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raceAhead: The Asian Glass Ceiling

June 4, 2018, 3:22 PM UTC
Portrait of an asian woman made of multiple exposure
Portrait of an asian woman made of multiple exposure
Yagi Studio / Getty Images

When we examine the pipeline for leadership talent, Asian Americans aren’t there.

“Asian Americans are the forgotten minority in the glass ceiling conversation,” says Buck Gee and Denise Peck, two former Silicon Valley executives in this must-read piece from HBR. In fact, they find, Asians are sometimes included with whites in corporate diversity reports and not counted at all.

So Gee and Peck did the math. Last year, the pair poured through EEOC data to compile “The Illusion of Asian Success” report for Ascend, a non-profit leadership organization for Pan-Asian professionals. They found that across all sectors, Asian American professionals in the U.S. were more likely to be hired as individual contributors, but less likely to be promoted into management roles than any other race. “[C]ompanies have not done an adequate job of identifying and developing Asian American talent.”

Part of the problem, they suggest, is the mixed blessing of life as an Asian American.

As a demographic cohort, they’re 5% of the population, yet 12% of the workforce, and outpace other groups in terms of education and income. It’s become a corporate blind spot. “Because Asian Americans are not considered an underrepresented minority, they are given little priority or attention in diversity programs.”

Naturally, the situation is complex. The idea that Asian Americans are thriving reinforces the pleasing notion of meritocracy, and that racial barriers can be overcome with some good old-fashioned American grit.

Writer Andrew Sullivan created a huge firestorm last year after he articulated this “model minority” myth in response to the then-viral video of Dr. David Dao being violently ejected from a United Airlines flight. The “social justice brigade” could never get their complaints about racism to stick when it came to Asian Americans, he said.

“It couldn’t possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it?” he wrote. “It couldn’t be that all whites are not racists or that the American dream still lives?”

No, it couldn’t.

This common view ignores an ugly history that continues to haunt the workplace. Journalist Jeff Guo points to research that shows that bootstrapping and education were not the keys to Asian economic success. Instead, it was the dismantling of key barriers and an intentional reduction of racist sentiment that helped Chinese immigrants, for example, move rapidly from the reviled and underpaid laborer class in the first half of the twentieth century to earning wages in line with white workers in the second half. “[It] was the result of Asians finally receiving better opportunities — finally earning equal pay for equal skills and equal work,” he says.

The uglier part is why the barriers fell away. “Elevating Asian Americans as ‘deserving’ and ‘hardworking’ was a tactic to denigrate African Americans,” he says, which also minimized the potential impact of the civil rights movement.

The model minority myth is also about social behaviors which may be reinforcing new biases.

Here’s just one example that may sound familiar. In the early twentieth century, “Asian American men were represented in mainstream media as conniving, threatening sexual predators who posed a particular danger to white women,” says Adia Harvey Wingfield, a writer and a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. Now that Asian American men have learned “to behave appropriately,” a new bias has emerged. “Research suggests that whites see Asian American men as being unfit for management, because they are stereotyped as passive and weak.”

Further, says Wingfield, without a collective history of activism like that found in the black community, Asian professionals experiencing discrimination in education or the workplace often lack the cultural tools to advocate for themselves and suffer in silence.

I don’t want to gloss over the fact that plenty of Asian Americans – think Cambodians, Filipinos and Laotians – are still wildly overrepresented in low-wage jobs and aren’t part of this conversation at all. But the history of being forced into an unnatural rivalry means that black and Asian white-collar colleagues have lost opportunities to collaborate on the kind of culture change that would benefit everyone.

It’s an issue worth considering, tweets Ellen K. Pao, the former Reddit CEO and co-founder of Project Include.

“I wonder if clumping of Asian employees with white employees is designed to prevent Asian workers from speaking up for change,” she tweeted in response to Gee’s and Beck’s findings. “If Asian Americans help push for real inclusion, change should come a lot faster and cover more than just gender.”



For more background, check out Guo’s interview with historian Ellen Wu, and her seminal work on this subject, The Color of Success. If you can, check out The Chinese Exclusion act on PBS, a new documentary from filmmakers Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu. Using a mostly Asian cast, they tell the story of Chinese immigration from 1840 to the present and bust the myth of the American melting pot.

On Point

Mexican immigrants are essential to small town AmericaAlfredo Corchado is the Mexico border correspondent for the Dallas Morning News, so this essay is informed by his now polarizing-beat. The number of Mexican immigrants has declined in the last ten years, some by choice, others by deportation. But, he says, anti-immigrant sentiment overlooks the fact that many American small towns owe their economic survival to Mexican residents. “They’ve rescued abandoned communities, some that had been losing population since the 1920s,” he writes. Now, fear of enforcement actions are alarming business owners that rely on immigrant labor. “Mexicans are leaving, and that’s bad news for everyone,” says the president of one of the biggest mushroom-growing companies.New York Times

A black female state legislator reports being targeted by state house security
Two-term Ohio state Rep. Emilia Sykes has been having trouble doing her job, specifically, getting to her desk. She’s been repeatedly asked to show her badge by security screeners, been followed by guards, even told that she needed additional screening because she doesn't "look like a legislator." Sykes raised the issue in a series of tweets, of course, and later said that other black female legislators have experienced similar treatment, where white legislators have not.
ABC News

A 911 operator says that racist calls happen every day
This first-person account from former police dispatcher Rachel Herron is filled with stories from the call center, which seems like grim, thankless work even on a non-racist day. But after seventeen years of dispatching in the Bay area and answering a quarter of a million calls, she says people call 911 on black people living their lives all the time. It’s not a fun read, but it is a valuable share. There’s not much a dispatcher can do when someone calls in, and often times the police are unhappy to be sent on such obviously racist missions. She breaks it down clearly: Stop it. “If you get it wrong (and all of us, living in the privileged bubbles of our own creation, often get it wrong), you could be the reason someone gets hurt or even killed,” she says. She also offers an educated guess as to why the police were actually dispatched to the Oakland park where the black family was barbecuing – and it puts a slightly different spin on the issue.

The New Yorker's new cover features a black woman artist for the second time
Loveis Wise (pronounced ‘Love Is Wise’) is the second black female artist to have her work appear on the cover of the New Yorker. (The first was Kara Walker, covering the 2007 anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, confirms The Root.) It’s an accomplishment even more notable because she graduated from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia just three weeks ago. Wise managed to put out enough freelance work her senior year to get the attention of the New Yorker’s art editor, who contacted her out of the blue. The illustration she created for the magazine’s fiction double-issue is called 'Lush' and features a black woman cradling an infant and watering a resplendent garden. It was inspired by Wise’s grandmother, a loving woman with a green thumb. “I think plant life is symbolism for life as we know it,” she told WHYY in Philadelphia. “They grow as we grow. I focus on symbols of growth and flourishing, and being happy.” Love is wise, indeed.


The Woke Leader

An artist with ALS continues to make art with a little help from his friends
Tony “TEMPT ONE” Quan was one of the most iconic graffiti artists working in the Los Angeles area, writing with an explosive style informed by his Chinese and Mexican heritage. He’s been credited with putting L.A. on the street art map, but his career was derailed when he was diagnosed with ALS in 2004 and became paralyzed. But thanks to an unlikely friendship with producer Mick Ebeling and a group of artists and hackers known as the Graffiti Research Lab, he is able to make art again. In 2011, Ebeling and team hacked together the Eyewriter Technology, that allows TEMPT to use eye movements to create. He’s even moved into new mediums, like three-dimensional graffiti sculpture, and been able to participate in museum exhibits. A fascinating podcast on the creation of the Eyewriter Technology here, a recent interview with TEMPT here, and a link to the documentary about his life below.
Culture Unplugged

The marshmallow test: Another iconic study gets a roasting
The marshmallow test was an important piece of social science research in the 1960s, believed to measure the ability to delay gratification and predict future success. It was simple: Place a marshmallow in front of a child and instruct her that she is free to eat that one now, but if she waits fifteen minutes, she can have two. The kids who can manage to hold out were once believed to have brighter futures. Turns out the original study was based on only 90 kids, enrolled in a preschool on the Stanford campus – and a follow-up showed that the marshmallow gobblers did no worse long term. A new study has expanded the cohort to 900 more economically diverse kids, and a new interpretation emerged: For kids from poorer homes, eating the marshmallow in front of them may have been the smart choice. “For them, daily life holds fewer guarantees: There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting,” explains writer Jessica McCrory Calarco. The new marshmallow study adds to a growing body of research that explains the fraught emotional calculus that poor people must manage to make even the most basic decisions.
The Atlantic

Trans women of color remain unheralded champions of the Stonewall movement
Pride Month is a good time to look back at the short history of the work and reclaim some of the stories that had pushed aside. The modern LGBTQ movement is largely thought to have been born one summer night in New York City, when patrons of the Stonewall Inn, the only place in the city where people of the same sex could dance together, fought back after harassment by the police finally went too far. But while the protest that night (and subsequent Pride marches) had been largely credited to white men, two trans women of color led the way: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Click through for some photos and true accounts, but both women kept the work alive. They ultimately co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a group that worked with homeless drag queens and transgender women of color. Sadly, both died young, Johnson under suspicious circumstances.


Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.
John W. Gardner