As anti-Asian attacks surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, California psychotherapist Felicia Ortiz noticed she was seeing more Asian American clients than usual.
Brutal images of Asian Americans being beaten, spit on, or called slurs were forcing them to come to terms with a deeply private and painful part of their lives they usually tried to ignore: racist remarks, negative stereotypes, harassment and discrimination at work.
“The level of violence they’ve seen on streets throughout the country has created even more awareness about the systemic discrimination they face in the workplace,” she said.
This shouldn’t be happening to us, her clients told Ortiz. Many of them wanted to do something about it.
More Asian Americans – especially East Asian professionals such as Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and Korean Americans – are responding to the rising tide of anti-Asian hate and violence by publicly calling out workplace bias on social media, in lawsuits and through advocacy work.
“I associate this with a rise of racial consciousness for members of these communities,” said Lily Zheng, a diversity, equity and inclusion strategist and consultant.
That rise is shattering what’s left of the model minority myth – the perception that Asian Americans are so hardworking and successful that they don’t face racism at work, says Yeong Cheng, founder of the Denver Asian Collective and a veteran technology leader.
As a whole, Asian Americans are the nation’s best-educated and highest-earning major racial or ethnic group, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but they are not a monolith. They hail from different countries and cultures, class backgrounds and immigration paths.
Studies show that no matter how much education and experience they attain, they are not fairly represented at the management and executive levels. According to workforce diversity data collected by USA TODAY from S&P 100 companies, Asian representation drops by almost half from the professional to executive ranks.
“For a lot of Asians, we’re bombarded by this messaging that we don’t experience racism,” Cheng said. “A lot of us emulate whiteness to try to fit in and succeed. And a lot of us end up dismissing what actually happens to us.”
Minimizing or pretending that anti-Asian racism doesn't happen wasn't an option during COVID-19.
Nearly one-third of Asian Americans and more than onequarter of Pacific Islanders said they experienced a hate incident at work, according to a survey conducted by Stop AAPI Hate which tracks incidents of hate, violence and discrimination.
In February 2020, white employees at a tech company roped off a Chinese American colleague's desk with yellow caution tape and a biohazard sign.
Cheng, who chronicled the incident on behalf of the employee in a viral LinkedIn post, says the perpetrators were later promoted but the targeted employee was not.
“In the same way that white people around the world realized that anti-Black police violence happens because they watched it on video, Asians were faced with undeniable evidence they experience racism,” Cheng said. “And that is really f---ing painful.”
'People have reached a tipping point'
For many, petitions and protests won’t cut it anymore. Increasingly, Asian Americans are exploring their rights, says Charles Jung, an employment attorney who represents executives, professionals and founders.
“People have reached a tipping point,” Jung said. “Pre-pandemic, I would say that the proportion of Asian Americans who wanted to tell their stories couldn't have been more than 5% of my clients. Post-pandemic, over 50% of my practice is Asian American employees.”
Rather than settling matters quietly, more Asian Americans want to make their voices heard in the courtroom or the court of public opinion, says Xinying Valerian, managing partner of Valerian Law in Albany, California.
“We cannot underestimate the power of being willing to go public, to be willing to put one's experience out there,” Valerian said.
Denver attorney Helen Oh says her clients are breaking their silence because they realize if they don’t speak up for themselves, no one will. “It’s been very empowering,” Oh said.
'The important thing is change'
Michelle Lee says that’s why she decided to sue her former employer for discrimination in June.
An Ivy League-educated attorney whose family immigrated from South Korea when she was a child, she joined investment firm Portfolio Advisors as the third member of its legal team a couple years out of law school.
Lee says she worked weekends and vacations and through pregnancies and maternity leaves but, despite glowing performance reviews, her pay raises and promotions lagged her peers.
Her complaint also alleges a pattern of unwanted sexual advances and anti-Asian remarks during her nearly 15-year tenure.
In one meeting, she says a colleague referred to a Chinese company as “ching chong ching chong.” Another colleague commented that his son and a fellow white student were the only “round eyes” on the Harvard tennis team, according to Lee. When asked on a Zoom call which COVID-19 vaccine he received, a member of the management committee allegedly replied: “The cheap one, the one made in China.”
Lee says she couldn’t shake the uncomfortable parallels between her experiences at work and intensifying violence against the Asian American community, including the killing of Deloitte Services employee Michelle Alyssa Go who was pushed in front of a New York subway train.
She grew more anxious and depressed, had trouble sleeping and broke out in hives. She ground her teeth until her jaw ached.
“I decided to go public because, for me, the important thing is change,” Lee said. “We have been fighting for decades against tropes and stereotypes of Asians. If we don’t speak up now and fight, our kids will continue to face the same prejudices and discrimination.”
Portfolio Advisors denies Lee’s allegations.
“We strongly disagree with the claims made by Ms. Lee, which are wholly at odds with our firm culture and values,” the firm said in an emailed statement. “We will defend ourselves and our actions through the appropriate legal channels.”
A safe place for Asian American employees to talk about bias
Technology entrepreneur Justin Zhu says he experienced a similar awakening after the 2021 slayings of six women of Asian descent in Atlanta. The spa shootings and rising hostility across the country amplified fear and anger among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Dismayed by the limited corporate response, Zhu rallied friends in the tech industry to form the nonprofit organization Stand with Asian Americans. The group bought a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal to urge the business world to condemn anti-Asian hate and to support Asian employees.
“Enough,” they wrote in the open letter signed by prominent corporate leaders including founders of YouTube and Zoom. “We, the Asian American business leaders of America, are tired, angry and afraid – and not for the first time. We are tired of being treated as less than American.”
What Zhu did not expect was the outpouring of emails from Asian Americans confiding about the bias they suffered at work and the debilitating effects, including high levels of stress and depression.
“It became clear that there wasn’t a safe space for Asian Americans to go and get help from someone who understands the discrimination they face,” Zhu said.
So Stand with Asian Americans decided to create one. It’s setting up a national portal to report and fight Asian workplace discrimination. The platform, slated to launch later this year, will serve as a forum for Asian Americans to share their experiences and get help.
Asian Americans who sign up for the portal will fill out an intake form. Are they mistaken for other Asian employees? Are they told they are hard workers but not leadership material? Are they criticized for being too aggressive or for not being likable enough? Are they handed undesirable assignments or loaded up with extra responsibilities without a raise or a promotion?
“We are giving people language and models to know what discrimination looks like,” Zhu said.
The nonprofit will also put Asian Americans in touch with diversity professionals who can help them navigate personnel issues at their companies and mental health professionals who can help them cope with trauma.
If they want to pursue litigation, Stand with Asian Americans is building a network of “Asian aware” lawyers, Zhu said.
Dave Lu, who co-founded Stand with Asian Americans, started a firm, Hyphen Capital, to invest in Asian American founders when he grew frustrated by how little funding they raised from venture capital firms.
He believes in “building our own houses” and says Asian Americans need an organization that advocates for them at work.
“It’s not as bad as being slashed on the street, but when we are in our own workplace and we see our peers get promoted around us but we never get acknowledged or recognized for our work, it becomes a form of abuse and exploitation," Lu said. "We shouldn’t have to tolerate it.”
Contributing: Jayme Fraser
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: After Asian hate during COVID, Asian Americans call out racism at work