One of the brightest notes in the outcome of 2020’s tawdry political process is the historic election of the first Black and Asian American female vice president, Kamala Harris.
As a self-identifying Asian American of Chinese descent, I say, “Yay for us!” At the same time, I must confess, I don’t exactly feel a blood kinship to the nation’s new veep.
While Asian communities are generally seen as more insular than their BIPOC counterparts, it’s important to understand what Vice President-elect Harris’s accomplishment quietly validates: People of South Asian descent—those with ties to India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh—are more successful than other Asians when it comes to defining American leadership. (Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, immigrated to the U.S. from India.)
It’s been well documented that conventionally cited “Asian” students (those of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean heritage) routinely outperform their white peers on standardized tests and Ivy League admissions. At the same time, they are woefully underrepresented in the C-suite and boardrooms (aka “the bamboo ceiling”).
But take a look at the Asians currently atop Fortune 500 companies, and you’ll see they’re almost entirely of South Asian descent. Three of the most highly paid CEOs in 2019—Ajay Banga of Mastercard, Satya Nadella of Microsoft, and Sundar Pichai of Google—are of South Asian cultural heritage. They join a contingent of highly lauded current and former CEOs of American companies, such as Shantanu Narayen (Adobe), Arvind Krishna (IBM), and Indra Nooyi (Pepsi).
That’s at odds with the statistics: There are 1.6 times as many East Asians as there are South Asians in the U.S. True, you can Google to find people like Eric Yuan (Zoom) and John Chen (Blackberry), a few East Asian senators (Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois), and several representatives. But in the world of business, an East Asian with a C-title is rarer than it should be.
Why is that? What’s keeping East Asians from stepping up?
The problem with the ‘model minority’
A 2020 study found that East Asians (those from China, Taiwan, Japan, and North and South Korea) were less likely than their South Asian counterparts to lead U.S. companies. (South Asians even outperformed their white peers when compared as a percentage of U.S. population.) And while all Asian Americans are still subject to widespread racism (especially in the COVID-19 era), East Asians tend to keep their heads down.
“South Asian culture encourages assertiveness: Indian people tend to be forceful and lively, use overt body language, and think aloud, whereas Japanese people tend to be modest and quiet, use little body language, and think in silence,” the study’s authors wrote.
That makes sense. East Asian cultures draw from centuries of political and other systemic oppressions that valued conformity while stigmatizing dissent and individuality. Here in the U.S., Asian Americans have long been seen as a “model minority”: a group willing to assume a nonthreatening “cultural fit” with white culture. And many conform to that stereotype: hard-working, self-reliant, keeping to themselves, not speaking up (or out) unless asked. Docile, submissive, obedient. Smart at STEM and focused on education that leads to high-earning professions—doctors, engineers, coders. In this view, being “invisible” equates to having achieved the American dream.
East Asians must envision themselves as American leaders
I was 8 years old when I learned I was Chinese. Or “other,” to be more exact, as classmates in my new hometown in a Houston suburb had never seen an Asian kid before, and so assumed I must be Mexican.
I didn’t bother to clarify. I kept my head down, tacitly condoning the mislabeling as a way of fitting in. I realized that if I wanted kids to like me, I needed to conform to their terms. I became, as Cathy Park Hong describes in her landmark book Minor Feelings, a self-hating Asian.
And while I grew to appreciate my own custom blend of Asian-ness, apparently a lot of Asian Americans my age found it easiest to assimilate in a white world. But now that the country is outing the “white gaze,” can you name-drop a single Asian activist at the forefront of change? The Black Lives Matter movement, while calling needed attention to the outright racism and brutality of police injustice, has amplified the voices of Black, brown, and indigenous people and their inequities. But the faces on the front lines of protest don’t look like mine.
That’s not to diminish the accomplishments of Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign and the few brave Asian celebs who have used social media as a platform for various causes. But speaking out is a cultural behavior that needs to be learned and practiced by the East Asian American community, in order to normalize being seen as people in power. Otherwise, Asians risk being the “of” in BIPOC—metaphorically speaking, the lower-case preposition of racial justice, functioning solely in relation to others, self-sidelined from the conversation. Just like assertiveness in the corporate world, activism is not inherent to East Asian culture—with good reason. Earlier this year, when protesters in Hong Kong thrillingly unleashed the citizenry’s desire for change, party officials from Beijing ultimately succeeded in squashing those sentiments. As happened with Tianamen Square, they unabashedly punished the corporations, countries, and people who supported them, successfully demanding deference in return (just ask the NBA).
Luckily, in this country, 2020’s overwhelming ills have shown the world that peaceful protest can actually result in positive social impact. As the country evolves past its navel-gazing fascination with “identity” and race-based voting blocs, it’s time to break down the psychological and emotional barriers that implicitly discourage East Asians from speaking up for themselves. The elevation of Kamala Harris is an invitation, and a case study, for all Asian Americans to evolve their self-image: from being passive beneficiaries of diversity to become active agents of change.
Kamala Harris credits her mother with raising her and her sister, Maya, to be “strong Black women.” Maybe it’s time to start defining what a “strong Asian leader” looks like today—for our collective future. (We’re seeing bright spots already: A day after I submitted this article, the Miami Marlins named Kim Ng, a 51-year-old woman of Chinese descent, as its general manager, making her the first woman to run a major league team’s operations.)
And then, instead of being The Silent Minority, perhaps we’ll start seeing East Asians as assertive role models, leaders, CEOs—and even presidents.
Linda Ong is CEO and founder of Cultique, a cultural insights and strategy advisory.