WHEN ANTI-ASIAN RACISM FEELS INVISIBLE

You may not see it. Your day-to-day interactions may not put you in situations where you are exposed to anti-Asian sentiment. You may not recognize it even when you do see it. But it is very real. The aggressions, micro and macro, are real. The harassment is real. The violence is real. The hate crimes are real. The history of systemic and institutional racism is real. Racism is real.

I have personally experienced it on many occasions – so please don’t tell me it’s not real – it IS.

Stop AAPI Hate reports 3,795 racially motivated attacks against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) from March 2020 to February 2021. This number is largely believed to be underreported, attributed in large part to language barriers, lack of trust in the police, and cultural tendencies within the AAPI Community to stay silent. 

In February 2021, physical attacks on elderly Asian Americans increased, and even as these assaults resulted in deaths, the mainstream media remained largely silent. Then came the shootings of March 16th, 2021 that resulted in the deaths of eight people including six Asian American women. 

As a multi-racial and multi-cultural individual, navigating who I show up as in the workplace and the world has never been straightforward. Since the emergence of COVID-19, President Trump’s coinage of the terms "China virus" and "Wuhan flu" permeated the media, and the increasing wave of anti-Asian racism, it has been impossible to not show up as half-Korean--as Asian. While the mainstream media’s silence is deafening, the option to remain invisible no longer exists.  

For every person who says they do not see my race when they look at me, there is another who sees nothing but race. Even as aggressive behavior is on the rise, a disbelief pervades among others that this is a real problem.  

I have been told to "go home," while pumping gas. I have heard strangers scream hateful slurs at Asians in San Francisco. I have been in fear while I walk with my Korean mother in public. On the night after the March 16th shootings in Atlanta, I sat in an online Clubhouse room of 3,500 others gathered in response to the tragic events, and it became clear that this was not a feeling limited to me.  

When an attack is happening against a race, a community, an ethnicity--the individuals impacted may all be affected differently. However, there are always steps that can be taken to create an environment of increased safety and comfort for those impacted.  

What can organizations do to better understand and respond to the issue of anti-Asian racism?  

Educate

Understanding the history and dynamics of anti-Asian racism is critical to creating a space of understanding around current events. America has a long tradition of scapegoating Asian Americans, and the anti-Asian sentiment that currently exists is nothing new. 

Starting from the way Chinese laborers were treated during the California Gold Rush where harsh treatment, targeted taxation, and racially motivated violence were the norm to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882--this legislation barred immigration to Chinese emigrants and denied citizenship to naturalized Chinese. The internment of Japanese Americans in the U.S. in 1942, when property and personal rights were seized with no regard for civil rights or due process remains a shameful legacy. Nearly half of the $1 billion-worth of property damaged in the 1992 LA riots was to Korean-owned businesses. 

The recent coinage of the term "China virus" attributing the blame for a global pandemic to a single nation and the many Federal Acts, court cases, riots, and waves of violence in between are all part of the ongoing deluge of violence and other-ism aimed at the Asian American community. This is America, where Asian Americans have continually been targeted and victimized with little acknowledgement or media coverage of the atrocities.  

Even today, violence against those of Asian descent, particularly among women and the elderly has gone widely uncovered by media until the March 16, 2021 shooting.  

Taking a proactive approach on education about the history of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia is the first step toward building a culture of understanding.  

Recognize 

The term model minority was coined by the New York Times in 1966. The media myth perpetuated a story of Asian Americans being quiet, hard-working, respectful, and high-earning. As the model minority trope grew, so did invisibility around racism that Asian Americans faced in the workplace and beyond. The model minority construct also created the illusion that due to the economic advancement of some individuals, racism cannot be experienced by AAPIs as a whole.  

Michelle Kim, CEO of the diversity training program Awaken, notes, “Part of the myth is that we stay quiet, we’re apolitical, that issues we’re experiencing are not valid or are not attached to our race. There’s a continual investment in upholding this myth, and we need to question who benefits from it, because it’s not us or other marginalized people.” 

Racism may be present in outward aggression and hostility, masked in jokes, intersected into the fetishizing of Asian women, or simply hidden in the denial of racism. Attacks on Asian Americans can take many forms: Verbal harassment, deliberate avoidance, physical violence, civil rights violations, and online harassment. What may be shocking is that according to data from Stop APPI Hate, businesses are the primary site of discrimination, where 35% of hate incidents are logged.  

As your organization tackles an assessment of your current state, i4cp has put together a suite of tools to help. Our bias audit checklists and DEI Idea Book provide actionable steps to measure bias and begin conversations.  

Stepping Up 

As an organization, take advantage of this opportunity to take a clear stance against anti-Asian racism. i4cp's CEO, Kevin Oakes, joined CEOs in the pledge against racism set from the Asian American Business Development Center, U.S. Black Chambers and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.  

Other examples of corporations that have made statements against anti-Asian racism are:

What can you do? Stay aware of current events and note when moments of impact have happened. Leaders can use their privilege to acknowledge what is happening and to create space for individuals to share their stories and experiences. Co-workers can check-in on colleagues, offer assistance on projects, and be flexible with meetings and deadlines when possible. The i4cp DEI Idea Book contains additional resources and research insights on the best and next practices of high-performance organizations that will advance diversity initiatives and drive talent and business outcomes.  

Racism is not a binary story of black and white. Racism is not a virus limited to the AAPI community. It carries over across color, race, culture, and nation of origin. Just today, in Olympia, Washington, I drove past a confederate flag, and was again reminded of how pervasive racism is. I cannot prescribe a cure for racism, but I can ask that we all continue to educate ourselves and come to the workplace with a better understanding of the complex dynamics of being non-white in America.  

Nina Holtsberry is the Membership Program Manager at i4cp, and of mixed Korean, German American, and Native American descent. Nina has a background as an attorney and more than 15 years of volunteer experience in human rights work.