Law Partner Tracks & Asian Americans: Struggles to Affirm Positive Self-Identity

Helen Wan’s The Partner Track is a newly published novel that paints a vivid picture of life inside a corporate law firm and the internal struggles and challenges of a female, Asian-American lawyer seeking to become partner. The book illuminates the ways in which minorities and women are still viewed within hierarchical, white male-dominated organizational structures and highlights the particular embarrassment that can result from being singled out to personify the firm’s diversity initiatives. In situations of high competition, minority and female status can even be seen as a threat, since some may mistakenly presume that such status confers advantage.

Ingrid Yung, the protagonist in the novel, is a descendant of immigrant parents from Taiwan, who knows how to speak Mandarin, but prefers to separate herself from identification with her ethnic roots in the presence of a competing, yet socially awkward attorney from mainland China. The nuances of her relationship with her parents are delicately portrayed. Ingrid’s mother addresses her on the phone as “Ingrid-ah”—perhaps reflecting the difficulty in enunciating the syllables in American names. Ingrid’s parents sacrificed much for her success, and are justifiably proud of her groundbreaking accomplishments. As her mother declares, “Nobody bosses my Ingrid around.” It is this unmistakable sense of pride and independence that accompanies Ingrid as she confronts repeated incidents that question her identity, her right to be at the firm, and her competence.

Without revealing the twists and turns of the plot, the most telling revelation comes when Ingrid realizes that it was not hard work that would land her a partnership and that her mistakes would count more heavily than for others. As Ingrid reflects (p. 238):

I had completely bought into the myth of a meritocracy. Somehow I’d actually been foolish enough to believe that if I simply kept my head down and worked hard, and did everything, everything that was asked of me, I would be rewarded. What an idiot.

The novel also chronicles with subtle humor Ingrid’s interactions with the firm’s diversity consultant who has been hired after a tasteless, racialized skit at the firm’s corporate outing. Later when Ingrid is singled out at the firm’s diversity event designed to repair the damage from the skit at the outing, she is unwittingly made the poster child for the diversity initiative and later suffers consequences for her required participation.

Ingrid describes her valiant efforts to stay at the corporate law firm for eight years, hoping that “all of these little humiliations and exclusions amount to something.” As she reflects,

More than anything, I wanted, once and for all, to shake that haunting suspicious that, while my record impressed and my work made the grade, I was ultimately not valued (p, 164).

The themes of the book underscore the research perspectives shared by Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin in Two-faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage.

This study identifies the spatial nature of modern-day discrimination based on the review of the diary accounts of 1000 college students. Based on this extensive research data, Picca and Feagin conclude that performances or comments made by white actors in the frontstage when diverse individuals are present significantly diverge from closed-door backstage performances that occurred when only whites are present. Similarly, Ingrid struggles with her own identity as she gains glimpses of the backstage while she is simultaneously paraded as a model of diversity in the frontstage.

Yet at the same time, there are hopeful notes sounded in Helen Wan’s beautifully narrated story. The novel has much to offer in terms of charting the progressive pathway toward a self-affirming identity for women and minority professionals and leaders. And as Alvin Evans and I highlight in The New Talent Acquisition Frontier, from an organizational perspective, talent is the most important strategic asset necessary for success and survival in a globally interconnected world. As a result, empowering diverse and talented employees and eliminating the spatial separation between frontstage and backstage performances are essential steps in the attainment of social integration and genuinely inclusive workplaces.

Why isn’t College for Learning About Mixed-Race Identities?

Learning

There are some incredible opportunities out there right now to get certificates, higher ed and even advanced degrees specializing in the experience of Americans of color. Want a degree in Asian American Studies? Sure. How about African American, Native or American Indian, Latin American, Mexican American or Chicano studies? Absolutely. Google all of these and you’ll find brilliant choices to be credentialed in these heritage experiences at very fine colleges and universities.

But what if you ID as mixed-race multicultural across any of these racial lines? Is there a degree for that?

“Not that I’m aware of,” writes Steven F. Riley of MixedRaceStudies.org (46), “The vast majority of courses on mixed-race studies are within the disciplines of Sociology, Psychology, History and Literature, etc.” Despite the fact that the crop of students moving through college today is the largest group of self-identified mixed-race people ever to come of age in the U.S., “In traditional Ethnic Studies,” writes University of California, Berkeley: Center for Race and Gender, “Mixed race scholarship has often been marginalized, misappropriated, tokenized or simply left out.”

Indeed it has only been in recent history that an arena for multi-race discourse has even forcibly begun construction mostly due to multiracials themselves. In the US this is because we have (a) not only a history of denying mixed race which persists but (b) a habit of continuing to operate under the assumption that race can be easily identified and filed away. Anyone who can’t be instantly categorized by visual scanning either gets shoved into something that kinda sorta fits, shows up as a mere blip on the cognitive-radar screen or flies under it completely. Case in point, whether by choice or lack of choice, some of the more visible mixed-race Asian scholars/authors right now are embedded in other departments at their campuses: Laura Kina (Art, Media, & Design, DePaul University), Leilani Nishime (Dept of Communication, University of Washington), Stephen Shigematsu-Murphy (Asian American Studies, Stanford University), Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain (Sociology, University of Ireland).

I woke up one morning and had this great idea to write a post on multiracial studies, classes and programs in higher ed. The first day I sat in front of the screen I naively believed I could come up with some sort of beginner, working list through a neat Google Search. Within 15 minutes I had searched about five or six variations of “mixed race studies,” found shockingly little, threw up my hands, and was so irritated I gave up. In fact after that quarter hour I was pretty sure I didn’t want to write this post at all. I supposed stuff was out there but felt confounded to find it without launching an epic dissertation-level exhaustive research project.

“Well,” I thought to myself, “Why don’t I just leave it to college counselors, professors and academics who have the inside scoop.” But then I thought twice. What about the exploding number of young people such as mixed race high schoolers (one day my son) who are starting to think about college, have a blossoming awareness of their multiraciality and would like to be in an environment that supports them, even allows them to pursue degrees along those lines? For that matter, what about any number of mixed race folk wanting to pursue professional certificates or advanced degrees along those lines, or the millions of others increasingly vested in mixed race issues? Are any of these folks going to sit at a computer for hours on a fruitless wild-goose chase that dead-ends in needing to rely on others “more in the know”?

Now I’m not talking student interest clubs and groups here. Those seem to abound and admittedly, are deeply important. But such involvement may or may not be resume material and, let’s be honest, in our society extracurricular certainly doesn’t hold the weight of alphabet soup like B.A. M.A. Ph.D. etc. I also suspect such groups centrally revolve around offering social support, which is of course extremely critical, but may not offer the mixed young person academic space to round-out by learning deeply and reflecting critically upon the construction of race mixing in the US. No. What I’m talking about is also giving mixed race students the space/option to explore their history and identity in their studies, and to become credentialed experts of their own experience.

So what happens when the historically overlooked and unrecognized mixed-race person hops on Google to figure out if they can spend thousands of dollars (they probably don’t have) on an education that would enrich their existence in a racially policed/divided world? It’s not good, people. It’s not good. The average Google Search garners 92% of all its traffic on Page 1. Page 2 only sees about 5%, Page 3 about 1%, and by Page 4 – well, just forget it. In the interest of posterity, let’s take a look at the critical first page of my Google Searching for mixed race studies at college and university campuses across the US:

Search phrase: degree mixed race studies

Of 10 first page results**: The top 3 results turned up this hub, a seriously great and well-known hub of mixed race research. But a quick perusal does not immediately show a listing of places to pursue such research and as we saw earlier, Riley himself states very clearly that he knows of no specific mixed race degree program. Following the top third, 2 results turned up a fairly new endeavor spearheaded by Laura Kina (among others) out of De Paul Unviersity. It is an expanding multiracial academic community that currently includes a biannual conference and academic journal. The website certainly lists organizations and hubs but again, I didn’t see a list of schools to pursue studies.

Following this, 2 search results turned up San Francisco State University’s Master’s in Ethnic Studies which is “increasingly concerned with mixed race studies” but obviously not a mixed race degree. Of the remaining, 1 search result was a write-up of the first Critical Mixed Race Studies postgraduate symposium ever offered at the University of Leeds in May of this year, 1 search result was a graduate thesis, 1 search result was a graduate student bio and 1 search result was a listing for a design-you-own-Master’s at Southern Methodist University.

Of course we see the obvious inability to obtain a specific critical mixed-race studies degree. But also notice the heavy, heavy emphasis on graduate, postgraduate and doctoral level research. In my view this does not allow very accessible entry points into the field of multiracial studies at all. We see a possible end result – but how to even begin? And what if a person does not aspire to become a researcher? Can there be an option to learn without the pressure to contribute to a growing body of mixed-race scholarship that’s struggling to exist? Search phrases like degree multi-ethnic studies or degree multiracial studies and the outcome isn’t much better. Personally I love researching and am excited by finding any results at all. But as the mother of a mixed race child who may or may not follow in his mother’s footsteps, I always have an eye to his future and best interests too. If my 4 year old goes to college one day, I want to feel less nervous and way more comfortable that wherever he goes as a new “legal” adult and young person existing across racial lines, he will find a place to learn more about himself in a life-giving way. I think we’re headed there but we still have a long way to go. I hope to see before my son fills out his first college application (aside from maybe no racial checkboxes to deal with), at least one campus that boasts an entire Critical Mixed Race Department. Pipe dream? We’ll see…

**(Note: I recognize that Google Search results change rapidly and the first page I analyze here is only a snapshot. Subsequent searches by others may turn up different, even very different results.) See my blog, too.

Backlash for Article in Asian Fortune Magazine

 black+and+white

Just as I thought it was going alright

I found out I’m wrong, when I thought I was right

It’s always the same

It’s just a shame

That’s all

 

I could say day

And you would say night

Tell me it’s black when I know that it’s white

Always the same

It’s just a shame

That’s all

– “That’s All” by Genesis

 

In December (2013),  I was contacted by Asian Fortune Magazine to be interviewed for an article on what they called H.A.P.A. “half Asian Pacific American” (a mostly unused acronym in the mixed race Asian community). I immediately said yes because exploring multiracial Asian identity and giving that exploration a voice is centrally what I do. I was excited at the chance to speak and be heard. But the experience quickly deteriorated into a racial nightmare, and one that just wouldn’t leave me alone. On my blog I wrote about the saga twice. First about the red flags I saw, how I sabotaged my own inclusion and tried to warn editor Jenny Chen. Then when I saw the published result which was awfully titled “Growing Up Asian Half Asian American: Curse or Gift?” used divisive/dichotomous language, did not include non-white mixes, expressed white ownership of multiraciality (via lookism and white/non-white framing) and perpetuated harmful multiracial Asian stereotypes, I felt as a multiracial community advocate I had to say something and wrote a rebuttal.  Many activists and multiracials online resonated with my words and rallied around my critique. But Asian Fortune offered only an empty apology so I got ready to walk away. I felt at that point whatever work could be done, had been done.

Screen shot 2014-01-22 at 5.11.38 AM

But then this weekend I received a hateful email from the piece’s original writer, Tamara Treichel. After positioning herself as a very serious, accomplished writer, she then accused me of “clowning around,” “making a fool of myself,” being “unprofessional” and someone she didn’t have time for. She informed me my “talk about race” was “just an excuse” because I was miffed at not being included, pointed at reverse racism, that she’d written a complaint to her publisher/editor and never wanted to work with me again. The harshness in her message was very palpable. In my view, she leveraged all her power as a white woman, published author and professional journalist to imply I was lesser than herself and to attempt to lower my self-worth. This is the very essence of race which leaves some feeling entitled and others voiceless or punishable for voicing dissent. Perhaps Treichel doesn’t realize the dominant overtones of her choice not to listen, but even that in and of itself is a hallmark of white privilege.

Screen shot 2014-01-22 at 5.11.45 AM

I sat with Treichel’s email for a good 48 hours waiting for it all to just go away. But again, it just wouldn’t leave me alone. And as I found myself in rutted in ongoing rumination I realized why it continued to be a thorn in my side — because it speaks to something so much larger. This woman’s damaging way of looking at race through an uninterrogated white lens has been published and is potentially about to be published again (she is currently working on a book about her expat experiences in China). She has the distinct opportunity to be heard. And yet, while she seems to consider herself somewhat of an authority on cross-cultural issues, when challenged by a multiracial person of color who embodies crossed cultures and races, she was unreceptive and became aggressively defensive. Meanwhile voices of color and their stories continue to be marginalized and go widely unheard ranging from the infantilizing/silencing of adult transracial adoptees to the shocking underrpresentation of color in children’s literature. This stark juxtaposition of easy volume versus forced quiet is one of the cornerstones of inequity in this nation.

I am less interested in this specific writer and more interested in what I see here as some profound truths. One is the necessary acknowledgement that racism continues to minimize people of color but now in a contemporary way that is often veiled and covert. For instance, I was very struck by Treichel’s choice to abrasively criticize me in private instead of engaging in a space where others could weigh in. Especially considering the original piece was public and that she has the freedom of many choices in today’s digital world. Community conversations and debate can be so powerful and yet she chose one-on-one. Also, I think this experience shows so painfully how mixed race people are not transcending nor breaking down race as many believe. “Just because race has become more subtle and clever does not mean that it is less significant,” writes mixed race scholar Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain in her 2006 book Pure Beauty: Judging Race in Japanese American Beauty Pageants, “The mixed-race body then does not destroy race, but leads to a repoliticization and problematization of race” (Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain. Pure Beauty: Judging Race in Japanese American Beauty Pageants. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print. p.22).

While multiracials may fly under the radar or seem to have access to certain advantages, in fact such “privileges” are only honorarily given and may be swept out from under our feet at any point if we step out of line. For instance, as Laura Kina & Wei Ming Dariotis point out in their new 2013 book War Baby / Love Child: Mixed Race Asian Art, mixed race itself “implies that there are separable ‘races’” and it is because and within this context that we need to form a “critical multiraciality” as part of an “anti-racist struggle” (Laura Kina & Wei Ming Dariotis. War Baby / Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013. Print. p.xv.).

Age-old race thinking persists and until we can really deconstruct it, things may only shift and not change as much as we hope. I make a call here for continued group dialogue critically dissecting race concepts that continue to intrude upon our thinking and a perpetual reminder that even those of us who straddle color lines need to be included.

~ Guest blogger Sharon H Chang writes at the MultiAsianFamilies blog.  

Sidelined in the #NotYourAsianSidekick Discussion

#notyourasiansidekick

 

 

 

In December of last year an Asian feminist conversation took Twitter by storm under the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick. Designed to create much-needed but difficult-to-find space for discussing justice in the Asian American community, participants tweeted about everything from “media representation of Asian women to the way the prison industrial complex erases Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in its demographic tracking”.  A groundwell of interest caused the hashtag to go viral globally, garnering 45,000 tweets within 24 hours, appearing in 95 million feeds across the next 3 days. Tanya Maria Golash-Boza covered it for Racism Review here, noting some of the social science evidence about discrimination against Asian Americans.

A month later, the hashtag is still trending. In fact the discussion has so deeply shown its importance that it has transformed into something of a movement with its own website and hosted forums that aim to continue “bringing conversations between artists, activists, and academics” about “everything from using Twitter as a platform for agitation to interracial solidarity to disability to queerness.” It has since generated widespread and well-deserved attention much of which you can easily locate and peruse via Google search.

Yes, it’s true. I’m on Twitter @multiasianfams. I have a love-hate relationship with social media but in my view there’s simply too much happening around race in that arena and online to ignore it. Case in point, I happened to hear about #NotYourAsianSideKick before it launched and participated at the very beginning for an hour. Something that got quickly lost in the explosive hype surrounding the trend (which has since been solely credited to activist Suey Park) was that it was originally co-hosted by Park and fellow activist Juliet Shen. To get the convo going, the 2 friends threw out a series of thoughtful questions with Park first up and Shen quickly following. Now while I think overall #NotYourAsianSidekick was and is a gorgeous and deeply needed movement to be heard, and even though plenty of mixed race people chimed in throughout – honestly I felt on the fringes of the conversation before it even began (as I usually do) being a multiracial person who can’t align fully with mono- categories like Asian. There was really only one moment that jumped off the screen at me and really connected to my lived/mixed experience, when Shen asked:

 

Picture 5

In fact hers was the only question that specifically addressed issues of interraciality possibly cracking the door to include a broader discussion of multiraciality in the hashtag and the Asian community at large. But sadly just a handful of women (including Park & Shen) responded before the discussion dashed off in another direction:

Picture 2

Picture 6Picture 7Picture 8

I thought #NotYourAsianSideKick moved away from this topic too quickly and decided to to contact some of the brave women who had spoken up for a deeper exploration. Interviews with several of these women follow, all words and images used here with their permission.

Juliet Shen

Juliet Shen @Juliet_Shen, Activist/Writer
identifies as: Asian American, 2nd generation Chinese

“When I date interracially friends, especially within the Asian American community, are quick to criticize or judge. There’s often that split second after I tell them the race of my partner that I see this change occur on their expression. I suddenly lose credibility as a writer, activist, and member of the community. Strangers are even worse. Because I blog, contacting me is easier than for the average person. I usually get about 1 piece of hate mail a week, often more if I write on something ‘controversial’ such as interracial relationships. The hate mail will range from disappointment to violent threats, to name calling, to everything negative under the sun. I have been called a race traitor, a house slave, and many more horrible things…I [still] see much criticism and backlash against interracial relationships…there is much work to be done.”

 Lindsey Yoo

Lindsey Yoo @LindseyYoo, Activist/Writer
identifies as: Korean American

“I’ve dated interracially enough that my [Korean American] family is no longer shocked when I introduce them to non-Korean partners. But my extended family in Korea has told me more than once to at least stick to white or Asian men; they want me to stay away from ‘darker’ men. They assume that non-white and non-Asian men are sexually and morally deviant — especially Black men… Some friends have commented on ‘how cute’ my mixed kids would be if my boyfriend and I ever decide to have a family, and others have pointed out to me that the existence of relationships like mine show how improved race relations have become in our country. It’s always awkward trying to point out the problematic assumptions in those types of reactions — especially since they’re presented as appreciative statements and compliments…Interracial relationships might be more commonplace and more accepted, but Asian men and Black women are still the least likely to out-marry, and they are the least desired demographics in studies of online dating activity and behavior.”

Maureen Ahmed

Maureen Ahmed @maureen_ahmed, Activist/Writer
identifies as: South Asian, Muslim – American

“When a South Asian woman dates outside of her race, or when a Muslim woman dates outside of her religion, her society will negatively respond (the severity of which changes from individual to individual). These trends stem from patriarchal expectations that a woman is responsible for continuing the heritage of her ancestors in a foreign land…Once she leaves her community, her children (because after all, she is expected to have them) will seldom be able to carry on those traditions, because…the male [is] responsible [for passing] on his customs to the family…While I think society as a whole has exceedingly become more welcoming towards interracial relationships, I believe there is still great resistance in smaller ethnic and religious enclaves throughout the United States. While new wave of immigrants continue to bring rich and vibrant traditions to this country, they often at times also bring with them racial prejudices against other communities besides their own.”

We can see through the testimonials of these young women that interracial mixing is sometimes still viewed very harshly which has obvious implications for children that may come later. It is an important subject that should be addressed in every community. Yet interracial/multiracial got bumped off its chair pretty early at the #NotYourAsianSidekick table. I can’t say I’m surprised. I keep seeing this happen despite the fact, as I have mentioned before, multiracial is the fastest growing youth group in the US; something of especially significance for the API community which has the highest rate of outmarriage (interracial and interethnic).

The struggle for racial equality in this nation which has historically coalesced around mono-aligned groups is now also struggling to know what to do with the growing visibility of multiracials. In its confusion, and often the faulty assumption that maybe race just doesn’t apply, mixed race peoples are frequently just left out altogether. But more and more young people are beginning to identify outside traditionally defined single designations begging the question, are we going to stick with a handful of racial categories and if so, who do we allow in them? Who qualifies as “Asian”? The simple truth is — we need to make more space for inter- and multi-in race discourse. Great convos about “the now” without a nod to “what’s next” aren’t fully prepared for the future that’s imminent, and waiting on our doorstep.*

 

I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the women who were willing to share their experiences and identities with us here. Speaking up is dangerous trailblazing work. Their willingness to do so paves a path for others to be heard. I ask that readers please receive their testimonials with respect and listen to their words without being predatory.

 

*Note: A multiracial Asian forum has since been proposed to Suey Park who was very open to the idea and will likely do so in the near future.

 

~ Guest blogger Sharon H Chang writes at the MultiAsian Famillies blog.

Hashtag Sparks Discussion about Asian American Discrimination

Over the weekend, the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick exploded on Twitter, trending for more than 24 hours, with over 45,000 tweets in less than a day.

This hashtag, started by writer Suey Park (@suey_park), inspired Asian Americans and others to share their thoughts on the multiple ways Asians are marginalized.

People tweeted about diversity within the Asian community, language, stereotypes, body image, immigration, media representation, and other topics. Although the conversation was initially about Asian American feminism, the hashtag clearly had global appeal and tweets poured in from around the world.

On Monday, a counter-hashtag #AsianPrivilege appeared. Twitter users deployed this hashtag to claim that Asians experience relative privilege as compared to other people of color. Many of the people behind this counter-hashtag appear to be trolls tweeting from new accounts. Nevertheless, the sentiments behind these tweets are widely shared as many people believe that Asians and Asian Americans do not face discrimination.

As a sociologist, I think it is best to turn to the evidence: Do Asians face discrimination? The labor market is one of the best places to take this question because this is where many people believe Asians have reached parity with white Americans.

Asian Americans have among the highest earnings in the United States. In 2013, Asians’ median weekly earnings were $973, as compared to $799 for whites, $634 for blacks, and $572 for Latinos. It seems as if Asians do not experience discrimination. However, these aggregate numbers hide many disparities.

First of all, Asian men earned, on average, 40 percent more than Asian women. The gender gap between Asian men and women is the highest of any racial group. Secondly, these numbers hide the diversity within the Asian community: the 2000 U.S. Census reports Hmong women had an average weekly earnings of just $389 per week – putting them far below average. Whereas Chinese and Indian men earn more on average than white men, the opposite is true for Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Hmong men. In sum, some Asians earn more than whites, yet this is the case for only some nationalities – those that have, on average, higher levels of education.

Chinese and Indian Americans have higher educational attainment than their white male counterparts. This helps explain some of the earnings disparities.

Studies that take into account educational achievements find that Asian men earn less than their white male counterparts. Sociologists ChangHwan Kim and Arthur Sakamoto found that if you compare white men to Asian men with similar characteristics, the white men often earn more. In other words, if an Asian American man and a white man both live in New York, both went to selective universities, and both studied engineering, we could expect that the Asian American man would earn, on average, 8 percent less than the white man.

The fact that Asian Americans do not earn as much as white men with the same qualifications points to the fact that Asian Americans face labor market discrimination. In other words, there is a real monetary cost to being Asian American. Over the course of one’s career, this disparity can amount to significant amounts of money.

Labor market discrimination against Asians is not unique to the United States. A study conducted in Australia also uncovered labor market discrimination against Asians. Alison Booth and her colleagues conducted an audit study where they sent 4,000 fictitious job applications out for entry-level jobs, where they varied only the last name of the applicant – thereby signaling ethnicity.

The results were that the average callback rate for Anglo-Saxons was 35 percent. Applications with an Italian-sounding name received responses 32 percent of the time – with only a small statistically significant difference. The differences were starker for the other groups: indigenous applicants obtained an interview 26 percent of the time, Chinese applicants 21 percent of the time, and Middle Easterners 22 percent of the time. According to these findings, Anglo-Saxons would have to submit three job applications to have a decent shot at getting a callback whereas Chinese applicants can expect to submit five.

This labor market discrimination – both in hiring and in compensation – stems from stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans. These stereotypes were frequently mentioned on Twitter over the past few days.

People on Twitter pointed out the perpetual foreign-ness of Asian Americans:

My answer to the popular question "Where are you from?" is "My mother's uterus." (People must not understand biology.) #NotYourAsianSidekick

— Amber Ying (@diabola) December 16, 2013

Others pointed to the exoticization of Asian Americans:

I need Asian American feminism because we're constantly reduced to being exotic and fetishized. Stop diminishing us. #NotYourAsianSidekick

— Maureen (@maureen_ahmed) December 15, 2013

Many of these stereotypes are perpetuated by mass media.

Darrell Hamamoto analyzed representations of Asians and Asian Americans on television between 1950 and 1990. He found that Asian men were often represented in US media as asexual or effeminate, whereas Asian women were often portrayed as hypersexual. Hamamoto contends that network television negatively influences popular perceptions of Asians.

Although Asians make up five percent of people in the United States, in 2011, they only accounted for two percent of all television representations. The combination of few representations of Asian Americans in mass media along with stereotypical representations work to feed these stereotypes.

The hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick clearly struck a chord with people around the world both because of the discrimination people of Asian descent face as well as because of the fact that this discrimination is rarely discussed in public forums.

Prescriptive Racial Stereotypes of Asian American Leaders

In an article entitled “Why So Few Asians are College President,” Dr. Santa J. Ono, President of the University of Cincinnati, indicates that he finds himself among a very small group of Asian American leaders in higher education: only 1.5 percent of college and university presidents are Asian American and 3.4 percent are administrators in higher education. By contrast, Hispanics comprise 3.8 percent of presidents and African Americans hold 5.9 percent of these roles. This pattern also holds true for the corporate sector, such as the low representation of Asian Americans as corporate officers and members of corporate boards.

Why are Asian Americans so underrepresented in leadership roles? Ono suggests two major factors at play: cultural differences deriving from home environments that value preferences for indirect communication, emotional restraint, and an egalitarian view of power as well as contradictory perceptions about Asian Americans such as being conspicuous but self-effacing, hyperambitious but timid. Frank Wu, Chancellor of the University of California Hastings College of the Law, similarly points out that the model minority myth transforms positive qualities into negative attributes: intelligence is seen as lack of personality, family-oriented as clannish, and hard-working as unfairly competitive.

Ono, however, points to significant new research by Jennifer Berdahl and Ji-A Min at the University of Toronto that sheds light on the particular barriers Asian Americans face in leadership roles. Berdahl and Min distinguish between descriptive stereotypes or generalized beliefs about what members of different racial groups are like and prescriptive stereotypes which, when violated, are likely to provoke social disapproval and backlash. Since East Asians in North America are often descriptively stereotyped as relatively competent, cold, and nondominant, Berdahl and Min identify “nondominant” as a prescriptive stereotype that, when violated, causes negative consequences in the workplace. As a result, when East Asians remain in subordinate, nonleadership roles, and do not try to assert their own viewpoints or ideas or take charge, the competitive threat to valued resources they pose is neutralized. Through a series of four studies, the research findings reveal that not only did East Asians report more racial harassment at work than other employees, but, more importantly, those individuals that violated racial stereotypes were more likely to be the targets of such harassment. Berdahl and Min report that the negative responses to dominant East Asians did not depend on gender and appeared to be unique to this racial minority group.

This promising line of research on prescriptive stereotypes helps explain the hurdles faced by Asian Americans in their efforts to attain leadership positions and how these stereotypes can influence their ability to break through the so-called “bamboo ceiling” or what Sylvia Ann Hewlett calls “the marzipan layer” just below the upper rungs of power.

The notion of prescriptive stereotypes can also apply to the challenges faced by other racial minorities and women when they violate expected stereotypical behaviors and experience backlash. As Santa Ono notes, unconscious bias may be more difficult to address in academe where intellectual fairness and rigor are already presumed to be present. In this regard, he aptly suggests that academe focus some of its energy, acuity, and empathy toward tearing down existing social and psychological barriers to success, “particularly those all the more imposing for being invisible.” Perhaps greater understanding of the influence of prescriptive stereotypes will provide the opportunity for reexamination of the impact of subtle, unconscious bias on organizational processes and allow us to develop truly inclusive definitions of leadership capabilities.

Where “Old” and “New” World Color Meet in Multiracial Asian America

(Image source)

“Rare indeed is the Asian American who has not heard an aunt or grandmother say something like; ‘Don’t go out in the sun. You’ll get too dark’…[Asian countries have] had long-standing preferences for light skin, especially in women.”

Is Lighter Better? Skin-Tone Discrimination Among Asian Americans

In my continuing research examining the lives of young multiracial Asian children, it has become pretty clear pretty quick that colorism (skin color discrimination of individuals falling within the same racial group) is a major theme. This isn’t a surprise to me, a multiracial Asian woman who grew up constantly scrutinized and measured as more European looking against other Asian peoples. I launched an Amazon hunt and as usual, found very little. In fact almost nothing; only one book addressing colorism in the Asian American community: Is Lighter Better? Skin-Tone Discrimination Among Asian Americans by Joanne L. Rondilla and Paul Spickard (2007) (if you know of more, please send to me).

According to Rondilla & Spickard, colorism in Asia is less about wanting to look European and more a class imperative. “To be light is to be rich, for dark skin comes from working outside in the sun…the yearning to be light is a desire to look like rich Asians, not like Whites” (Rondilla & Spickard, 2007, p.4). A preference for light-skinned beauty existed long before serious encounters with Europeans and Americans, and this desire deeply persists. Though not visibly common in the US, skin lightening products are loudly advertised and mass-consumed all over Asia. And sales are rising. Two million units of skin lightening soap are sold annually in the Philippines. Today, every major cosmetics company has some form of skin lightener (Rondilla & Spickard, 2007).

So what happens when huge numbers of Asian immigrants (430,000 in 2010) and students (6 in 10 international students are from Asia) start arriving Stateside and their colorist/class values meet US racism which has aggressively devalued and violently oppressed dark-skinned people for hundreds of years? What happens when White Perfect (above) meets Jim Crow? “Less yellowish” meets Yellow Peril?

(Image source)

 

On the one hand, it’s a complicated catch-22. Overlay the former with the latter and we certainly get a compounded but also confused effect. As Rosalind S. Chou and Joe R. Feagin note in their book The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism, “Asian Americans frequently embrace stereotypes created by whites about other groups, as well as the racist notions that whites have created for Asians” (p.138).

Asian Americans often manifest “old world” inspired, “new world” enhanced colorism at the same time they find themselves victimized by the same system; targeted as people of color. Rock and a hard place, right? Take for instance American born Lucy Liu, still one of the few Asian TV and film stars, who has publicly bemoaned racism in Hollywood yet stirred controversy last year when she let slip a disparaging remark about Filipino skin color on Jay Leno.

On the other hand, the oppression of dark-skinned people, whether in Asia or America, is exactly what it is — the oppression of dark-skinned people. I often run into folks who try to differentiate the two histories of discrimination as totally disparate, unrelated and incompatible things. Sometimes to excuse immigrant colorist behaviors as eccentric or somehow less offensive because they technically aren’t rooted in racism. Sometimes to dismiss the possibility of any compounded and damaging internalized effects to Asian American children through their combination. But in our increasingly interdependent world, how can we pretend the cultural values of one continent are not influenced and impacted by the values of the other? When I was a young girl my father told me if I ever married a Black man he’d disown me. Even that young I remember being totally shocked by his unapologetic and vocal bias, something I continued to live with and object to my entire youth (though my protests always seemed to fall on deaf ears). My father was born and raised in Taiwan, a place that was and still mostly remains pretty Asian-homogenous. He immigrated to the United States when he was in his 20s at which point he’d had very little exposure to any kind of Black be it African, Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, African American, whatever. Yet despite his limited exposure to racial diversity growing up and the fact he himself was often targeted as an immigrant/person of color later living in the US, as an adult he harbored very extreme American prejudices against historically targeted American racial groups.

 

(Image source)

Chou & Feagin point out Asian immigrants often have preconceived stereotypes about Blacks before they even immigrate because of contact with American mainstream media operating overseas, a major source of negative typecasting for Mexican and African Americans (among others) (Chou & Feagin, 2010):

The impact of U.S. racism is not confined to the borders of the United States. Indeed, U.S. economic, political, military, and mass media power makes the country very important, indeed often dominant, in many global settings. The United States not only exports commercial goods but also propagates important ideals and ideas as well. The U.S. media are very influential and perpetuate important aspects of the white racial frame to many countries around the world. Certain U.S.-oriented products and their advertising also spread a U.S. racial framing (Chou & Feagin, 2010, pp.170-171).

Where does this leave multiracial Asian Americans born into these overlapping frameworks? I’m afraid that as multiracial Asian Americans, this leaves us poised very precariously at times. Despite what you might imagine, with the recent influx of Asian immigration and Asians marrying out of their ethnic group at a higher rate than any other racial group, multiracial Asian children are not actually that far removed from “old world” prejudices and are often second generation Americans like myself. I have been constantly scanned for Asian versus white features by Asian immigrants and proclaimed “the best of both worlds” leaving me with the uncomfortable, highly racialized feeling there’s something I did or didn’t get that I should be glad about but that one or both of my halves might resent. In my October post “Mixed Heritage and Knowing We Still Have Work To Do,”  I described the race challenges shared by a quarter Asian youth panelist (Black/Asian/white) as part of a local mixed heritage dialogue. Despite identifying strongly as Blasian:

12 yo Saiyana, a child of our future and proud of her mixed heritage, showed us that race mythologies/oppressions persist. She related being profiled by a museum security guard who identified her as Black at the same time Black peers at school refuse to acknowledge her multiraciality.

Even in Rondilla & Spickard’s well-researched book something funny around mixed race people seems to be happening. In their study, they asked participants asked to respond to pictures of 3 different women of varying skin tones from lightest to darkest. The “fairest of them all,” as designated by the researchers, appears to be multiracial, something alluded to, but not confirmed in the book. The other two do not appear to be multiracial.

Why would only one woman be mixed race? Why not choose either 3 mixed race Asian woman OR 3 monoracial Asian women? And if only one mixed race woman was going to be chosen, why would she be the light one?

There is a conversation we aren’t having about specifically colorism in Asian America and the way it impacts the lives of mixed race children. For example, how are darker-skinned Black/Asians versus lighter-skinned white/Asians received within their families, within the Asian American community, and society at large?

In her book Pure Beauty: Judging Race in Japanese American Beauty Pageants, Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain points out that despite growing acceptance of mixed race children in the Japanese American community:

The idea of racial hierarchies perpetuated by the Japanese American community is evidenced in the community beauty pageants. There have been few if any African American/Japanese American mixed-race queen candidates and none has been successfully chosen to be queen (King-O’Riain, 2006, p.38).

How do phenotype and issues of blood quantum complicate this conversation? What is it like for children like Saiyana who are a quarter or less Asian and may not wear Asian racial markers that signal loudly to others, yet who identify strongly as being so? Given that multiracial Asian is a fast-growing demographic and will soon constitute a larger and larger portion of our population, I think we have to ask ourselves these hard questions. Certainly not at the exclusion of other discussions central to multiraciality but definitely as an important part of the larger conversation.

What is it like for multiracial Asians with different skin colors/heritages sitting at a crossroads where “old world” Asian colorism and “new world” US racism meet?

~ Guest blogger Sharon Chang writes regularly at MultiAsian Families.

 

My 3-Year-Old has Experienced Racism (and yours probably has too)

I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. But if there is a child of color in your life and if you ever read to them – then they have already experienced racism.

 

 (image [by artist Tina Kugler)

First let’s clear one thing up. When many people think racism, they think extreme. Overtly aggressive, easily-identifiable. Slavery, KKK, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, etc. To be sure, very racist. But these overt forms of racism are now widely condemned and far less common. They still happen no doubt, but nowhere near the level they used to. No. These days racism has gone stealth; often taking less obvious, insidious forms. Harder to find. Harder to fight? Nowadays we understand racism as a system of oppression that unfairly advantages some (whites) over others on the basis of phenotype (skin color). Take a look around you and it’s easy to see this system of privilege in place. Who lives in the poorest neighborhoods? Who lives in the richest? Whose children go to the lowest funded, most scantily equipped schools? Whose children go to the most expensive, richly resourced private schools?

When my son was born I enthusiastically set out to find children’s books that celebrated and reflected our family’s unique multiracial Asian heritage. I figured there were so many mixed kids now I’d find tons of stuff. If not about mixed Asian (which admittedly is very specific) at least about Asian, multiracial or multicultural. I found a handful of books and then? Myself beating my head against a brick wall. I was mystified, frustrated and then infuriated. What was going on? I suddenly got that sinking-yucky-PoC feeling, “Uh oh there’s something racial happening here.” Not sure what else to do I began blogging, researching and collecting resources on my own.

Then early this summer my fears were confirmed. About the same time data revealed that, for the first time, whites had fallen to a minority in America’s under-5 age group  a 2012 report from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison garnered quick internet and media attention.

The CCBC report found that despite our increasing diversity, the number of children’s books written by or about people of color is very low and has not changed in 18 years. Of the 3,600 books the CCBC received last year, only 3% were about African Americans, 2% were about Asian Pacific Americans, 1.5% were about Latinos, and less than 1% were about Native Americans and these numbers have stayed fairly consistent since the CCBC started keeping statistics in 1994.

 

 

(Image credit: Flickr/Global Partnership for Education)

Some argue there isn’t large enough demand for main characters of color while others argue there can’t be a demand for something that’s not on the market.

But boil it down and it very simply looks like this. There are still few minority owned publishing companies in the U.S. Publishing is disproportionately controlled by whites who continue to favor producing products by, for, and about their own race despite very real evidence that the market demands something more diverse. This then has the trickle down effect of impacting what’s available to you and your family at bookstores, libraries, schools, etc. Yes people. It’s systemic. It’s institutional. It’s covert. It’s about power and race. That’s racism. And your children of color are at a disadvantage because of it.

In one of the most influential works on anti-bias early education, Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, Louise Derman-Sparks & Julie Olsen Edwards address the omission of diversity as a major dynamic of advantage and disadvantage in early learning materials. They reframe under- and over-representation as a form of societal (in)visibility that works to undermine some children’s sense of self at the same time it teaches other children that they are more deserving than others. They write:

 

“Young children are learning about who is and isn’t important. Invisibility erases identity and experience; visibility affirms reality. When children see themselves and their families reflected in their early childhood setting, they feel affirmed and that they belong. When children’s identities and families are invisible, the opposite happens. Children feel that they are unimportant and do not belong. These lessons from societal visibility or invisibility are among the most powerful messages children receive…Children absorb these messages every day, often without the adults in their lives even knowing what the children are learning” (pp.13-4).

 

And at the end of the day, as these authors point out, this is something that impacts everyone regardless of race. According to FirstBook, a nonprofit dedicated to overcoming illiteracy, literacy is one of the best predictors of a child’s future success but when children see characters and hear stories that aren’t relevant to their lives, it makes it harder to engage and interest them.

Low levels of literacy are associated with lower educational, employment and health outcomes, and that will ultimately cost the United States more than a quarter of a million dollars each.

 

(image from here)

 

Children’s books are also one of the most important launching pads for discussions about tough things (e.g. trying new foods, being scared of the dark, bullying, etc). If there aren’t many diverse children’s books then we can guess adults aren’t starting meaningful conversations on the subject at home, in school, etc.

Indeed in the popular 2011 Nurtureshock, authors Pro Bronson and Ashley Merryman verify 75% of white parents almost never talk to their kids about race  Let’s follow this through to its obvious conclusion. We’ve got silence from the critical adults in children’s lives. We’ve got covert societal messages about who is and is not important via (in)visibility. We’ve got our children, left to themselves, easily making misinformed generalizations about groups of people (and not telling us about it). And then we’ve got their fairly innocent pre-prejudices, left mostly unattended, growing with them into…bias. And voila! Racism is reborn.

The early years are critical in setting the stage for who we become and the things we learn as children are the hardest to unlearn. So this is also a critical point of intervention for addressing racial inequities in this country. How can we ever undo racism if its foundation continues to be solidly, firmly poured in place? It isn’t only about naïve children and cute children’s books. It’s about the fact that we still aren’t having the conversations and we aren’t having them early enough. If we truly want to make a difference, let’s head it off at the gate.

Find out who’s trying to make a change and how you can help. Here’s are a couple of places to start: FirstBook’s solution and Lee&Low Books and Cinco Puntos discussion of multilcultural publishing.

 

 

~ Guest blogger Sharon Chang maintains the blog MultiAsian Families.

Illusions of Meritocracy: Does It Favor Certain Groups?

The notion of meritocracy hinges on the belief in a just system, or what researchers have called “system justification theory.” As theorists John Jost and Masharin Banaji explain, system justification theory is a psychological process by which people justify existing social arrangements as legitimate and fair, such as the belief that hard work, effort, and motivation lead to success. This theory locates the cause of events within personal attributes, and indicates that individuals should take personal responsibility for outcomes. For example, a recent article by John Jost, Brian Nosek, and Samuel Gosling notes that stability and hierarchy provide both structure and reassurance, in contrast with social change and equality that imply unpredictability and greater chaos, especially in large social systems.

The irony of system justification theory is that members of minority groups can view the locus of individual success or failure as solely due to their own efforts and discount the impact of socially-mediated forces of discrimination. We have seen examples in the recent press where minority leaders themselves emphasize personal responsibility while remaining silent on the impact of the forces of systemic discrimination. As Alvin Evans and I point out in Diverse Administrators in Peril , this viewpoint can undermine self-esteem when individuals impacted by discrimination internalize contemporary forms of oppression and become their own oppressors through self-blame and inappropriate attributions of instances of everyday discrimination to their own dispositional or personal inadequacies. It heightens what Wesley Yang calls “self-estrangement” by removing the factor of difference from the equation.

A study conducted by Frank Samson at the University of Miami highlighted in a recent article in Inside HigherEd clearly demonstrates the fluidity of the notion of meritocracy when applied to different minority groups. When one group of white adults in California was asked about the criteria that should be used in admissions processes, a high priority was placed on high school grade-point averages and standardized tests. Yet when a control group was told that Asian Americans make up more than twice as many undergraduates in the University of California system compared to their representation in the state population, the participants then favored a reduced role for test and grade scores in the admissions process. They further indicated that leadership should be given greater weight.

Since Asian American scores on the SAT topped white average scores by 1641 to 1578 this year and the leadership abilities of Asian Americans tend to be unrecognized , the shift in criteria by study participants shows that meritocracy means different things when applied to different groups. Samson attributes this shift to “group threat” from Asian Americans and suggests that key Supreme Court decisions based upon the framework of meritocracy might have been decided differently if different groups had been involved. Samson notes the exclusionary rhetoric that emphasizes “qualifications” applied in discussions of opportunities that can exclude African-Americans and how this framework shifts when applied to Asian Americans. In an earlier post, I cited a June 14 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Stacey Patton that explains how the frequent argument about “lack of qualified candidates” for top roles becomes a loaded and coded divergence—a smoke screen that feeds stereotypes of minorities as less capable, intelligent, or experienced (p. A4).

Certainly the road to attainment of meritocracy will require consideration of the many detours we have taken in the course of American history. Perhaps we need to be reminded that a true meritocracy is still an aspirational goal and in the words of Martin Luther King, represents “a promissory note” that will “open the doors of opportunity” to all Americans.

The Fisher decision misses the point: Separate and unequal

A new Georgetown University report titled “Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Privilege” by Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl reinforces why the Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas misses the point. Recall that in Fisher v. the University of Texas, while the justices recognized the value of diversity in the higher education experience, universities and colleges must prove that no workable race-neutral alternatives could have produced the same diversity benefit. And strikingly, Justice Kennedy stated that in this process “the university receives no deference.” A reviewing court will be the arbiter of this determination.

The report by Carnevale and Strohl debunks the assumption that the United States has attained a level educational playing field in which consideration of race is no longer relevant. The study demonstrates that American higher education has two separate and unequal tracks: the 468 selective colleges and the 3250 open-access institutions. The divergence between these two tracks is increasing rather than diminishing. The authors identify two prominent themes that characterize these tracks: 1) racial stratification in the 4400 two- and four- year colleges analyzed for the study; and 2) polarization between the most selective schools and open-access schools. And from a student perspective, they conclude that “disadvantage is worst of all when race and class collide.”

Between 1995 and 2009, despite increases in the enrollment of African American and Hispanic students attending postsecondary institutions, more than 8 in 10 of new white students enrolled in the 468 most selective institutions, whereas more than 7 in 10 new Hispanic and African-American students have gone to open-access two and four-year colleges. White students account for 78 percent of the growth in the more selective institutions, while 92 percent of the growth in open-access institutions went to Hispanic and African-American students.

In addition, stratification by income is marked in more selective colleges, with high-income students overrepresented relative to population share by 45 percentage points and African-American and Hispanic students underrepresented relative to population share by 9 percentage points. This disadvantage is magnified by pre-existing geographic (spatial) isolation in the location of high schools as well as economic and educational deprivation in the pre-college years.

Why does this matter? The 468 most selective schools spend two to nearly five times more per student, have higher ratios of full- to part-time faculty, higher completion rates, and greater access to graduate schools, even when considering equally qualified students. Also, the college completion rate for the most selective schools is 82 percent, compared with 49 percent for open-access, two- and four-year institutions.

The report responds to two important questions. First, it provides substantive evidence that contradicts the “mismatch” theory which posits that minority students fare better in universities where the median test scores are nearer their own. In contrast, it reveals that Hispanic and African-American students benefit from attending selective institutions even when their test scores fall substantially below the averages at these schools, with a graduation rate of 73 percent from top colleges when compared to a graduation rate of 40 percent at open-access institutions.

Second, the report sheds light on the difficulty of substituting race-neutral alternatives such as class or to produce the same educational diversity benefit. The authors find that it would take more than five or six times the current level of class-based admissions to maintain the current racial mix in the most selective colleges. In fact, the pool of low-income white students far exceeds the pool of Hispanic and African-American students eligible for selective college admissions. The flood of low-income students that could result from using class as a proxy for disadvantage would create intense resource challenges for all but the most wealthy of selective institutions in the financial aid process. More selective institutions would also have difficulty to maintain current standards in the competition for students with higher test scores.

The report does not include an identical analysis for Asians and Native Americans due to data limitations. It does note that while 50 percent of new Asian enrollments have gone to the most selective schools, 30 percent have also gone to the open-access schools. In this regard, a 2005 College Board study reveals that Asian American/Pacific Islander students are evenly concentrated in two- and four-year institutions, with over half of the students in California and Nevada enrolled in community colleges. And a study produced by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute concludes that, like other minority students, AAPI students often struggle with poverty, with 47.4 of Asian American families classified as low income compared with 39.5 percent of the general population.

The challenge ahead for universities is to develop the statistical models that will satisfy the Supreme Court’s requirement to prove that alternative race-neutral alternatives are not sufficient for producing the educational benefits of diversity. In the evolution of the new criteria required to satisfy Fisher’s requirements, the Georgetown University report takes an important step in laying the groundwork for the evidentiary data and metrics needed.

Summing up the complexity of the court’s newly imposed requirements for justifying the consideration of race as one factor among others in college admissions, Thomas Kane and James Ryan point out in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that:

The court sometimes seems to labor under the belief that there is some magical combination of race-neutral proxies that will produce exactly the same group of students as in a class admitted under a race-conscious plan. Admissions officers know differently….