go into addressing both the urgent needs of the Asian community right now and the less visible yet still harmful ways in which anti-Asian sentiment is perpetuated, supporting manifestations of the violence we are witnessing across the country.
To support Asian communities in this surge of attacks, support your local grassroots organizations and follow their lead. Some examples include: