March 1, 2022
We Need to Talk: America’s Ongoing Epidemic of Anti-Asian Bias
By Jenna Goodman
Growing up as a Korean American adoptee, I was often the only person who looked like me in my family, in my circle of friends, in my classes all through elementary school, and later, at most of my jobs. So, when I started working at Boston Law Collaborative in 2015, it was refreshing to join a workplace where I did look like someone else – BLC’s Audrey Lee, a Korean American mediator and trainer who has been an important mentor to me.
I was adopted at three months of age by a Caucasian family, and while my parents have always provided a supportive and loving home, I have encountered my fair share of racism, bias, and stereotyping from the outside world. As the only Asian child in elementary school, the other children would comment on the size of my nose and the slant of my eyes; as I grew older, the bullying only intensified.
It was not until high school that I had some relief when my parents moved me to a town with a much higher percentage of Asian families. I still encountered bias, including from teachers who mistook me for other Asian students who were not even in the same class. And then there were the anti-Asian jokes told by White friends. Most of the time, my reaction was either to stay silent, ignore it, or even join in laughing with the person making a joke at my expense. I never felt empowered enough to stand up for myself, especially around people I knew and, later in life, superiors in the workplace. The few times that I did speak up, I was often met with more negative, harmful responses.
Sadly, my experience is similar to so many others in this country who are considered to be “other.” As a person of color, I am certainly not alone in struggling to fit in and to feel comfortable in a work environment. I am also not alone in experiencing biased and racist comments in public and from friends and family. And, as an adult, I was saddened to learn that there are many Korean adoptees who were adopted by White parents who were unaware of their own racism and have subjected their adopted children to racist remarks, or even abuse, for years.
Discrimination against Asians in the U.S. is unlike that which is often directed at other stigmatized groups. Asians have been categorized as a “model minority” for years – a stereotype that I think I’ve “failed” at in so many ways – I was never good at math or standardized tests, I didn’t have the grades to apply to any “elite” colleges or universities, and I am not wealthy. I think this is part of the reason why so many non-Asian people in the U.S. either forget or ignore the long history of bias against Asian Americans. It’s only recently – with the onset of the pandemic, triggering harassment and violence against Asians – that there’s been more of a spotlight directed at anti-Asian bias in this country.
The concept that Asian Americans are ideal immigrants due to intellectual and economic success only began after World War II. Prior to that time, there were a number of instances showing that that most White Americans saw Asians as a foreign threat, as the U.S. implemented policies designed to exclude them. In the late 1870s, anti-Chinese legislation and violence was seen throughout the West Coast when complaints arose about Asian immigrants taking away jobs. While Chinese workers represented 20% of California’s workforce after many immigrated to the U.S. to work as miners, railroad builders, farmers, factory workers, and fishermen, Chinese workers accounted for only three-tenths of a percent of the U.S. population. Nevertheless, in the late 19th century, due to xenophobic propaganda about the uncleanliness of Chinese people, the Chinese Exclusion Act was created, barring Chinese immigrants from coming to the United States because of their race. And in 1942, President Roosevelt issued an Executive Order to incarcerate people who were suspected of being enemies of the United States. The majority of those who were sent to internment camps were Japanese Americans, including naturalized citizens and second- and third-generation Americans.
Since the Covid pandemic began, there’s been a dramatic increase in anti-Asian incidents reported, prompting the Asian American community and their supporters to speak out against the wave of attacks. More than 63% of the incidents have been reported by women, with about 31% of incidents occurring on public streets and 30% at businesses. The fear of being attacked has kept many Asian American household members home to the point where some families didn’t even have enough food during the pandemic because they were too afraid to leave the safety of their homes. Last month, an Asian woman was pushed to her death in front of a moving train in New York City. Although police do not believe it was racially motivated, the incident has disturbed the Asian American community and rallied them to organize a vigil for her and to denounce hate.
As the Black Lives Matter movement’s examination of structural racial bias has led to a focus on the American workplace, so too the Stop Asian Hate movement has turned to businesses. To uphold the stereotype of being a “model minority” and stay successful, many Asians and Asian Americans have felt like they need to be invisible – to stay quiet and undemanding. This is something that I can certainly understand because I’ve done it myself. I’ve been afraid to call attention to my “Asian-ness” because I don’t want to be seen as “other” – for example, to have someone assume that I don’t speak English or don’t belong here. I’ve spent my whole life trying to fit in, including in my workplaces.
And while there’s been a push in the business world for improved diversity and inclusion, many of the plans don’t specifically address Asians. This goes back to the “model minority” stereotype – i.e., that this is a group that need not be a focus of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts. Yet, Asians are often seen as good workers but not assertive enough to become leaders. However, with the recent wave of anti-Asian incidents, many Asian American professionals are now speaking out and asking for more visibility in the workplace.
Since working at Boston Law Collaborative and becoming more exposed to what’s going on in the country outside of my own bubble, I’ve been inspired to learn how to use my voice more and stand up for myself and others. I’ve tried to empower myself by participating in bias and microaggression trainings – some from Boston Law Collaborative Institute and some from outside sources including Hollaback!. I’m still learning how to utilize the tools I’ve been given in these programs, but I feel that equipping yourself is the first step.
We at BLC would love to begin a dialogue. Please feel free to use the “Comment” button below to share what has been helpful for you to increase your awareness of Asian bias and stereotypes, and to address often-overlooked microaggressions.