Saturday, March 9, 2013

Seven Things.....

...That Hurt Our Feelings.

I came upon this article at a site called Diversity Inc., via the 8Asians blog, that relates seven things people (non-Asians presumably) should never say to Asian executives - although I think Asians in any field or position of employment would be equally troubled by them. There are a couple things about the article (and 8Asians blogpost) that are of interest, and illustrate how I believe - and have written about in several posts - the way that Asian-Americans engage in race dialogue ultimately misses the point when it comes to commentary on anti-Asian prejudice.

The first point of interest is how "offensiveness", once again, defines and characterizes the way that we talk about our experiences of racism. According to the 8Asians post, the Diversity Inc. article shows why these questions are potentially offensive, and although the article itself makes brief mention of how expression of these stereotypes could reveal underlying discrimination, it doesn't really explore this notion in the ensuing article. As I've written about in several places, our tendency to react and respond to racism by being offended misses the point of how stereotypes can affect us. On a side note, I would conjecture that this type of Asian-American commentary has a feminine character possibly due to the fact that it is Asian female perspective that has come to dominate the Asian-American narrative, and it is the feminine voice that has modeled our commentary on race.

If racism is simply "offensive" to us, then we really have no cause or reason to organize against it because the fundamental solution to being offended about something is to grow a thicker skin. In turn, this means that the cultural and social structures that promote and propagate racist attitudes towards Asians have no real reason to change because the problem is our feelings. Racist attitudes against Asians in the media, culture, and politics, all point to a culture of casual racism that is comfortably low-key, yet often potentially casually life threatening or violent. Continuing to present our experiences of casual racism, or racial insensitivity, as a mere affront to our emotions is inappropriate and to continue to think of and explore anti-Asian racism through this filter offers only intellectual stagnation.

I won't go into each question in detail, but here is a list of the questions (copy pasted directly from the 8Asians post).
  • "You must be the IT person.".  
  • “You aren’t like them” or “You don’t act very Asian.” 
  • “Asian Americans are not risk takers.” 
  • “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” or “When are you going to go  home?” or “How often do you go home?” 
  • “Oh, you speak English good!” or “Do you speak your language?” 
  • “You’re not a minority because all Asians are rich and successful.” 
  • “You’re not Asian, you’re from India.”
Here's rub; in and of themselves, most of these questions are not even all that offensive - granted that could be my subjective opinion, but I think that if we are really honest with ourselves we would admit that most of these questions have no real profoundly offensive quality - although we would have cause for concern. Yes, when we are asked these questions we can justifiably roll our eyes, and sigh to ourselves that we may be dealing with another individual who may be honestly ignorant, or just plain rude, but to become offended is, in some ways, accepting loss of control over yourself. These questions are, however, problematic because they hint at a profound, casual, and even a dangerously oblivious, discrimination.

In reality, far from merely causing offence, these questions reveal some deep-rooted beliefs that mainstream America takes as axioms which may indicate that Asians are being casually (but profoundly) discriminated against because of socially acceptable stereotypes derived from racist attitudes. In short, if you encounter people in your place of work who make remarks like these - particularly those in supervisory positions - then you probably have good cause to think that the people who believe these stereotypes may also be limiting your opportunities. So, don't become offended - that is just inappropriate, and diminishes the potential severity of the issue.

The second, and more significant, point of interest about the article is its brief allusion to management and leadership qualities. This is what the article says.....
Not only are they (Asians) stereotyped as not leadership material, but their cultural norms are interpreted by U.S. born executives as proving the stereotype.....“In America, the leadership skill is defined by how confrontational, direct and aggressive you are,”
I just don't agree that aggressiveness, or being confrontational, are as significantly valued leadership qualities in the West as this quote would seem to suggest. Unless you are in a martial profession, or sports, or any line of work that specifically requires aggressiveness, then aggression and confrontation, just don't go down too well with co-workers or underlings alike. In fact, if you are in a service profession, then these qualities definitely put you at a disadvantage as a leader if you are in the business of keeping customers happy. Leadership requires far more than testosterone for it to be considered successful and this idea that aggression and confrontation are highly valued is little more than a red-herring. Yet, it seems to me that in an extremely ironic twist, some Asian-Americans seem to have a caricatured, stereotyped, notion of  leadership as it is practiced and conceived of in western cultures.

My experiences in the workplace leave me skeptical about claims that non-Asians ( i.e. white dudes - let's be honest) have some kind of superior aptitude for leadership. Most of the white dudes that I've worked with have actually been poor leaders who attained their position through kissing the right superiors' butts, and shitting on their co-workers at opportune moments. Asians forget that massaging the right peoples' egos gets you noticed more than actually possessing leadership qualities. Of course, once in a leadership position the facade often falls away and any shortcomings are quickly and painfully revealed.

Some might say that this simply shows that white dudes are better at maneuvering themselves into leadership positions - supporting the idea that culturally they are better suited to leadership. The problem here is that having the skills to manipulate yourself into a leadership position doesn't equate to having aptitude for leadership once you are there. And let's be honest; the path to consideration for leadership for a white dude is significantly smoother than for other demographics - neutral or positive presumptions and such.

Unless a white dude has an arm growing out the side of his head, it is safe to assume that he will be more readily accepted without too much questioning - there are few (if any) negative race specific preconceived stereotypes about white males and so it is likely that face value goes further. So the system fosters ease of integration into leadership circles. Asian-Americans also overlook the fact that American culture is as much about bluster as it is about substance. Only seeming to have the talent and drive to achieve fame, wealth, or positions of leadership, is what most of us mistake for good leadership skills when, in fact, the bluster is most often greater than the substance. This is almost like the American version of the "Asian" phenomenon of "face-saving".

This isn't to say that there are no good white leaders - that would be absurd - I'm simply saying that we tend to mythicize leadership qualities instill by American culture to such a degree that we lose all perspective second-guessing our own abilities. The real question is; do Asian cultures produce individuals who lack aptitude, or is America's cultural antagonism towards Asians conditioning Asian-Americans to believe that they have no inherent leadership qualities?

According to the "general consensus" - to which many Asian-Americans themselves adhere - Asian cultures instill compliance and deference to authority. Asians are, thus, followers, and not leaders. Given this axiom, we should expect to find few, or no, examples of rebellions, or uprisings, in Asian histories - compliant people don't revolt because they are, well, compliant. Yet, Asian history is full of rebellions and uprisings against unpopular or unjust rulers and officials. Even more tellingly, further evidence that Asian compliance is a myth can be seen in the often volatile relationship between Asian societies and their governments.

It is often said that Asian compliance manifests as a lack of active engagement in politics. Yet, history and the news - for those who notice - provides ample evidence to the contrary. Asians engage with their government through protest all the time - that is, they are extremely outspoken in challenging authorities in their own societies. Even in China - I say "even" because China actively suppresses dissent on top of being, supposedly, a culture of compliance - I am always reading about some protest somewhere in which average Chinese citizens are risking their lives to express their dissatisfaction with government. All over Asia you might notice that Asians routinely stage protests against their own leaders - even in countries where they might face death for doing so. Does this sound like compliance? No, it actually sounds like a culture of non-compliance. When you start to notice these things it becomes increasingly difficult to not believe that the "Asians are inherently compliant" type explanations are little more than cheap throw-away justifications for discrimination.

I think, therefore, that it is more likely that Asian-Americans do not make it into leadership positions because American culture has conditioned many of them to believe that they are unsuited to it, has conditioned mainstream America to think of Asians predominantly in demeaning ways, and thus, devalues any authority or leadership qualities that some of us may possess. My sense is that mainstream America is so conditioned to think of Asians derogatorily that this perspective overcomes their ability to objectively assess leadership qualities of Asian-Americans. The result is that because of such profound conditioning, both mainstream America and Asian-Americans themselves believe Asians to be less suitable for authority even though evidence to the contrary may be staring them in the face.  What this suggests is that if culture does play a role in shaping leadership qualities then for Asian-Americans it is American culture as much as anything else that provides the impediments to Asian-American leadership potential.

In summary, I would say that Asian-Americans are doing themselves a disservice by seeming to mythicize leadership in such an unrealistic way. The reality is that the entire culture of America is set up to ensure that white males succeed and that the door never closes on them the way it does on others. This is not to dismiss the idea that there may be some cultural conditions affecting smooth integration of Asians, but I believe that we, and mainstream America, are exaggerating the degree to which this may be the case. By doing this we are enabling the justification of discrimination.

I will finish by saying that cultivating a state of mind that responds to racial insensitivity, or discrimination, with offence is, funnily enough, not a quality becoming of a leader. The reason is, that being offended draws a line in the sand but offers no solutions. A leader,on the other hand, will assess the situation at hand, identify the ramifications of it, and find ways to get passed it, go around it, or overcome it. Being offended has no place in the fight against discrimination or in the skill-set of strong-minded leaders. It is also fundamentally a feminine stance that has no meaningful place in the dialogue and that also happens to offer little by way of solution.


  1. "It is also fundamentally a feminine stance that has no meaningful place in the dialogue and that also happens to offer little by way of solution."

    And by "feminine" you mean being a leader? I would feel that being "feminine" in a racist situation would be what you described: "assess the situation and adapt a more considerate position rather than a blunt and harsh position.

    This is a very interesting topic - I won't get into details (too long of a list) but it does have something to do with us (Asian American males) growing up in a high context culture household going up against a low context society.

    As for cultivating a certain state of mind, being a general asshole is a start. It's not the best I know, but one has to start somewhere.


    1. What would you suggest would be a best course of action when faced with racism, dragonrider?

    2. Hi Drew

      I think that in my view taking offence is a passive, feminine response. Even worse it fosters "gut reaction" type responses to racism which I believe is counter-productive.

      This doesn't mean that we should not confront racism in the moment - on the contrary I think we are obliged to - but doing so in a way that focuses on our feelings would seem to me to detract attention away from the actual racism itself.

      For example, in the posts I linked to, the focus is largely on being offended with much less attention given to how this kind of petty, seemingly innocuous racially inflected questioning is likely to reflect a company culture of discrimination. This is self-defeating and it may even suggest that we are developing a culture of avoidance.

      Even some of those who were quoted in the Diversity piece used language that focuses on their emotional response - they report being "frustrated" or "shocked" - few (if any?) are quoted as saying that they understand that these questions are likely to reflect discrimination in their workplace.

      And I actually agree that being an asshole is a useful state of mind to cultivate - but even that cannot happen if we become focused on hurt feelings!

      I'm interested in what you had to say about high context/low context households - I'm not familiar with those terms.

    3. Jimmy - I don't have a best course of action, I have MY best course of action.

      Ben - Which posts? Did you mean the "7 things not to say?" As for responses; I don't work in the corporate world (not yet, I want to). But what I'm working in something that is more casual - situations that are more "casual" where one isn't bound by rules of the office, etc. I believe that, if someone succeeds in that realm, "skills" achieved there will translate very well when say, a white co-worker would say something weird.

      Both of you - I'll go ahead and write up a post regarding my three recent incidents of racism. Nothing violent, but definitely mind boggling. Remember, I've never had to face racism directly until just this past yet. It'll be titled according so you'll know it when you see it.

    4. Drew

      Sorry, yes I meant the Diversity post and to a lesser extent, the 8Asians post.

      I also want to clarify that I' not saying that an emotional response is feminine - I'm saying that the way we have come to discuss anti-Asian racism is emotional and feminine. Focusing on our emotional responses allows the bigger picture of prejudice to become secondary, when it should be the focus.

      Another way of looking at it would be to view race commentary as a role-model - just like a role model in the movies. We want to see role-models modeling behaviours that tell our stories genuinely. Likewise, we want to see race commentary modeling a way of discussing our experiences that goes beyond the emotional reactions, and widens its scope so that the main focus is to highlight the ways that America's culture of anti-Asian hostility manifests as discrimination in our daily lives.

      Naturally, in real life it is hard not to feel offence at things like these, but even then, being in a state of emotional reaction - I think - puts people at a disadvantage.

  2. A great read! What do you think would be the best cause of action when discriminated against? Have you been placed in this situation before? How did you overcome it?

    1. Jimmy

      Welcome and thanks for your comment.

      I have to admit that I have never actually experienced racism in this way before. I tend to be competitive and naturally bossy. I also have a very thick skin and I have a strong British accent - so Americans never really knew what to do with me.

      I have attained supervisory roles in just about every job I've had, and have done so because of my inclination to be competitive and bossy - I tend to boss people around even though it may not have been my actual job to do that.

      So I think that the answer to your question is to become bossy, confident, and competitive, such that these kinds of questions become self-evidently ridiculous and discrimination becomes transparent.

  3. without a together people you cant have leaders. every now and again i see ' hey guys the face of asian this gonna change' or 'this time its different' being spouted by the latest asian american fad or trend. only to find out its just self promoting BS.

    to get a together people you need to promote interactivity and dialogue. the only interactivity and dialogue we get is commenting on blogs anonymously and playing white mans politics.

    asian togetherness is too superficial. because asian wants and needs are superficial. to change that you need to change a complete value system. and like i said, thats not gonna happen because asians are too superficial.