Asian Americans Breaking Through The Glass Ceiling

Asian Americans face demonstrable bias.
12/06/2016 08:28 pm ET Updated May 11, 2017
Paul Bradbury via Getty Images

As an Asian American who writes and speaks about “Asian-American issues,” I have to admit every now and then I have been miffed when others have told the same stories. They too are acquainted with the name calling that threatens to escalate into violence, the assumptions about being good with numbers that conceal the parallel of not being good with people, and the suspicion that you belong someplace else where you are really from. I was mistaken. I have no proprietary claim to any adversity. My peers should be encouraged to stand up and speak out. Their experience is what will persuade their friends and colleagues if anything will.

When you are not only a minority, but imagined to be privileged, you can find yourself alone, all the more if you dare complain. If you share a grievance, people do not want to hear it. They have other priorities; they are sure you are doing better here than in your homeland — never mind that your family has three generations farming the California Central Valley. You are dismissed as having made up an excuse to grouse, or, if the reality cannot be denied, exaggerating the effects. It’s all political correctness and hypersensitivity.

When you are not only a minority, but imagined to be privileged, you can find yourself alone, all the more if you dare complain.

That is why when someone informs me that what I described in my book happened to them last week, I realize that I have not plagiarized from them, nor they me. I am sorry for us. But I am reassured. It turns out to be true. And it’s not trivial.

Lawyer Bill Lee, for example, disclosed a recent encounter with a hostile stranger, almost certainly related to race. Lee, a partner with a major firm in Boston, is of Chinese descent. Although his account has been publicized, he initially had been reluctant to reveal the episode until younger colleagues, also of Asian descent, urged him to do so. I am glad he did.

A friend of mine who is white and has a professional relationship with Lee forwarded me the news article. He couldn’t believe it, in a sympathetic sense. I replied that it happens all the time. He said, “That sucks.”

As Lee remarked, the man who confronted him felt entitled in a well-to-do neighborhood in a liberal area. Lee has made it, by any measure. If it can happen to him, it can happen to anyone Asian. They do not necessarily have the same status of a downtown lawyer. They won’t have access to media.

A woman I have known for years was pleased to inform me that she had witnessed an incident I described in an earlier essay. At the first-ever national convention of the Asian American Journalists Association (Los Angeles, 1987), a white male editor opened his speech by saying he was delighted to have been invited, because we Asians were so polite. To his surprise, he was hissed. I was worried that people would not believe my account. My friend was able to confirm my recollection. 

That manager, who was in a position to hire and fire, likely had no idea that he was repeating a racial stereotype. The image also implies traits that are not as positive as “polite.” It includes submissiveness, staying in one’s place, perhaps not being as aggressive as a reporter needs to be. It’s a signal that one ought to remain “polite.” (Until the recent reversal, with Asians now being reputed to be rude, I actually took occasional satisfaction in displays of Asian brazenness, as I have a hunch other people of color do about being deliberately discourteous when the situation calls for it.)

Attitudes matter. Asian Americans face demonstrable bias. The challenge is that nobody wants to acknowledge the patterns and disparities.

Even in fields where Asian Americans are said to be overrepresented, we in fact are underrepresented at management levels.

Even in fields where Asian Americans are said to be overrepresented, we in fact are underrepresented at management levels. If facts matter, the data for this contention is robust beyond dispute. The drop off through the “pipeline” can be an order of magnitude. That means a 10x decrease from what would be expected. In the high tech sector, for example, Asian American executives tend to be founders of their own enterprises, not individuals promoted from within. In higher education, when I headed an institution I was among the very few to have that responsibility. 

The misconception is produced by overrepresentation at lower levels, relative to our numbers within the population as a whole. But that baseline is inappropriate. The measure of true equal opportunity refers to parity, or disparity, relative to those who are qualified. Asian Americans are essentially being exploited as producers. 

The point, however, is not to revel in resentment. It is to develop strategies for success. Asian American entrepreneurs have figured it out: they quit for their own start-up. The trouble is that will not be possible in every instance. It leaves their former employers no better.

At an affinity conference held in San Francisco today, I was honored to moderate the opening panel. As I listened to the remainder of the program, I was impressed by the interest of all the speakers in self-criticism and corresponding self-improvement: they had identified some of the same traits among Asian Americans that did not serve them well. 

For example, too many Asian Americans — not all of them, but too many who conform to generalizations — display great technical expertise but not only lack “soft skills” — they disdain them. They expect their superior performance will be noticed. I’m not sure whether they are being arrogant, modest, or both, but it’s not working for them.

The problems are perceived and real, but, as we recognize, with race perceptions generate their own reality. Some who refuse to advance Asian American due to their weak communication skills are hearing more of an accent than there is, refusing to make a reasonable effort to comprehend, or resorting to a pretense because they are too sophisticated to be blatant in expressing prejudice. 

Yet Asian American parents are not encouraging of their children emphasizing verbal disciplines, preferring STEM fields, and they are not enthusiastic about youngsters who express themselves freely. Non-Asian American supervisors still say they thought that Asian Americans were not interested in being put in charge. I’m willing, at least in part, to credit their sincerity, since Asian Americans are not always clear.

The world around is changing. But the trends are neither automatic nor accidental. They are the result of our own actions. For Asian Americans, that means we must do more for ourselves.

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