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Protocol | Workplace

Asian Americans in tech say they face ‘a unique flavor of oppression’

The large representation of Asian Americans in Silicon Valley helped bolster the "model minority" myth. Some say it's used against them.

Michelle Kim, co-founder, Awaken

"People see us as good, reliable workforces, but never quite good enough to lead," Michelle Kim said.

Photo: Andria Lo

Going unheard. Getting passed over for promotions. Stereotyped as "passive" and "diligent."

Those are common threads in the experiences of the many Asian Americans working in tech who spoke to Protocol in recent days as the #stopasianhate movement swelled into nationwide protests and action. They say the belated attention paid to violence and hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders ties into the same "model minority" myth that holds them back in the workplace.

The mass shooting last month in Atlanta that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, sent shockwaves through the country. In the Bay Area — the geographic heart of Silicon Valley — there have been a number of hate crimes targeting Asian Americans. These violent attacks have inspired rallies, donations and statements from tech companies like Microsoft, Airbnb, Google and Amazon condemning anti-Asian hate.

But anti-Asian hate and violence didn't start with the Atlanta shooting. In 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by nearly 150% over 2019, researchers found. Some say they have been bringing attention to it at least since last March, when then-President Donald Trump began referring to COVID-19 as the "China virus" and "Kung flu."

Diversity and inclusion efforts often don't include them, some say. Focusing on high Asian American representation in tech workforces misses the barriers to career advancement and the daily insults many face. And a "perpetual foreignness" assigned to them links their mistreatment at the work and the violence they see committed against people who could be their parents or grandparents.

The technology industry "weaponizes the 'model minority' myth" against Asian Americans, said Preston So, who works as a product strategist. (He asked Protocol not to mention his employer because he thought it would not grant him permission to speak if it were named.)

This wave of anti-Asian violence and hate throughout the country has prompted some Asian Americans to reexamine the impact of the "model minority" myth. Some see the stereotypes it embodies — that Asian Americans are hard-working, diligent, well-suited to STEM careers — as insidious tools that perpetuate racism and mask the myriad issues Asian Americans face in society as well as the workplace.

The phrase "model minority" first emerged in a 1966 New York Times Magazine story. William Pettersen, its author and a sociologist, compares the experiences of Japanese Americans and Black Americans.

"It was basically directly comparing these two populations to deny anti-Blackness, deny structural racism," Alexander Cho, an assistant professor of Asian American media studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Protocol. "[It let people] say, 'Hey, well this minority group is getting ahead, why aren't you? There must be no such thing as racism if this minority group is getting ahead.'"

The myth suggests Asian Americans are more successful than other racially diverse groups "because of cultural or, even more insidiously, biological traits [attributed] to that group," said Cho. "It divorces all social context."

It also perpetuates the stereotype that Asian Americans are passive, he added.

"That they're assimilationists, not wanting to rock the boat and not challenge authority or have independent leadership skills or ideas," he said. "That's kind of the nefarious underside of it."

What the Atlanta shooting revealed to many people, So said, is that "the 'model minority' myth is a myth. A lot of the pain, a lot of the oppression, a lot of the racism that we face is something that shouldn't be trivialized."

 Demonstrators hold up signs as they take part in an anti-Asian American hate march and rally at  City Hall in San Francisco on Saturday, March 27. The march was organized by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. Demonstrators hold up signs as they take part in an anti-Asian American hate march and rally at City Hall in San Francisco.Photo: Ray Chavez/Getty Images

'Where are you really from?'

Michelle Kim needed to make more money so she could bring her mom to the U.S., and many people in her life told her she should get a job in tech.

Kim, who founded the Queer Straight Alliance at University of California, Berkeley, and organized volunteer efforts to support LGBTQIA+ youth, thought the tech industry would be better and more progressive than the consulting companies where she previously worked, but that was not the case, she said.

Diversity training was "half-assed, whitewashed," she said. No one said the words "white supremacy" or "institutionalized racism."

"It's just checking boxes," she said.

Kim, who now runs Awaken, a diversity consultancy, left her director-level job at HR software startup Betterworks to protest its treatment of a colleague, Beatrice Kim. (The two are not related, but went on to found Awaken together.)

Beatrice Kim filed a lawsuit alleging she was sexually assaulted by then-CEO Kris Duggan at a company event. Duggan stepped down from the company, citing the "distractions" of the lawsuit, though he stayed on the board for months afterwards. The company investigated and said no company policies had been violated. The parties later reached a settlement. Beatrice Kim declined to comment.

Michelle Kim said she faced retaliation for supporting her friend during the legal process. She said she, too, faced sexual harassment at the company, as well as microaggressions related to her Asian heritage.

"I think the most common thing is, 'Where are you from? Where are you really from?'" she said.

She recalled co-workers mistaking her for another Asian American woman in the office, and one even making a joke that he "can't tell the difference" between her and someone else. People shortened Asian co-workers' names without their consent. She also heard about how a white woman randomly asked an Asian American at work if they had soy sauce.

Betterworks CEO Doug Dennerline said most of the company's leaders had been replaced since the incident involving Beatrice Kim. He added that it does not reflect the company as it stands today.

"We don't support this kind of behavior, and we don't tolerate microaggressions," Dennerline wrote in a statement to Protocol. "The leadership team and employees at Betterworks who were employed at the time during the events reported by Michelle Kim are no longer with the company. I've been the CEO for three and a half years at Betterworks, and I am personally saddened by the current climate and violence against the AAPI community, having previously lived in Asia for several years."

Race, gender and sexuality often intersected in Michelle Kim's negative experiences in tech, she said. She said she experienced sexual harassment at a company she worked for before Betterworks, too.

There's also a "perpetual gaslighting of Asians that we are not marginalized, so we don't experience oppression in or out of the workplace," she said. Another stereotype, that Asians don't speak up, compounded that, she said.

Kim said her experience at Betterworks ultimately led her to start her diversity consultancy, Awaken.

"That whole process that I witnessed was incredibly disheartening and frankly just traumatic for me, that I just never wanted to go back to working in tech ever again," she said.

Looking at the 'bamboo ceiling'

Those remaining in tech face other challenges that stem from the "model minority" myth. Among them is a lack of representation in executive ranks that management coach and author Jane Hyun named the "bamboo ceiling."

Hyun's term is controversial; some Asian Americans freely use it and some strongly object to it. "It's very much exoticizing, orientalizing Asian people," Kim said. "But I would rather have the term than not, because I think specificity is important."

What people agree on is that there's a problem. Asian Americans are the least likely to be promoted to a management position, even in Silicon Valley, according to multiple reports.

"People see us as good, reliable workforces, but never quite good enough to lead," Kim said.

Sociologist Margaret Chin recently explained how the "model minority" myth, Asian Americans' "perpetual foreigner" status and Asian powers' rise on the world stage combine to make successful Asian Americans appear threatening.

"It's where you look at an Asian American in tech and immediately kind of picture them as being an engineer, or you immediately picture them as somebody who is good with computers," So said. "One of the things that's been very hard for people is to see us Asian Americans as more than just engineers, as more than just people who are tapping away at the keyboard and writing code."

So said he's noticed Asian American women get pigeonholed as user experience specialists or designers. Asian Americans, men or women, are rarely seen as managers or executives, he said.

So recognizes there are a handful of high-profile Asian leaders in the tech industry, like Zoom CEO Eric Yuan, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and the late Zappos founder Tony Hsieh. But he sees them as exceptions rather than the rule, and argues that not every Asian person in tech has the same opportunities for success.

There is some inherent privilege that comes along with being Asian in tech, sometimes thanks to the "model minority" myth, So said, and there's some amount of credibility and authority that comes along with it, but only up to a certain point. For most, that stops short of the boardroom.

Cordelia Larsen, of San Jose, tears up during an anti-Asian hate vigil at Chinatown's Madison Park in downtown Oakland on March 23, 2021. Cordelia Larsen, of San Jose, tears up during an anti-Asian hate vigil at Chinatown's Madison Park in downtown Oakland on March 23, 2021.Photo: Jane Tyska/Getty Images

Changing the conversation

The conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion in tech started with women and broadened to include underrepresented groups like Black and Latinx workers. Because Asian Americans were deemed "overrepresented," they were left out of the conversation.

There is a "unique flavor of oppression against Asian people where it's not actually talked about," Michelle Kim said.

Through her company, Awaken, Kim has worked with tech companies like Vimeo, Google, Squarespace, Refinery29 and VMware. In light of the recent acts of violence targeting the Asian American community, she said she sees an opportunity for leaders to reflect on their workplace cultures, and explore how they are complicit in these recent events of anti-Asian hate as well as other forms of oppression and racism.

"The fact is that anti-Asian hate, anti-Asian racism and bias exist in every layer of our society," she said. "And just like anti-Blackness, what I've been asking people to do is don't just put out a statement as if you're not part of the problem. You are also part of the problem. You are also complicit in holding up this system of white supremacy."

Kim thinks it would be helpful for tech companies to disaggregate Asian American representation data in order to reflect the vast diversity within Asia: Asian Americans come from some 51 distinct countries and territories. They are economically diverse as well: San Francisco is 35% Asian, but Asian Americans represent 42% of those living in poverty in the city. And income inequality among Asian Americans is widening.

"Asian American is a political coalition-building term, which is important to serve [that] purpose," she said. "However, when we use it to lump the experiences and representation needs inside tech, we end up flattening a whole bunch of groups of people and being satisfied with an outcome that is actually not just." Southeast Asians, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and even some East Asian and South Asian groups are underrepresented, she said.

There is also a lack of intersectional context and awareness when considering the experiences of Asian people in tech, Kim said. Asian men and women have unique experiences in the workplace, she said. Women, for example, "face harassment, fetishization and just all kinds of gendered and sexualized violence, and yet it's not being talked about," she said.

Cho pointed out that statistics used to support "model minority" arguments are often flawed. High education rates among Asian Americans don't take into account the role that education-related immigration programs play. And household income statistics ignore the prevalence of multigenerational households. Correcting those errors and educating people about the historical and social context of Asians in America "are the first place to start in dismantling these stereotypes," he said.

Kim also advocates for more solidarity between the Asian community and other people of color. There are some Asian Americans in tech, Kim said, who have internalized the "model minority" myth and believe they have achieved a certain level of success because of meritocracy.

"They believe they are honorary white, so they are proximate to white people," she said. "And there is anti-Blackness that needs to be included in the conversation when it comes to empowering Asian people."

Many don't even realize the "origin of the 'model minority' myth being anti-Black," she said.

Kim notes how racism is intricately woven into the fabric of America, and it's something all people of color experience. But she also wants people to recognize that this is a traumatic time for Asian American people, many of whom have been warning of the dangerous consequences of the rise in hateful rhetoric.

"Not just because of the violence that we saw in Atlanta, but because this violence has been building and building and building, and we've been sounding the alarm," Kim said. "And I think there's a special, very specific kind of pain associated with not ever having been heard."

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