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It’s Asian American Heritage Month — Let’s Debunk Some Myths


The month of May is nationally recognized in the US as Asian American Heritage month. It’s a great opportunity to make an effort to learn about and appreciate the ways Asian Americans have made contributions to American history and culture.

Given the current state of things, it’s also a good time to reflect on ways we can help reduce bias, overcome stereotypes and fight racism against AAPI community members.

When I was young, I internalized stories from my parents and grandparents who endured discrimination after coming to this country in the 1950s and 60s. Stories of living at the bottom of the economic ladder, in unsanitary conditions, doing work few others would if they had a choice. People would throw rocks at them, call them names on the way to school or work, and more.

After learning English, getting degrees (thank you dedicated teachers and public education) and learning to assimilate and contribute to society, they continued to experience a range of racism — from exclusion and stereotyping, to being denied jobs and from buying a home due to their race.

I assumed those old stories of discrimination and inequity would be much improved by now. Just like I expected the world would have made progress for women (and Black and Brown people, disabled, trans folks…) by the time I became an adult. Sadly, not so much.

It has been a tough few years for the AAPI community. My parents are now in their 80s, and it’s painful to know in recent years they and their friends have experienced physical threats just going for a walk in front of their own house. This is not an overdramatization. There is much more we can, and should do, to provide a safe and more inclusive environment.

It’s not comfortable to think about, so non-AAPI friends may not understand the extent to which anti-Asian American sentiment and hate crimes targeting AAPIs have escalated in recent years. A recent Columbia University study cited in the past year three out of four Chinese Americans experienced discrimination, and one in five had been called a racial slur or been harrassed. Non-profit The Asian American Foundation (TAAF) noted in a recent study that 1 in 2 Asian Americans feel unsafe in the US. And AAPI people, especially young women, are least likely of all racial groups to feel belonging and acceptance here, due to discrimination and lack of representation.

In addition — there’s a real professional barrier often referred to as the “Bamboo Ceiling”.

Despite stereotypes or conventional wisdom, the reality is AAPIs have quantifiably not achieved professional success or representation relative to other racial categories — in tech, government, law, banking, accounting, and most professional fields. Asian Americans are the fastest growing segment of the US population, but they are least likely to be promoted into management than any other racial demographic. They represent 16% of the professional workforce, but only 2% of CEOs. In Silicon Valley, Asian Americans make up almost half (47%) of entry-level non-managerial employees, but are half as likely as white counterparts to advance to executive-level positions.

While it’s still AAPI Heritage month, let’s reflect for a few minutes on what we can do to better understand and support Asian Americans now, and all the months of the year:

Let’s reduce implicit bias and stereotyping about AAPIs.

Convenient thinking of AAPIs as a “model minority” are counter to reality, and drive hurtful bias and discrimination. Racial stereotyping unfairly mischaracterizes AAPIs — whether it involves assuming they are inherently good at math, don’t need support or feedback, presuming they are diligent workers but incapable leaders, labeling them as “overachievers”, or presupposing them as unemotional or extra resilient — substitute in whatever stereotype comes to mind for “Asian American”. You might think these stereotypes are flattering — but in truth, they impede success and are unfair to many.

Flawed racial stereotyping, and the model minority myth create an overly reductive view. It is essential to challenge and debunk these stereotypes to truly understand the diverse identities of AAPI folks, and their individual contexts, efforts, ingenuity, and accomplishments. Don’t be fooled — Asian Americans come from a diversity of economic, educational and cultural backgrounds.

If someone assumes one of these stereotypes in a meeting or performance review — take the opportunity to diplomatically call them in (discuss privately) or call them out (in the group) to help change behaviors.

Let’s increase representation and support networks.

Representation matters. As they say, it’s hard to be what we can’t see. Asian American leaders are quantitatively underrepresented both in business, government, and media narratives. When individuals lack representative leadership, role models, sponsorship, mentors, and peer networks it becomes harder to envision, pursue, and excel.

We have made progress to add important “firsts” of AAPI descent. Organizations like Gold House and TAAF have been working hard to pull together the diverse AAPI community and to increase representation. And big hoorays for barrier breakers like Kamala Harris, the first US VP of AAPI descent; Janet Yang, the first AAPI head of the Motion Picture Academy; first AAPI Oscar winners like Michelle Yeoh; Shang-Chi, the first AAPI-led Marvel film; many firsts at the Olympics; and folks like Eric Yuan, Jensen Huang, Lisa Su, Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai, leading companies critically important to our economy.

If we hear more nuanced AAPI stories and push for stronger AAPI representation at all levels, hopefully we’ll chip away at stereotyping, and Anti-Asian hate.

If you’re a leader and manager, look at your AAPI representation at every level of your organization — on your board of directors, your executive team, and your managers. It’s also important to measure company culture — do folks of all backgrounds, including AAPIs, feel they have equal opportunity to thrive in your organization? Chances are AAPIs are behind in representation, support and cultural inclusion — and that’s an opportunity for improvement.

Let’s understand that the AAPI designation encompasses a wide range of diversity.

Asian Americans represent over 50 ethnic groups and 100 languages, 48 countries, and many different backgrounds, cultures, economic conditions and intersecting identities. We’re often grouped into a monolithic category for simplicity — and typically this category is people of East Asian descent.

Among the AAPI community, there is an extremely wide wage gap and economic outcomes. Despite declines for all other racial groups, poverty rates for some AAPI ethnicities are on the rise. Pay inequity hampers financial stability and perpetuates systemic inequity in the workplace — and this is fixable when leaders perform regular pay gap analysis. It’s important for us to collect better data on the AAPI community and to support programs that recognize the diversity of experiences. Let’s not lump AAPIs into a monolithic idea.

AAPIs have been in America since the early 1800s. AAPI workers helped build our railroads and farmlands, fought in the Civil War, led the charge in labor movements of the 50s and 60s, and were instrumental in the Civil Rights movements of the 60s and 70s.

On the waning days of Asian American heritage month, sending gratitude to the many AAPI folks who have made enormous contributions to our nation — especially those whose stories have gone untold.

Thanks for reading. And thank you to the awesome Allegra Simon for helping pull this together. Looking forward to a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable future, and hopefully more to celebrate in next year’s Asian American Heritage Month!

Some links for more reading:

Asian American Workers: Diverse Outcomes and Hidden Challenges

The US Values Asian Work more than Asian Lives

When to Call Someone In or Call Them Out Over Racist Behavior

Gold House

The Asian American Foundation (TAAF)

StoryCorps Celebrating AAPI Voices