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Asian-Americans on being “likable” in the modern workplace

A lawsuit claiming Harvard ranked Asian-American students lower on personality traits like “likability” reflects stereotypes that persist in the workforce, too.

Asian-Americans on being “likable” in the modern workplace
[Photos: Maranatha Pizarras/Unsplash; Flickr user Gerard Untalan]

On Tuesday the Trump Administration moved to scrap Obama-era policies urging universities to weigh race as a factor in admissions. In making the change, Trump officials are wading into a pitched battle over affirmative action, centered around a high-profile lawsuit against Harvard University. Last month the institution was forced to make public court documents that a group of Asian-American plaintiffs claim to show a pattern of racial discrimination by Harvard administrators. Analyzing the university’s admission data on 160,000 students, the New York Times found that Asian-American applicants consistently scored lower on assessments of personality, which includes characteristics like “likability” and being “widely respected.”

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Traits like these—resting on the subjective perceptions of those in positions of authority—have long been fraught terrain for historically marginalized groups in American public life, and not just in higher education but in the workplace, too. Women, for example, still find themselves caught in a trade-off between being well-liked and exercising authority; many find that it’s hard to do both simultaneously.

But Asian-Americans’ experiences navigating institutional power are unique for a few reasons. First, there’s the vast diversity of cultures, histories, and socioeconomic conditions among Asian-Americans themselves—differences that aren’t always reflected in popular discourse. Large waves of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century met widespread discrimination and race-based violence, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, while Japanese-Americans suffered deportation and mass internment during the 1940s. Both of these periods are typically taught in American classrooms, but more recent facets of the Asian-American experience may not be. The past half-century has seen a swell in immigration from other Asian countries, like the Philippines and India, but data tells us that most Americans are still more likely to point to someone of East Asian descent when asked to identify an Asian-American.

Then there’s the range of perspectives among Asian-Americans on the matter currently under legal dispute. Chinese-Americans increasingly oppose affirmative action, while other Asian-American groups, including Indian-Americans and Filipino-Americans, are far more supportive of those policies.

Finally, as Asian women, we know firsthand that popular stereotypes and biases Asian-Americans face tend to get filtered through the additional lenses of gender, religion, skin color, and more. Yet we know, too, that even the most damaging stereotypes can deliver strategic and material advantages, however limited. For example, the “model minority” myth, which casts Asians as smart and hardworking if not necessarily as bold, creative, and extroverted, may underlie the overrepresentation of Asian-American men in the tech sector—except in its leadership ranks.

Double binds like these can make intersecting issues of identity difficult to talk about openly. When we asked 17 Asian-American business leaders to share their experiences navigating such “personality” paradoxes in the modern workplace, roughly half declined to speak on the record. (Most who demurred were women, a number of whom were more comfortable discussing gender biases than racial ones.) Here’s what a few of them shared with us. The following conversations have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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“I’ve worked really hard to be likable”

Jason Shen is the cofounder and CEO of the talent assessment platform Headlight, as well as a Fast Company contributor. In 2015 he launched the annual Asian-American Man Survey to study the experiences of men of East Asian, South Asian, and Southeast Asian descent in the U.S., both in their personal lives and at work.

On the Harvard lawsuit:

I’m glad to see Asian-Americans taking collective action in an institution that they feel is being unfair to them. I’m glad to see that level of community organizing, and I think that’s an important part of our cultural development. Regardless of the facts of the situation, I think that taking legal action and building that muscle is important.

On being liked: 

We like what we’re familiar with. You don’t see a lot of Asian-American men on screen, and when you do, they’re often the computer nerds or martial artists beating somebody up. More recently, there are media portrayals of actual families who are loving and happy. If you see them as bucketing into a stereotype, you’re not going to find them likable. I’ve worked really hard to be likable. Being an athlete in college, I have found that to be very important.

On navigating racial stereotypes:

The stereotype that I run into the most with my own race is looking young. I was 27 and had just started a new job, and I was introduced to the team as a new person. One older woman said to me, “I don’t mean to sound ageist, but you don’t look like you’ve graduated from college.” It was like, what was the purpose of making that statement? I’m telling you that I have. The implication that I might be in school signals that I might be less than professional.

For Asian-American men, the leading stereotypes are being good at math and being good with computers. But when you narrow that down to East Asian men, you are also pegged as quiet, shy, and for many, socially awkward. I had a conversation with a friend who was categorized as being “stoic and unexpressive” even though I know him to be a very funny, likable person. If your communication skills are not that strong, it’s easy for people not to talk very much.

On moving the conversation forward: 

What I really hope for is the freedom to be anything, and that each group gets the opportunity to speak their piece. I think that’s the hope for minority groups. It’s to be not limited by the stereotype. I also want people to recognize that even “positive” stereotypes are bad, because they limit or constrain what someone is allowed to be.

“I’m a lot of different things at once”

Naomi Hirabayashi is the cofounder and co-CEO of Shine, a digital startup that aims to help users develop healthy mindfulness and self-care practices.

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On navigating others’ expectations: 

As a “Hapa”—half Japanese and half white—I often felt “Other.” I’m third-generation Japanese-American and didn’t grow up speaking the language or deeply enriched in the culture, but physically I look very Japanese.

What I often get is, “So do you speak Japanese?” When I explain to people that I don’t, there always a bit of disappointment. I’ve gotten a lot of, “Oh, that’s too bad,” or “Oh, that’s so sad,” like my “not-Japanese-enough” existence is somehow tragic for them. Whereas if you’re white and, say, third-generation Swedish or Norwegian, people probably don’t ask you as much if you speak the language, just based on how you look. When you’re brown, there’s a lot of the “Right, but where are you really from?”

On personality: 

My experience mostly lies within the nuances of not meeting the stereotype of what people perceive every single Asian woman to be. I’m extroverted, goofy, vulnerable, and outspoken. I went to community college. My dad wasn’t strict.

I’m a lot of things, and a lot of different things at once, like any human. But because socially there’s a strict box that we want to put the entire Asian community in, and then another strict box for Asian women, I’m aware that there are more assumptions, consciously or unconsciously, around what I’m “supposed” to be.

“I’m so aware of how dark my skin is”

Prerna Gupta is the CEO of Hooked, an app that delivers fiction to novel-readers via text message. With her husband Parag Chordia, Gupta cofounded the app developer Khu.sh, which was acquired by Smule in 2011.

On sexism: 

It happens in the little ways that people look at you, or the ways in which they don’t look at you. My husband Parag and I would go in and pitch [Khu.sh] together, and I would always be the one primarily pitching because I’m the CEO. But 90% of the time, the VCs would be looking at Parag. When they asked a question or were saying anything, they wouldn’t even look at me. They would always address Parag. This happened for years, and I’m still shocked when it happens today.

On skin color: 

I’ve never talked about this, but it’s scary how frequently it’s on my mind. I’m not just Indian, I’m dark-skinned. I’m so aware of how dark my skin is relative to everyone else in the room. And if we go on vacation, I tan so fast and I get so dark. When we come back, I feel like, “Oh, I’m going to have a meeting with my investor, and they’re going to be shocked at how dark I am now. And they’re going to be slightly turned off by that.” It’s so messed up that I have these thoughts, but that’s just been ingrained in me my entire life, and it’s so hard to get over that.

On fitting in and being liked: 

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When I got a seat on one tech company’s board, I just felt so out of place, even years later. And it’s not because anyone ever said anything to me that was demeaning. It’s just because it was literally a bunch of old white guys. I’ve always felt like I’m scary to them or something. Sometimes when I talk, the look they have on their faces is a mixture of fear and confusion.

The South Asian women I’ve come across in my career don’t really have a likability problem. I grew up in Oklahoma, and I think if you grow up in a place like that, you’re forced to integrate socially and figure out how to get white people to like you at a young age. But there’s a difference between likability and being accepted as part of the crew. I feel like I can generally find a way to be likable, but I very rarely feel accepted by the crew.

Maybe part of it is I keep putting myself in these positions to never be accepted. As a founder in Silicon Valley, I have all these relationships with investors and other founders. I can hang, I can go to the conferences, and I can build rapport, but it always feels like I’m still the “Other.” It’s just part of the experience of being a second-generation immigrant: You literally don’t fit in anywhere.

On Asian-Americans’ underrepresentation in leadership: 

We’ve made it up to middle management really, really well. But once you start getting past that, it’s really all about chumming it up. So much of that is relationship-driven, and so much of the job is about the soft skills. It’s really hard to break into it while staying true to yourself.

On the discomfort of talking about being Asian-American:

It is lonely. I’ve barely ever talked about this with anyone. But I feel like I have no reason to complain. I have been so fortunate. My dad was a doctor! Yeah, it was hard, but all things considered, life has been pretty good to me. Everyone has to go through some hardship. I want it to change and I want it to get better and be more fair, but at the same time, these have been minor things throughout my life. And I feel so grateful that my parents came to America and I’ve had these opportunities.

“I did what I could to break out of the mold”

Chieh Huang is the CEO of bulk-shopping service Boxed, which he cofounded in 2013.

On the Harvard lawsuit: 

Without commenting on the merits of the suit, I think that having that issue be out in the press and talked about is good in the long run. In the short term, the discussion can always go both ways. I think having that discourse now hopefully makes younger Asian-Americans more aware of how they’re perceived. I hope young Asian-Americans today ask themselves,”What are the things I can do to address and engage with folks who are perceiving Asian-Americans a certain way?”

On navigating racial stereotypes: 

In general, Asian-Americans are not portrayed as being outspoken—and I don’t think that would be groundbreaking news to anyone. From a very early age I did what I could to break out of that perceived mold, like running for the student government in high school.

Being a professional for many years, you get offhanded jokes like, “Oh, this is getting pretty heavy with maths—Chieh, do you have any thoughts?” Here at Boxed I really try to treat everyone as individuals, no matter their background or political affiliation. Whenever society has tried to lump people into a characteristic, I don’t think a lot of good things have happened because of that.

“We want to build a system that is just”

Vien Truong is the CEO of Dream Corps, a social-justice organization founded in 2014. She also leads Green for All, which works to integrate communities of color into solutions on climate change.

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On the “model minority” myth:

I had a more unusual upbringing than most Asian-Americans. I’m the youngest of 11 kids, from a refugee family. I’m ethnically Chinese, and my family is from Vietnam. I grew up in Oakland in a low-income community with a diverse range of cultures. Most of the Asians in our community were Southeast Asians, and for me the “model minority” experience just wasn’t true. My family didn’t speak English. None of my sisters went to college. I had to learn a lot of things on my own, like how to study and which soft skills I needed.

On the Harvard lawsuit: 

I am in support of affirmative action. I think we want to encourage more diversity in ideas, cultures, ethnicities, and languages in our elite universities so that our leaders are able to understand a diversity of opinion. We have to make sure that our educational system can expose that level of diversity to our students. What I worry about is a too-simplistic a view of the affirmative-action suit against Harvard. I think what I see underneath the intention of the lawsuit is to have a more just admissions system. Ultimately, we do want to build a system that is just.

On moving the conversation forward:  

Chinese, Japanese, and Korean immigrants who come here from industrialized countries often have a very different experience from Southeast Asians. As a result, I think the Asian-American conversation on race is twofold: On the one hand, we experience a level of privilege because we’re Asian-American. On the other hand, many Asian-Americans are having a hard time in this country, with low rates of college access, a lack of economic mobility, and difficult access to other resources in the U.S.—and that’s particularly the case among Southeast Asians.

For Asian-Americans whose work is not based around race, socioeconomic issues, or social justice, it might be harder to grapple with that complexity, but I do think it’s important to do so. Otherwise, we allow for only one narrative to continue, and right now, the overwhelming narrative of Asian-Americans being against affirmative action really troubles me. The lack of engagement with Asians around race makes it seem like we don’t have an opinion, or we’re not affected by it, or we’re okay with discrimination. When you have privilege, you also have the responsibility to extend the ladder out.

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