Death of Asian Americans by a Million Insults
People who know me personally know that I’m very private. I share my thoughts and experiences with a small group. With everything going on in our world today, I think that it is important for me to share my personal experiences, both as an Asian American woman and as a subject matter expert in the fields of diversity, equity, inclusion, race/ethnicity, and gender.
Millions of Asian Americans have had this yelled at them by someone who has no idea and/or frankly does not care that they are in fact screaming at another American citizen. But that never occurs to the person yelling because they assume that, as a white person, they have a greater right to be here.
Yes, I’ve been told to go back to where I came from, been called names due to the color of my skin, and the thousands of other indignities that I and millions of other Americans of color face on a daily basis. And yes, as an academic, I can intellectualize it, but it is nevertheless, a demeaning experience that a white person simply cannot understand because it does not happen to them. It never occurs to the white person screaming that they themselves are also immigrants to this country. Unless you are a full-blooded Native American, your ancestors came to this country at some point as well. You have no greater claim to being an American than the person who came 10, 20, 30 or whatever number of years ago. Yet, that claim has been staked from the time the first white person came to our country and it was staked regardless of who already lived here. The belief that white people have a stronger claim to our country is not new or true. You have no more claim to being an American as the person of color sitting next to you. And if they are of Native American origin, frankly, their claim is stronger than yours.
Identity of the Model Minority
As a woman of color and especially as an Asian American woman, I have to live up to a whole slew of expectations. I have to be “well behaved” based on the “model minority myth”. Asian Americans have been touted as the model minority who work hard, excel, and most importantly, stay in their lane. They do not make waves. They do not demand their rights. They are held up as the standard for all other minority groups. “Asian Americans succeeded…why can’t you” is the underlying and often, openly stated message.
I have to excel because my parents, like millions of other Asian American parents, believed that education is the path to a good life. And that is their expectation and hope for their children. And they also hope that being financially successful will also protect their kids from the racial slights and abuse that they have themselves faced. They hope that education and financial status will help insulate their kids from racial prejudice and discrimination.
But, despite our parents’ hope, higher education and financial security does not protect us. I experienced misogyny at UCLA where I had a professor of color tell me that I was taking a spot in the Ph.D. program that could have been given to a man. He tried to deny my admission to the program, however, the admission committee overwhelmingly voted to not only admit me but awarded me teaching positions and a generous stipend. This professor continued to harass me, but I was protected by some very powerful people in my department. I should not have needed this protection. And what would have happened if I did not have it? What if I had not been determined to finish my doctorate? Why did I have to have to fight this extra battle simply because I am a woman?
After I received my Ph.D., I went to work for a very elite global consulting firm. The racism and misogyny I suffered there led me to leave it off my resume even though the prestige of this firm opens doors everywhere. The experience was so negative that it was more than a decade before I even brought up the fact that I had worked there. I can now look back and pity them for their narrowmindedness, but the impact was such that the experience is something that I am speaking about for the first time today. And it is still not on my resume.
Intersection of Race and Gender
As an Asian woman, I have to battle not only the racially-based stereotypes but also the stereotypes surrounding Asian women. The quiet, docile, unassuming Asian woman who goes along, does not make waves, who does not express anger, who stays in the background and understands and lives the expectations of both her own culture and also those of the white community. She is the Asian woman of people’s imagination and the media’s creation.
Asian women have been exoticized and stereotyped for generations and it turns us into one-dimensional caricatures. We are not these imagined beings. We are individual women who have our own personalities, our own desires and goals for our lives. Our own career aspirations. We do not have to embody the expectations of generations of elders within our own community who believe and openly state, “she is Indian, she knows our expectations”. I am the product of thousands of years of Indian history, and I understand, and I have internalized those expectations, but I am also a product of the current mindset, both in urban India and in the U.S., that women can push aside these barriers and expectations and live their authentic life. A life that fulfills them as individuals. I have been breaking these barriers in my own quiet way and I am finally living my life on my own terms.
Wave of Asian American Hate
Asian hate is nothing new to the U.S. It has been present in the U.S. since Asians came to these shores. Asians Americans have been vilified, blamed for everything that has ever happened in the U.S., the job market, the state of the economy. You name it and Asians have been blamed for it. Asians had to fight for the right to be U.S. citizens even after serving in the U.S. armed services. Look up Bhagat Singh Thind for some American history not often known and learn about the fight for citizenship and how “white” came to be defined by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Today’s anger is a continuation of that hate and anger. We have to push back against this latest wave.
The Asian American Parent Experience
The worry about anti-Asian hate does seep into your bones and into your soul. It comes out in our daily lives. When my daughter asks to walk to the boba store with some friends, I offer to drive her. It’s a 15-minute walk but my fear is that in those few minutes, she might encounter someone who sees her only as a brown Asian girl and spews their anger onto her. So, I explain to my teenager that I am worried about her walking down the street while, at the same time, I do not want her to feel less than her white friends…I do not want to instill that fear and caution into her that so many parents of color have to deal with. I balance my tone and words with the need for her to learn caution but still feel that sense of freedom and desire to explore that we all want our children to have. I have to balance her need to do teenage things with the images of violence against Asian Americans fresh in my mind. It is a huge and stressful balancing act that no parent should have to do. And yet, it is one that parents of color do on a daily basis. For my white friends and colleagues, please pause here for a minute and think about having to face that fear for your children every day. Walk in my shoes for a minute. Do you feel my fear and my anxiety? This is what parents of color fear every minute of every day. Internalize it and help us to eliminate it so that we do not live in constant fear.
Society’s Next Steps
Companies have to take a stand. They need to issue statements of solidarity and stand by them. They need to make sure that their Asian American/Asian employees feel safe, and they have the resources that they need to feel safe. They need to work on microaggressions in their environment and in their interactions with clients and suppliers.
They need to check their products and services to make sure that they do not have bias built into them. Do they have stereotypes or information in their product or services creation cycle or marketing that perpetuates stereotypes? If so, address them and eliminate them. And do it today.
As individuals, we have to stand up for our Asian and Asian American colleagues and friends. We have to examine our own behavior and make sure that we are not adding to the negative environment. We have to make sure that we are not perpetuating stereotypes and using microaggressions. We have to learn how to properly pronounce names and stop asking questions like, “Where are you from?”. Just because someone has brown skin, or a different eye shape does not mean that they are not Americans. Do not laugh at or perpetuate racially-based jokes. Yes, it can be uncomfortable to not go along with your white colleagues or friends, but it is nothing compared to the discomfort that your colleagues and friends of color face on an hourly and daily basis. Share some of the discomfort with us.
Read and learn about experiences other than your own. Make sure that you learn ALL of our shared history and especially the history of different groups in the U.S. that is not taught in schools or colleges. Listen carefully when your non-white colleagues share their thoughts and experiences. Learn now to be an effective ally. Talk to your kids and learn along with them so that they do not continue the cycle of perpetuating prejudice and discrimination. Hopefully, we can help educate the next generation to be more thoughtful, sensitive, and inclusive.
As Asian Americans, we need to share our experiences so that our white colleagues and friends begin to understand the experiences of other Americans. Yes, it is one more thing that we have to do that our white colleagues and friends do not have to. And yes, we have to share personal feelings and experiences. But things will not change for our children if we do not enlighten our white colleagues.
I’m Dr. Sangeeta Gupta, and I founded Gupta Consulting to help leaders create and implement DEI programs that meet their organization’s unique needs.
Schedule a conversation with me today to learn more about our DEI solutions.