Recognizing patterns: reflections on anti-Asian sentiments in business

April 8, 2021, 8:43 PM UTC

Today raceAhead shares space with Jessica Chao, an MBA student, CEO, and co-founder of LingoHealth, a start-up that connects non-fluent English patients and their families to an inclusive primary care experience. The self-described “poster girl for the ‘model minority myth’ has some important insights into what would make the workplace more welcoming to Asian-American talent.

As a MBA student and former investor, I’ve been trained to recognize patterns. What makes for a good product launch? What makes a founder successful? Yet, as an Asian-American woman, I’ve been told that the patterns in my lived experience are not worth noting. 

The past months of anti-Asian violence have made these patterns impossible to ignore. I’ve been reflecting on a particularly harmful pattern in the business world: the compounding nature of the invisibility of Asians and the Asian workhorse trope. 

I could be a poster girl for the model minority myth: daughter of immigrants who graduated from a public high school and then went to Harvard, Wall Street, and Stanford. The model minority myth means that regardless of hard work or aptitude, we must be grateful to even be permitted in these spaces, while accepting that we may be overlooked or even subjected to outright discrimination.  

At my mom’s first job back in the 1980s, she was forced to smile as her manager said blatantly racist remarks to her every day. When my mom quit, her manager nervously asked, “You know those were all jokes, right?” 

I have many advantages my parents did not: native English fluency, a US passport by birthright, the seemingly requisite pedigree to succeed in America. Nonetheless, I still remember how someone called me “the token Asian girl” on my first day of work. They told me it was “just a joke” when I appeared shocked.

Research has shown that Asian Americans are the least likely group to be promoted into management roles. My business school’s highest honor for alumni—an annual award for excellence in the field of management leadership—has not had an Asian recipient since its inception in 1968. I cannot help but feel like Asians are consistently ignored for their ability to lead. 

Often, Asian Americans seem like afterthoughts. During last year’s AAPI Heritage Month, I recall scouring my school’s website and social media for faces like mine to no avail. Despite recognizing other identity groups in their respective months, the school failed to share the voices of its Asian students in the one month when it’s encouraged. The school’s silence made me wonder, when are students like me worthy of the spotlight?

My experiences within the classroom also suggest that we are invisible. I am constantly confused for other Asians. It doesn’t matter that we have completely different faces and body types, or that our names are nothing alike. Even when I sat behind a laminated name card, multiple professors confused me for other Asian women. Almost every Asian woman I know has had a name snafu with a classmate or professor. 

Business schools reflect the business world. After working all night at a prior job, I received an email thanking the other Asian woman in my group for the deck I sent over. Though my email was clearly sent from my name and the other woman was not even on this project, the partner managed to mistake me for someone else. I asked around. Although there were dozens of white men in my group, none of them had their work misattributed. 

I often questioned if my managers really knew which Asian they were evaluating during performance reviews. I’ve always had a nagging feeling that there was only room for one Asian woman on my team.

My Asian sisters and I rarely make a fuss when our identities are confused. I know I’m not alone in feeling punished when I disrupt the societal expectations set by dominant culture. Pushing back—breaking the docile Asian woman stereotype—can have risky consequences. So we stay quiet, telling ourselves “It’s not malicious. Just work harder, maybe then things will change…”

Our invisibility, coupled with the fetishization of Asian-American women, can create toxic environments. When I worked in finance, multiple Asian women faced inappropriate advances from a male coworker. When we tried to report these incidents, we were pushed aside. I had to break down in a manager’s office before HR would talk to me. Years later, other—-mainly white—women came forward against the same coworker. The head of the group proactively met with these women to hear their stories, and the offender was fired. 

There is a pattern there.

For centuries, Asians have been exploited for their labor while their humanity remains ignored. The etymology of the slur “coolie” underscores the history of these anti-Asian patterns. This historical term described Asian-American workers, with origins from Hindi quli meaning “hired porters” and Chinese kǔlì meaning “hard labor”. Asian Americans, like other underrepresented groups, have silently carried this weight while keeping our heads down to work. 

These patterns have made me hesitant to share these stories. But if Asian Americans remain unheard and just valued for our labor by mainstream America, won’t these centuries-old patterns continue? 

What can we do? For starters, recognize that this is a fraught moment for Asian Americans. Educate yourself on the history of Asian Americans and interracial solidarity. Celebrate AAPI Heritage Month and spotlight Asian American employees for more than just their labor. Make sure your AAPI employees are duly considered for promotion, leadership, and equal pay. Understand that we are not a monolith, and we each have stories to tell.

And for goodness’ sake, remember our names. 

Jessica Chao

On point

BlackRock Inc agrees to an independent racial audit  It’s a notable decision for the world’s biggest money manager, who is poised to become the only financial institution to respond to a shareholder request to do so. Others, such as Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo are asking shareholders to vote down similar measures. The audit process, which analyzes business practices and models to determine if they contribute to discrimination, can provide unique insight into whether or where financial institutions contribute to the enormous racial wealth gap.

Who persuaded the Arkansas governor to stand up for transgender rights? While Arkansas has become the first state to block transition care for transgender youth, for a split second, Gov. Asa Hutchinson broke ranks and rejected the legislation as “overbroad, extreme, and does not grandfather those who are under hormone treatment.” He went on to express his desire for trans people in the state to feel loved and appreciated.Though his veto was later overturned by legislators, writer Katelyn Burns points to two transgender advocates who met with the governor, and who may have helped him form a nuanced response. Evelyn Rios Stafford, a Justice of the Peace who is openly trans said, "He had a lot of questions. I could tell that this was not an issue that he was super familiar with at all."
Business Insider

Lisa Osborne Ross is now the CEO of Edelman USA She will become the first Black woman to lead the PR firm, or any of its size. Edelman USA has 2,300 employees and a reported $540 million in U.S. revenue. She was formerly the company's chief operating officer, proof positive that the role can be a stepping stone for powerful women. She also sounds like a very cool person, click through for more. (Subscription, sorry.)

Missouri in the (good) news  Two items got my attention. First, that the Missouri House voted recently to formally overturn the Missouri Supreme Court’s 1852 Dred Scott decision, the famous case that denied liberty to the Scott family even though they lived in states that had abolished slavery before returning to Missouri. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually upheld the decision. And in more contemporary news, the city of St. Louis now has its first ever Black woman at the helm: Tishaura Jones, who narrowly beat out a similarly progressive Democratic challenger. “It’s time for St. Louis to thrive,” she told supporters in a victory speech in north St. Louis. “It’s time to bring a breath of fresh air to our neighborhoods.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch 


On Background

Do formal apologies from governments for past injustices really help?  Yes, suggests this research published in the Political Psychology journal from Stanford. Three researchers from the University of Waterloo found that these apologies can be vitally important to the collective well-being of previously victimized groups, and the public are increasingly demanding these explicit acknowledgements. After studying such apologies and the public response to them, they identified ten elements that may be vital to craft a successful apology that is psychologically beneficial for the victims and are understood and accepted by the majority as a whole. A fascinating read.
Political Psychology

Zora Neale Hurston and Eleanor Roosevelt collaborated on the first realistic Black baby doll Black children had long preferred playing with white dolls to black ones and studies dating back to the 1930s believed the culprit was internalized racism. Well yes, but posited some, it might also be because most available black dolls were either racist stereotypes or white dolls painted a funny color. Activist Sara Lee Creech decided to create a beautiful and realistic black doll, shared her idea with Hurston, someone else wrangled Roosevelt, who so loved the idea she held an informal focus group with Mary Bethune, Ralph Bunche, and Jackie Robinson, to consult on the doll’s appearance. The Ideal Toy company manufactured the Sara Lee doll, which first appeared in the 1951 Sears Roebuck Christmas Catalog.
Open Culture

Seven ways to calm a young brain in trauma As children are returning to school, day care, and other activities in larger numbers, I’m re-surfacing this piece from K-6 classroom teacher Dr. Lori Desautels. While it’s specifically about childhood trauma, the advice resonates for the transition trauma children are also experiencing.  “A traumatized brain can be tired, hungry, worried, rejected, or detached, and these states are often accompanied by feelings of isolation, worry, angst, and fear,” she says. Kids who have been traumatized are often in a constant state of agitation, unable to form healthy attachments or make progress in school. They need help feeling safe inside their own bodies, she says. The techniques are simple and work for everyone. Deep breathing, movement, and dancing are all helpful, but my favorite is a rhythmic clapping or drumming exercise that gets the entire class moving in the same rhythm. “The collective sound brings a sense of community to the classroom,” says Desautels.



This raceAhead was edited by Daniel Bentley

Today's mood board

The Most Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, receives his COVID vaccine in late March. Curry preached on Easter Sunday, which this year coincided with the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., quoting the gospel song:

"Hallelujah anyhow
Never let your troubles get you down
Whenever troubles come your way
Hold your hands up high and say
Hallelujah anyhow!"

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