Not Everyone Wants to Return to Normal
Jun 24, 2021
By: Minh Hua
As more people receive vaccinations and workplaces start to reopen, the unsaid assumption is that everyone wants to get back to normal as quickly as possible.
“Success with one movement searching for inclusion, equity, and belonging creates progress for the others. An organization that can create the right environment for people to thrive has a competitive advantage in the talent market.”
Not true. Great conversations are happening about a new normal with consumer habits and remote work, but noticeably absent is a conversation about a better normal around how we relate to each other. The myriad social movements happening today have major implications for the world of work, and that’s a conversation members of American Management Association should be having. As we think about the future of work and post-pandemic normalcy, keep in mind that not everyone wants to go back to the way it was.
WORKPLACE IMPLICATIONS AMID SOCIAL MOVEMENTS
“F--- Racism” read a cardboard sign made from a ubiquitous Amazon box. “Stop Violence Against Women!” another sign exclaimed. An assortment of banners and signage dotted the landscape at a Stop Asian Hate rally in Seattle. A little boy, maybe seven years old, held one that read, “Not Invisible.”
The pandemic has revealed long-standing prejudices against Asians. Phrases like the “China virus” and “kung flu” have become beacons of hate. In 2020, the number of anti-Asian hate crimes reported to the police increased 149%, while all other hate crimes dropped by 7%. Some have pointed out the percentage increase is off a low base, implying it’s not that big of a deal. The criticism is logical, but it lacks understanding. In statistics, two diverging lines mean something is going on. In sociology, bad behavior growing exponentially represents an emerging threat that can get out of control—unless we bend the trajectory.
Through neuroscience, we know the average person is bombarded with 34 gigabytes of information each day. Hence, an event with shock value is needed to capture the collective attention of society. The Harvey Weinstein disgrace and the George Floyd murder brought muchneeded media attention to the Me Too and the Black Lives Matter movements. That’s what the Atlanta shooting did for Stop Asian Hate. With all three movements, the event that drove worldwide media attention was tragic, but not the whole story. The rest of the story is about diversifying the image of good that our children see; it’s about fighting racism, misogyny, and xenophobia; it’s about supporting socioeconomic mobility for all; and it’s about feeling safe.
There are many intersections among the various movements happening in our society today. Success with one movement searching for inclusion, equity, and belonging creates progress for the others. An organization that can create the right environment for people to thrive has a competitive advantage in the talent market. In this article, I focus on the Asian experience because I have lived it and because it’s one of the least understood.
WHY SHOULD BUSINESS LEADERS CARE?
Business leaders should care because it matters to their customers and workforce. There are 7.9 billion people on our planet. Sixty percent of the world’s population lives on a continent called Asia. Over a hundred million people of Asian heritage live outside of Asia. The data is clear for global companies: Asians are the largest pool of customers and talent in the world.
In the United States, the numbers are just as clear if not blunt. According to the 2019 Census, people of color make up 40% of the population. Asians made up 5.6% of the population and grew 81% between 2000 and 2019. According to a February 2021 report by CNN that quoted a Nielsen study, the collective buying power of the Asian community was on track to reach $1.2 trillion by 2022 before COVID-19 hit these shores, at a growth rate of 314%. A May 7, 2020 report by the Pew Research Center states that Asians are the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S. electorate. Exponential growth is worth paying attention to.
Business leaders should also care because the geopolitical landscape is changing. China will become the world’s largest economy by 2028 and is already publicly challenging U.S. leadership on the world stage. Discerning the actions and rhetoric of the “government of China” from the “Chinese people” will be important in fighting hate. The Global Trends 2040 report, produced by the Strategic Futures Group of the National Intelligence Council, predicts “a more contested world” and describes an emerging dynamic of “disillusioned, informed and divided” societies. Tension across and within communities will continue to grow. An organization with a strong culture of inclusion and belonging will be best positioned to navigate the coming turbulence.
Ultimately, business leaders should care because of their north star. It just so happens that caring and taking proactive actions now make a whole lot of business sense.
WHAT SHOULD YOU KNOW ABOUT THE ASIAN EXPERIENCE?
Start by reading about the “model minority myth” that perpetuates the view of Asians as successful, docile, and without needs deserving societal concern. The result of this myth is a group of people who suffer from prejudice and then suffer again when left out of the conversation on diversity, equity, and inclusion. For instance, a 2020 study by the Ascend Foundation found Asians to be “the only racial group to have a professional workforce representation that roughly doubles their representation in the underlying population.” That sounds great until you look at the details: “Asians and Blacks are the least likely to be executives,” concluded the same study.
“Women have a glass ceiling; Asians face a bamboo ceiling. It’s there clearly in the data,” said Jane Hyun, author of the groundbreaking book Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians (Harper Business, 2006). “Asian women have to deal with both.”
Meanwhile, the Harvard Business Review reported a 19-page diversity and inclusion report from a prominent Silicon Valley company that “never specifically [addresses] Asian Americans.” In a moment of poetic irony, the company’s chief diversity and inclusion officer stated, “If you do not intentionally include, you will unintentionally exclude.”
Some critics have cited numbers showing Asians as overrepresented in the workforce, implying Asians are not systemically marginalized. The numeric reference is correct but lacks empathy. “Income inequality in the U.S. is rising most rapidly among Asians,” said a Pew Research Center report. An oft-cited poll from Harvard School of Public Health reported 37% of Asians had experienced serious financial problems during the pandemic, compared with 72% of Latinos and 60% of Blacks. The headline statistic suggests Asians are doing well until one gets into the details: The survey was conducted by phone in English or Spanish, missing the poorest parts of the Asian community.
TIME TO ADDRESS MICROAGGRESSIONS
Recognize that the broader point of the movement isn’t just about pandemic-related violence. The movement is about giving voice to a group of people, and it’s about a desire to belong. The message that should be heard is that Asians suffer from inequity, Asians suffer from microaggressions, and Asians are tired of being taken for granted. The suffering did not begin in 2020.
The term “microaggression” was coined in 1970 by Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce to describe the indignities that occur through brief, ordinary exchanges. Microaggressions do not have to be intentional or ill-willed to give off the signal that you are different, and not in a better way.
Of special note is the intersection of race and gender. “My dad gets verbally harassed, but my mom gets fetishized,” said Chloe Kim in an ESPN interview. Kim is the youngest woman ever to win an Olympic Gold Medal. “When I’m out with my mom, she gets catcalled. Even as a kid, I got nasty messages from grown men who were fetishizing me.” Formal data on the intersection of race and gender are still emerging—but the anecdotes from Asian women, Black women, and Latinx women are alarming.
A final point on the Asian experience: It is not homogeneous. There are more than 48 countries and 2,300 languages from which Asian heritage is derived. What creates the Asian community is a set of attitudes and behaviors directed toward them. People who live in Asia don’t often think of themselves as Asians until they leave the continent, much like Europeans think of themselves as French or Italian or Swedish until they leave the continent.
WHAT CAN BUSINESS LEADERS DO TODAY?
First, go discover for yourself. The discovery journey starts with being self-aware of your biases. We all have them. Do a web search for articles and videos created by Asians about Asians to build your knowledge base. If you are an executive, hold listening sessions with your colleagues. If you don’t have access to listening sessions, search #StopAsianHate on LinkedIn and join one of the many online meetings. Your discovery journey will take you to a place where you can authentically acknowledge the lived experiences and trauma that are carried in and out of the workplace.
Don’t limit your discovery to the workplace. Ask your Asian friends about their perspective. With a bit of luck, you’ll find yourself in an eye-opening, raw conversation. Maybe land an invite to an Asian home for dinner. If you find yourself being served chicken butter masala or General Tsao’s chicken, know that your host is seriously over-accommodating you.
Second, show you care. Pronouncing someone’s name is a good start and as basic as it gets when it comes to identity and dignity. If you are not sure how to pronounce someone’s name, that’s understandable. Show a little humility upfront and let the person know you want to learn.
Check in with your colleagues to connect on a more personal level. “How are you” is overused and has lost much of its rapport-building power. A better approach is to share something about yourself and let conversational reciprocity flow. If you are a people leader, create time for all your team members to practice self-care, and be sure to load-balance work. Avoid the temptation to assume your Asian employee is robotic: hardworking, without a life, grateful to be there.
Third, practice inclusion. Exercise your influence to broaden the definition of what leadership looks and sounds like at your company. A 2014 study by Seval Gündemir et al. found an implicit pro-White leadership bias. Both White and minority participants reacted faster when White names and leadership traits were paired (compared to ethnic names and leadership traits). If one’s mental image of a leader is White, it has implications for how leadership is thought about, discussed, and selected.
In a bit of good news, Gündemir et al. noted that “leadership bias can be weakened when situational cues increase the salience of a dual identity.” Situational cues can range from speaking up about the importance of diversity, providing unconscious bias training, and having a diverse set of leaders and role models in a company.
Your company probably has a diversity plan—advocate to have it include all impacted or marginalized communities. Advocate for it to go beyond diversity (who is in the room) and encompass inclusion (behaviors), equity (fairness), and belonging (emotional outcome). According to Hyun, “How are you measuring the success of your diversity initiatives? Does it include the needs and perspectives of the Asian experience? If not, your diversity plans are leaving a lot of people out.”
It’s important to note that the wrong takeaway is to try to stack rank communities—which group feels more pain, which needs more help, which is more important. Those are false choices. Diversity plans and metrics should include all marginalized and underrepresented groups.
IN THE FINAL ANALYSIS, WE ARE STRONGER TOGETHER
My daily walk takes me from Lenora Street to South Lake Union, Seattle. It’s such a well-worn path that some of the homeless in the community started to recognize me. One sent me his resume. During the height of pandemic fear, almost everyone I encountered crossed the street while approaching or created a lot of distance between them and me. The thought of whether my Asian face influenced some of the separations crossed my mind, but I couldn’t make that conclusion. Once, while standing at a crosswalk waiting for the pedestrian signal, I sneezed in my mask and two people—standing about ten feet away—looked horrified. Again, I could not make any conclusions.
One day in late 2020, a stranger yelled at me, encroached into my personal space, and threatened to hurt me physically. His angry rant cited kung flu and Bruce Lee. That was Asian hate.
Years ago, while living in a large city on the East Coast, I was told twice: “Go back to your country.” The first time I was in my car and the person didn’t like my driving. The second time, I was standing at a crosswalk when a van full of police officers drove by, and one yelled, “Go back to your country!” The fact that he was comfortable enough to do that, not in secret, but in daylight and among his fellow officers, taught me something that would later help me better understand why Black Lives Matter is an important thing to say. In retrospect, the fact that it never occurred to me to complain or file a police report—until someone who read a draft of this article asked—told me something about how not abnormal that was in my own lived experience.
My cousin is a police officer just outside of Atlanta. I believe the vast majority of police officers are honorable public servants. I wish I knew the name of that officer who wanted me to leave my country. I would invite him to my mother’s home for dinner—she makes a heartwarming bowl of phó. We could eat together and laugh together.
Marginalized groups—such as the Abilities, Asian, Black, Latinx, LGBTQ , Women, and the intersectional communities—cannot create sustained change without each other’s support. “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of Color remains chained,” said Audre Lorde, a self-described Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, and poet.
Fighting racism, misogyny, and xenophobia cannot be achieved without allies. “We stand with our neighbors” read a sign at the Stop Asian Hate rally in Seattle. That sign was held by a White woman, accompanied by her White husband and their two kids.
The United States is an amazing country. Planet Earth is a miracle. We are stronger together.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Minh Hua is chief talent officer at Stanley Black & Decker, where he leads the company’s full talent lifecycle including talent acquisition, employee experience, lifelong learning, people analytics, executive development, succession planning, and board engagement. In this role, he is charged with helping the company drive business growth with people and technology at the center.