I grew up in a diverse town. My school district was once featured in the New York Times for our 51% Asian-American makeup. Diversity and inclusion were town pillars. Everyone was with us -- until they weren’t.
I can still recall the pinprick feeling in my neck the time a white girl called my house and spoke to my mom (who, for the record, spoke nearly perfect English) in a stereotypical, stilted Asian accent. The sneers at lunch when I pulled out “weird,” “smelly” home-cooked meals. The playground teasing about my squinty eyes. Each aggression made me try harder to blend in.
I didn’t want to hang out with the Asian crowd. I was accused of being “whitewashed” and was called a “banana” by an allegedly superior Asian schoolmate; I was secretly grateful.
I’d blend in and feel wholly American until someone decided they wanted to call out my Asianness. It was a weird, sad cycle. This unease was formative for me -- the feeling of belonging but never actually belonging.
I could never quite understand why I felt this way until I picked up Cathy Park Hong’s book “Minor Feelings” and was floored. I wanted to do some introspection, and the universe delivered big time. The uneasiness I felt was encapsulated perfectly in over 224 powerful pages.
“Minor Feelings” is a term that defines the ambiguity, inequity, and unease Asian-Americans feel living within the model minority myth. We exist never knowing where we fail. We feel accepted, until we’re not (e.g., during the rise of COVID-related Anti-Asian violence).
This is inherently hard for Asian Americans in advertising, where workers are expected to have an edge to get ahead. We’re conditioned to keep our heads down and not seek that edge. This requirement to be tough goes against our cultural identity.
And, as both a result of that unfit expectation and further deterrent from acting upon it, we have precious few Asian-American or Pacific Islander (AAPI) industry leaders to mirror -- few leadership roles, fewer to help guide or mentor us.
Early on, and sometimes even today, I was quiet in meetings (in contrast to my vocal white peers), kept my head down and got the work done. When a creative director told me he couldn’t cast any Asians for a TV spot because we “weren’t funny,” I didn’t protest, lest I draw attention to myself.
Instead, I relied on pure hard work and trusted those hours would result in advancement and equity -- not always the case in an industry that more often rewards the loudest person in the room.
I went years without a raise, not connecting self-worth to compensation because I was simply happy to be there. When I eventually asked for more, I received a pittance, offset by “opportunities” and training.
I was told to be grateful, but I saw my worth was worth nothing.
Asian-Americans will continue working hard and blending in, though, yearning for the illusory shroud of success and worth. Docility in exchange for belonging. To be the next Ogilvy, Wieden, and Droga — the brightest, most outspoken, and fittest gladiators in the industry — agency people are expected to be tough and opinionated. Where does that leave us, the handful of AAPI people in the space?
This dynamic won’t go away any time soon, as its roots run deep into American capitalism.
Today more than ever, however, I see a growing awareness and call to action across AAPI communities in corporate America. Looking forward, we need to look at the inroads our fellow Black, Indigenous, and people of color have made to claim agency, have the right dialogues, and to stick up for ourselves, cementing an equitable place in this world.
I’ll continue to have my share of pinpricks of discomfort. I suspect I always will. But I now know why I get these pinpricks. As an Asian-American marketer, in understanding the root cause, I refuse to play into the system anymore -- or blend in any longer.