To get past the “model minority” myth, employers need to reassess how they view the Asian American experience, lest they forget others in the process

May 13, 2022, 8:23 PM UTC

Today marks the 36th anniversary of the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia. Why do so few people know about it? What would be different if we remembered? A shooting in the Koreatown district of Dallas frightens a community already on edge. The Federal Reserve has an inclusion breakthrough, while the Air Force needs one. Plus, how to build a culture that welcomes your non-binary colleagues. All that, and Jonathan Vanian shares better practices for supporting Asian American employees— while I get a helpful call-in encouraging me to do better.

Happy Friday.

A reader wrote in with some valuable coaching for me, and I wanted to share it with you.

After a lovely introduction and an acknowledgment of her appreciation of my work, Annette Sarlatte-Matsu, Inclusion & Diversity Lead for Climate LLC, let me know that I had made a mistake:

I wanted to mention something I have seen all over for the past couple of years, and that was also present in the latest edition of raceAhead – the use of “AAPI” when Asian Americans are the only folks being discussed.  Pacific Islander erasure is super common (even during AAPI History Month!) and using the term “AAPI” while only talking about Asian and Asian American concerns and issues further contributes to that erasure.  

In addition to disaggregating language when it makes sense, Pacific Islanders are also calling for disaggregation of stats (around household income, education levels, health outcomes, etc.) to more accurately portray the multitude of experiences and stories that live within Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and that are often obscured when “AAPI” is used as an umbrella designation.  

Just thought I would share those thoughts in the context of how to be a successful ally to both Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Thank you again for your great work and for continuing to produce so much valuable and thought-provoking content!

She was absolutely right. I had been sloppy in my last newsletter and used “AAPI” when more precise language was clearly called for. I regret the error—and will take care not to repeat it, but I also appreciate the way she let me know.

In addition to coaching me, Annette offered a master class in “calling me in” rather than calling me out. There’s a helpful formula to follow. The communication was private. She acknowledged my effort, assumed good intent on my behalf, flagged what was wrong, gave me helpful context, and reassured me that our relationship was intact.

It doesn’t always work, of course. Sometimes people will still be defensive. You may even discover that their intent was not as benign as you hoped. (If you notice that being called in is triggering you in a specific way, it’s a good time to pause before you respond.) But I believe it is an essential skill in an inclusive age.

So does Loretta J. Ross, a visiting professor at Smith College. She is one of many people who are working to find better ways to talk about difficult topics without resorting to the toxic outrage cycle that a public call-out can cause. She believes a simple framing can go a long way in making them more effective.

“It’s a call-out done with love,” she told the New York Times.

Wishing you a weekend of love and good friends.

Ellen McGirt

In Brief

A wave of violence against the Asian community during the COVID-19 pandemic led to numerous companies pledging support for those experiencing terrible acts of racism.

But as Linda Akutagawa, the president and CEO of the Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP) non-profit notes, some of these corporate actions were performative and some were more meaningful.

A deeper commitment to addressing systemic racial inequalities could involve business leaders examining the Asians and Pacific Islanders who work at their own organizations. Doing so could also help executives understand if these employees are given the same opportunities to become leaders, similar to their white colleagues.

“Both representation in the leadership suites as well as pipeline building has come up to a level of being in front of people's minds instead of the back of their minds or even just like completely off the radar because of what's happened around anti-Asian hate,” Akutagawa says about certain companies considering their Asian and Pacific Islander workers over the past few years.

Asians have long been associated in the U.S. with the “model minority myth,” in which “we're good worker bees, but we're not leader-like material, because we don't challenge, we don't push back,” Akutagawa says.

“We're too quiet or too nice,” she adds.

And when Asian workers do decide to “challenge” and “push back,” exemplifying the confident traits associated with executives, she notes that can be “billed as troublemakers because that's not how we're supposed to be.”

It’s even worse for Asian women.

“We're supposed to be quiet and submissive and do what we're told, and yet that's not what they want from us as leaders either,” Akutagawa shares.

These harmful stereotypes of Asians stem “run deep and they run long,” she notes, and they do “not go away in a generation, much less, you know, just in a couple of decades.” Many Asian Americans are still experiencing the burden of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned the immigration of Chinese workers to the U.S.

Companies that take their Asian workers seriously can take action to learn if there are instances of system racism taking place within their own corporate and digital office walls, built upon a false impression of how Asians behave.

One helpful tip she recommends is for companies to think about collecting disaggregated data on their employees (with consent, of course), akin to the census. This could help companies identify their workers who hail from Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and other myriad backgrounds that are often lumped together as “Asian.” Not every Asian can trace their origin from the same country. While these employees likely identify under the umbrella term of Asian, they are “just as connected to their ethnic identity as well too.”

“If there are three Korean people in a company, they all know each other, because they probably have looked for other people, even though they may not admit to it, but just to know, like, ‘how many other people are like me,’” Akutagawa says.

“I think respect for identity is going to be important as part of people really wanting to be their most authentic self,” she adds.

Knowing the finer detail about a company’s Asian workers can let managers determine if some groups are placed in lower position roles versus others. It could also help them understand the makeup of their various Asian workers relative to the places their companies operate in.

For a company located in an area with a large “Filipino population around them,” having that data could help them realize, “Oh, this is really weird,” she says. “We have very little Filipinos in the workforce, and we have very few that are also in leadership.”


Jonathan Vanian 

On point

A gun attack leaves Dallas’s Koreatown residents stunned  A gunman opened fire in a hair salon operating in an area called the Asian Trade District, known as the city's Koreatown. At least three Korean women were injured—the owner, an employee, and a customer—before the suspect fled. No motive has been confirmed. “In this particular case, we have no evidence to point that hate is a factor, and to say otherwise would be irresponsible for us, to have a community live in fear,” said Dallas police chief Eddie Garcia. “He was calm. He just walked up to it and then stood there—didn’t walk around—but stood there and shot like 20 shots and then just calmly went out,” said Jane Bae, the daughter of one of the victims.
NBC News

First Black woman appointed to the Federal Reserve board of governors  In a narrow party-line vote, Lisa Cook has become the first Black woman to serve in the role in the institution’s 108-year history. Senate Republicans say that Cook—who has a doctorate in economics, is a professor, and has had advisory roles in the U.S. government—isn’t qualified, and is insufficiently focused on fighting inflation. If you don’t want to cancel the rest of your day like I nearly did, don’t click on her fascinating research on the impact of racial violence and terror lynchings on African American innovation. Congratulations, Governor Cook.

“I think the Air Force is looking for someone of white complexion and with the image the air force needs,” read the text allegedly sent to a Black senior airman working with the 56th Equipment Maintenance Squadron at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona this week. The airman in question alleges that this is the third time he’s been passed over for a promotion based on “his looks.” The service member has a medical waiver that allows him to grow a low, well-kept beard to accommodate painful razor bumps, a condition common in Black skin. The texts, which were posted on a popular industry Facebook page, are now being investigated. “Without going into specifics of the investigation, we can categorically say that Luke Airmen are held to a high standard of conduct and that we maintain a zero-tolerance policy regarding acts of discrimination based on race,” was the official statement.
Task and Force

When coming out is a process, leaders can make it easier  Lore Perkins, a risk analyst at Intuit, credits a new program in their post-COVID workplace that gave them the courage to present nonbinary at work, and not just in their very private life. Intuit hosted the tech industry’s first-ever Trans+ Summit, which gave people a chance to convene, learn, and express support. “The willingness of our senior leaders, managers, and allies to convene to discuss how we might improve the workplace for people like me caught me off guard. I felt safe to be myself in a way I hadn’t before,” they write. Fear of exposure or ridicule faded. “I realized that I needed to share who I was, for my own peace of mind.” Click through for best practices and good advice.
Harvard Business Review

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On Background: The MOVE bombing

What we need to remember about the MOVE bombing  Today is the 36th anniversary of the day that Philadelphia police dropped a bomb from a helicopter into a residential neighborhood, killing 11 people, including five children. They were part of a small but radical organization called MOVE, a small group with passionate ideas about animal rights and technology, but that didn’t fit neatly with other Black power ideologies at the time. NPR’s Gene Demby, who grew up about 20 minutes away from the street, did a deep dive into the “cataclysmic” incident in 2015, only to discover that it wasn’t more widely known. And it deserves to be. In addition to being one of the most extraordinary examples of conflict between the police and Black communities, the bombing leveled a neighborhood full of middle-class homeowners. It is largely abandoned today, as were the remains of the victims. (More on that sad story, here.) “The MOVE story faded into relative obscurity partly because no one connects with their cause today,” he says, “and largely because the mechanisms to preserve the story weren't in place yet.” How would life be different today if we had remembered?

Parting words

“We were hollering out that we’re coming out, we’re bringing the children out. The children were hollering, you know, that they were coming out, that we’re bringing them out. But that’s not what the cops wanted. Because we know they heard us. And the instant they saw us at the doorway, saw anybody coming out, they immediately opened fire.”

Ramona Africa, the only adult to survive the MOVE bombing, to investigators. She is currently the last remaining MOVE member still alive.

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