Credit: Daniel Lee

“I would only hire Asians if I could,” a professor once told me. “You all are so hard-working.”

She meant it as a compliment.

Her words came back to me last week, as Asians were the victims of two mass shootings in California: at a dance studio in Monterey Park and at two farms a mile apart in Half Moon Bay. In both cases, the suspects are older Asian men.

The attacks come during an existential moment for Asian communities—and an America historically conflicted over our presence. The initial December 2019 reports of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, unleashed a spate of hate crimes in the US. Between 2020 and 2021, anti-Asian violence rose by 339%, according to California State University Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. The passage of time has not helped much; more Americans now blame Asian Americans for Covid than at the height of the pandemic in 2020.

And the perception affects Asians at work, both in day-to-day treatment and prospects for ascension. A study from the global think tank Coqual finds one in three Asian and Asian American professionals have experienced racial prejudice, and Asians report facing microaggressions at higher rates than other races.

That Asians are struggling mightily in the workplace might surprise well-meaning folks like my former professor. Except her perception of Asians being diligent and dutiful is precisely a part of the problem: To some, Asian work matters more than Asian lives.

There are so many misconceptions over the Asian experience in the US that create this image. It starts to feel conditional, as if the only place for Asians in the US is that of work, of subservience. Also dangerous is when this becomes how we see ourselves.

Arriving on US shores as guests, then neighbors.

Our history in the US, of course, is impossible to separate from labor. The first waves of Asian migrants came to toil on ships, plantations, railroads. After centuries of exclusionary and discriminatory practices, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act ushered in new faces and new reasons for arrival on US shores, jobs, education, and political freedom among them.

For much of the last century, this willingness to serve as a final destination distinguished the US’s immigration policy from that of other countries. Late 20th-century Germany, for example, had its “Gastarbeiter,” or guest worker, program for foreigners only intended to work short stints. As stays grew longer and families followed, migrants never quite shook a sense of impermanence, forming “parallel societies” that struggled to integrate into mainstream German institutions. The problematic idea of immigrants as “guests” has gained political momentum in more recent US history, particularly through the H-1B program, launched in 1990 to allow employers to hire skilled workers on temporary visas. The current wave of mass layoffs is underscoring just how fragile a place in this country can be for those employees.

Today, Asians are the nation’s fastest-growing racial or ethnic group, projected to reach 46 million by 2060. The stereotype of Asians as hard-working and studious comes with great expectations—and a steeper fall if things don’t go according to the script. And it’s hardly just external pressure. Asian immigrants’ dreams for their children are often expressed as an extension of professional ambition—“You can be anything you want, as long as it’s a doctor or lawyer”—versus what such jobs actually represent: stability, acceptance, and the achievement of the American Dream.

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Great workers, not great leaders?

Thus comes the challenge for Asians who might be seen as efficient workers but not effervescent leaders. The Coqual report says: “Pervasive stereotypes such as being seen as quiet, and hardworking outsiders affect the workplace experiences of Asian and Asian American employees.”

In my decades of hiring, I confess my efforts to diversify the workplace have focused much more on Black and Latino talent (even though, as the daughter of Indian immigrants, I am Asian American myself). Some of the recent data and managers’ characterizations force me to rethink this zero-sum game. A more inclusive approach would assess diversity gaps across all levels of an organization, across the multitude of identities of a diverse labor pool. We might differentiate between the contributions of a Chinese-American college graduate and their first-generation Cambodian counterpart. We might examine our c-suite more closely and ask why Asian female middle managers are nowhere to be found.

This mirrors what I have heard from employers on whether they regard Asians as underrepresented minorities. Genentech’s Chief Diversity Officer Quita Highsmith recently told me that while Asian talent is well represented in her company, “representation drops in senior leadership. In an equitable environment, one would expect to see similar representation of our leadership to the rest of our workforce.”

Indeed, in the Coqual report, Asian and Asian American professionals are the least likely of any racial group surveyed (29%; compared to 44% of whites, 37% of Black professionals, 39% of Latinos) to say they have role models at their company, the least likely to say they have strong networks (17%), and least likely to have a sponsor (21%). Separately yet notably, Black Americans remain the most targeted group in hate-crime reports across US cities, according to the Santa Barbara center.

Retirement is not a given.

Over and over, media reports of the California shootings called the suspects “Asian men of retirement age.”

But retirement is a privilege, often one that bypasses Asian workers both at home and abroad. If your stay in America is connected to working in America, what even is retirement? Where is home? What is your worth?

Asians might contend with a lonely existence after their work, their raison d’etre, in this country is done. Years ago, I was comparing notes with my neighbor Sucheta Sachdev, a music editor who’s spent her life toggling among the US, Canada, and India, on our new status as members of the sandwich generation. She told me something that’s stuck: For our parents, the process of aging in America can feel like immigrating all over again. “After a certain age, they become the confused generation,” she says. “They can’t go back and live there again. They don’t quite fit in here either.”

Many of the arrivals from the post-1965 generation are now hitting this state of limbo, as are the once-fortysomethings who emigrated more recently to work jobs in restaurants, from food prep to delivery, notes Yiyan Zheng, reporter for World-Journal, the largest Chinese language newspaper in the US. Based in Queens, New York, Zheng has been covering a range of issues from the rise of hate crimes to the isolation of Chinese seniors.

I asked her if the rethinking of work as identity, a sentiment which came to the fore during the pandemic, had pervaded her coverage. She quickly set me straight: “Asian communities, I think most of them don’t have the luxury to reflect on the meaning of life. They struggle with the basics of living every day.”

Redefining the value of diversity.

Some things you maybe didn’t know about being an Asian American in the pandemic: We arm our daughters with pepper spray and strict instructions to stay far away from the edge of the subway platform. We get our Covid vaccines and boosters in Chinatown clinics and travel in groups because it feels safer. We hope nobody tells our parents, uncles, or aunties to go back where they came from.

“The opposite of trauma is agency,” notes Anurima Bhargava, a civil rights lawyer. “As we are seeing this kind of trauma, what is the way to give Asians some kind of agency?”

While Asian Americans grapple with how to claim that agency—and their place in the US—they also remain bitterly divided by a series of affirmative action decisions currently before the Supreme Court. During last year’s oral arguments, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson noted that schools are “pipelines” to professional leadership. If they are not diverse, then the institutions they supply with talent also will not be diverse. Yet again, we ponder: Do Asians “count” as diversity?

“Asians need to understand what the cultural shift is and how it will affect us,” says Bhargava. “If you say your access point into higher education is high test scores, we are only looking at you in terms of your quantitative contributions—not allowing for the richer layers you bring into a space. You should be able to look at a whole range of experiences people have and value that. Their perspectives should be valued. We as a community need to be vigilant about what the narrowing of our worth does to us.”

Asians are not a monolith.

Employers (and columnists) are often guilty of largely painting Asians with one broad brush.

A recent McKinsey report cautioned against seeing Asians as a monolith, and found uneven mobility depending on country of origin: “For South Asian foreign-born noncitizens, nearly 80% of them achieve their bachelor’s degree or higher,” the report noted. “However, for Southeast Asian foreign-born noncitizens, only 34% of them did.” In New York, Asian Americans are the city’s poorest minority group.

How can we better support the entirety of what Asians represent in terms of diversity, cultural contributions, and a necessary part of the fabric of the US? Among the microaggressions we Asians encounter at work: Colleagues who tell us they just “love” the cuisine of our homelands (Indian, Thai, Chinese). Others who mention non sequiturs like their fandom of Bollywood or Bruce Lee or K-pop. For our parents’ generation, these connections were often a point of pride. Today, there’s need for more nuance and recognition of the many layers of identity.

As the debate over migration shows no sign of waning, there are ways for employers to signal their embrace of the whole immigrant, and the two-way nature of cultural exchange. Consider this LinkedIn post from Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, himself a transplant from Turkey. As he talks about his commitment to help new refugees find meaningful jobs, he reminds: “Our communities and workplaces are stronger for it!”

I noticed—and was grateful—that he mentioned our contributions to communities first.

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