I joined a Zoom call last week with a team member and a sales prospect. It started like any other call, and we were able to establish rapport quickly. However, things soon became uncomfortable for me when the prospect made references to me being Asian, my appearance and my age. I brushed it off the first time it was mentioned and the second time it was brought up, I reminded him that the call was being recorded, and quickly moved beyond it. We went through the rest of the call and hung up.
My stomach was in knots.
This call happened a couple of days after a white gunman in Atlanta targeted three spas in the area, ultimately murdering eight people (six of whom were Asian women). As I continue to be impacted by and reflect on what’s going on in-the-moment, I am both glad that the hate is being brought to light and also frustrated that it’s not flat-out being addressed as racism. Because that’s really what we’re talking about, right? Most people think of racism as being against Black or African Americans at first. However, the definition extends to discrimination against Latinx, Asians and anyone who is different than the established majority, white population. In my opinion, the difference between racism against Blacks and Asians is that racism against the Black community is historically systemic. After generations of widespread decisions that cast disadvantages on that population, it is a horrible thread that’s been woven into the fabric of our country with political, business and everyday ties.
For Asians, I believe it’s more stereotypical, or culturally-related. When Asians first immigrated to the United States, they were seen as submissive. Further, with a culture of being respectful, Westerners cast them as weak. And then we can’t look past the difference in physical stature of Asians versus the average Caucasian population: We’re generally smaller in size. In all of these characterizations, it is racism. A subset of another race has determined they are superior and have “rights” to mistreat others, especially when they feel they are at risk in some way (health, safety, jobs, etc.)
I grew up with racism my whole life. Thankfully, it wasn’t frequent or violent, yet I can still remember every time a comment was made. There was the name calling, from references to being an “eggroll” or a “Chink.” There were the times when other children would pull their eyes at me, and there were times when “friends” would talk about other Asian/Chinese people in front of me as if I wasn’t one of them. While I, personally, have never been physically abused, my father was. Others in my family can attest to being targeted and robbed.
Then came 2020 and the coronavirus. Harassment against the Asian population escalated 150% since the coronavirus arrived. Reports in New York City, where the Asian population makes up nearly 12% of the total, arrived as early as March of 2020, when the virus’ impact was just hitting the states. The elderly Asian population was the easiest to turn on, as they were perceived as being the weakest. Then came women, and then men. Since that time, there have been nearly 3,800 anti-Asian racist incidents in the US, and most have been against women.
This probably should not be a shock, considering “country leaders” made references to the “China Virus.” When people needed to blame an enemy, it was easy to turn on Asians after hearing such messages. What makes the events of the Atlanta shooting different is that, this time, lives were taken. And, blame was in short supply. A white gunman “had a bad day.” Oh, that’s fine then.
How did we get here? Why is this a surprise to so many? It’s a result of both cultural and adaptive means. Many Asian cultures are more about the community than the individual, and so anything that happens with an individual is reflective of the larger culture. To “save face,” many Asians are told not to cause a stir or attract negative attention. So, in that way, many cases are unreported. Further, as many Asian-Americans have found a way to fully integrate into the “Western Way” — get an education, excel in their studies and move on to well-paying jobs —there is a stigma that Asians aren’t discriminated against because they are successful. Whether successful or not, it’s simply not true. (Remember the Harvard University admissions case a couple years back?)
I grew up with racism my whole life. Thankfully, it wasn't frequent or violent, yet I can still remember every time a comment was made.
As terrible as all of this is, it brings some comfort to know there is widespread support from businesses and institutions (do a Google search for #StopAsianHate if you’re unfamiliar). I’m a firm believer that all racism and, really, any discrimation, would be solved with knowledge and empathy. This can combat troubling innate interpretations: We’re intrinsically scared of what we don’t know, and we think people who aren’t like us are bad. However, in 2021, we should be better than this. So, to make any progress with racism and other forms of discrimination, we have to get informed and spread the knowledge, have empathy for each other, stand up for ourselves (and others) and align as a total community to hold people accountable. Record scenes on video and submit it to the police. In the office, stand up for coworkers and decline working with anyone who lacks respect for others.
Locally, it was great to see the Asian-themed and Asian-owned restaurants in Columbia that had been vandalized earlier in the year recover quickly and come back from the hateful crime. However, people aren’t always that resilient. For me personally, a petite, Asian woman, I’ve never been more afraid to be in my own skin and space. I have my mother and my children to care for, and I’m scared to travel, not knowing what mindsets could be out there. In my personal life, I am making plans to ensure others in my circle are always aware of my location and am looking into ways to help feel better about when I have to walk alone. This isn’t how life in America should be. I also realize that I’m even lucky to be feeling this for the first time, when those in the Black community have known this feeling all too well, for way too long.
On the work front, I’ve received incredible support from coworkers at Zentail, a Columbia-based SaaS ecommerce startup. What happened to that one sales account? We dropped him from the sales process. It doesn’t matter that he wanted to do business with us, because we didn’t want to do business with someone with such character. That’s the kind of courage organizations should have in order for real change to start: to stand up for your people and your company’s values in situations like this. Hate, discrimination, racism…no matter what you call it, or whether it is faced personally or professionally, it’s unacceptable.-30-
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