Photo by Jason Leung
On March 16, 2021, the murder of eight individuals in Atlanta—six of whom were Asian women—shook the nation. In the weeks since, many have taken to the streets to protest against Anti-Asian racism, compelling political and business leaders to speak out as well. Most of all, the Atlanta shooting and other related acts of violence have surfaced a collective fear among Asians and Asian Americans in the U.S. that had been simmering not just for the past year, but long before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
I am a 1.5 generation immigrant from China, and I am one of six tenured Asian faculty at Columbia Business School. Having not only taught at CBS since 2013, but also received my BA from Columbia in 2007, I take pride in our community, a vibrant and supportive set of voices that thrives because of their diversity and differences, not in spite of it. Yet, over the past year in conversations with students and colleagues, I cannot help but sense their anguish, confusion, and at times, hopelessness at the spread of injustice against Black, Latinx, Middle Eastern, South Asian, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized communities even as we at CBS strive to make progress on inclusion and equity. In particular, in helping students make sense of reports of violence against Asians, I was persistently asked one question during our conversations: “I never knew that Asians and Asian Americans faced this kind of discrimination and threat. Why is this happening now all of a sudden?”
Although reported hate crimes in the U.S. decreased by 7% from 2019 to 2020, hate crimes against Asians increased by 150% during the same time period. But, this outlier statistic went largely unreported in the news until the Atlanta shootings. Even then, media attention to the Atlanta shootings failed to cast a light on the thousands of other incidents of violence targeting Asians—most of whom are elderly and women—caught on video and shared on social media. Even a recent Sunday feature from the New York Times on April 3 was an underrepresentation (a daily accounting of Anti-Asian violence in New York can be found in ABC News Reporter CeFaan Kim’s tweets). Where did this come from? Is Trump to blame? What can allies do to help?
I have participated in many protests for various causes, but I am not an activist. I am foremost a researcher and a teacher. In my scholarship, I also admittedly do not specialize in Asian-American studies. However, my research does focus on two areas—how global migration and social movements affect business outcomes—and that has led me to take a particular interest in understanding the context and history of the recent wave of Anti-Asian racism. What I offer here is a resource guide, in the form of readings, podcasts, videos, and other media, that can help everyone better grasp that the current wave of violence against Asians in the U.S. is not just a flash in the pan. The seeds of the horror unfolding in our streets were sowed long ago, taking root through more than a century of institutionalized economic oppression and social exclusion. Being an ally to Asian colleagues and friends first requires understanding their experiences. This means educating oneself about the social origins of the hate, oppression, and exclusion that affect the everyday lives of many Asians in the U.S., but are rarely taught in schools and other settings.
On April 1, 2021, as part of the Phillips Pathway for Inclusive Leadership, student leaders from CBS’s Asian Business Association convened a panel to discuss these issues with the wider CBS community. The resources below are organized into four phenomena that not only came up during the panel discussion, but also capture the context of Anti-Asian racism: where it comes from, why it persists, and why it is so often silenced. This is not an exhaustive list, nor does it claim to fully describe what every Asian in the U.S. has felt or sensed in their lives. It aims to give everyone a starting point to better understand the experiences of being Asian in the U.S.
The Legacy of Institutionalized Exclusion
From de-valuing human life at three-fifths of a person for political advantage to Jim Crow, the U.S. system of laws and regulations is no stranger to institutionalizing exclusion based on how people look and where they come from. ‘Institutionalization’ occurs when some practice or belief becomes codified in an authority system, such as the rule of law. The arrival of immigrants from China in the 19th century precipitated the institutionalization of a set of racist beliefs through the passage of legislation, most notably the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, that banned immigrants from China to the U.S. for more than 80 years. In 1924, the National Origins Act banned East Asian immigrants altogether. Subsequent laws further barred Asian people already living in the U.S. from holding a wide range of occupations. In effect, these laws not only restricted their labor market access, they also severed family bonds, preventing wives, husbands, and children across the Pacific from reuniting with one another in the U.S.
Why it matters. Despite being repealed in 1943, the legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act is still felt today. For example, because they were excluded from most other jobs, Chinese immigrants in the 19th century survived by performing undesirable tasks, such as operating laundry services in dangerous conditions. Today in New York, there are still laundry shops advertising their services with the words “Chinese Laundry,” a vestige of the hardships experienced by the Chinese population in the 19th century. The larger ramification is that excluding Asian immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries from the U.S. labor market prevented generations of Asian people from fulfilling their potential to become productive members of American society. Furthermore, the concentration of Chinese laundry service operators spread a racist myth of Asians as inscrutable mystics well into the 1970s and still is perpetuated via large media outlets (This is a Fox News segment from 2016 followed by a reaction piece from The Daily Show).
Podcast: “In the Shadow of Chinese Exclusion” (segment from Backstory podcast);
Video: “The Chinese Exclusion Act” (film from The American Experience series from PBS)
Article: “The Echoes of Chinese Exclusion” (The New Republic)
Book: The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America by Mae Ngai, Professor of History at Columbia University
The Model Minority Myth
Asians in the U.S. are often framed as a “model minority,” which refers to an externally imposed reputation of being high-achieving and rule-abiding. Upon first glance, it is tantalizing to think to oneself, if a stereotype happens to be positive, wouldn’t that be desirable for a racial or ethnic group? It is true that more than 50% of Asians in the US have bachelor’s degrees, compared with the national average of about 30% when excluding Asians. The median household income of Asian Americans ($87,000) is also 33% higher than the next highest group, white Americans ($65,000). What these data don’t reveal is that income inequality is also the highest within Asians in the U.S. than within any other group. Why is this the case?
The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 created several pathways for immigrants from Asia to come to the U.S. One major pathway was through student and work visas for highly trained and talented professionals from abroad, a subject that has been the focus of my research over the past decade. It is no surprise then, that when the first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived after 1965, they were painted in broad strokes with a cultural identity that conformed to that of a model minority. Furthermore, in re-integrating the tens of thousands of Japanese people who were confined to internment camps during World War II, many were given explicit instructions by the U.S. government to shed their Japanese identities to force their cultural conformity with the white neighborhoods to which they relocated. At the same time, many immigrants from Asia also came to America’s shores as refugees, another major pathway for inclusion. These Asian immigrants likewise came from China, Japan, and Korea, but they also came from the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia (and also Jamaica). Many Asians entering the country through this route do not fit the model minority mold quite as neatly.
Why it matters. Perpetuating the model minority myth harms all Asians in the U.S., including South Asians. It imposes a single character on the AAPI community in America, who are in fact composed of more than 40 diverse ethnic groups and national cultures. It creates assumptions about a person’s beliefs and tendencies that reduce that person to a false stereotype. It fabricates expectations about a person’s preferences and behaviors that when not met, subjects that person to arbitrary ridicule (think, “I thought all Asians were good at math.”). Moreover, viewing Asian individuals through the lens of a model minority can induce beliefs that Asians are a threat to other Americans, give license to treat Asians with aggression, and suppress their grievances whenever they are raised. Another cruel consequence is that framing Asians as a model minority can lead perpetrators to expect to have cover when leveling racist jokes and chicanery against Asian people because they believe that the high-achieving status ascribed to Asians is sufficient compensation (think, “It’s not a big deal to make fun of Asian people because they have it so good in the U.S. compared to other minority groups.”). Perhaps most sinister of all, the model minority myth is often used to justify the denigration of other marginalized groups by appealing to the success of Asians in America, which was in fact largely constructed and designed by U.S. immigration policy. The model minority label applied to Asians is not only a misguided representation, its belief prevents Asians and other minority groups from making meaningful contributions to American society.
Video: “How America Created the ‘Model Minority’ Myth” (video clip from Adam Ruins Everything)
Articles: “Beyond the Model Minority Myth” (Jacobin); “The mental health toll of being a ‘model minority’ in 2020” (NBC News)
Books: The Asian American Achievement Paradox by Jennifer Lee, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, and Min Zhou
The Bamboo Ceiling
In the corporate world, Asians face a bedeviling paradox. Although Asians are overrepresented in many of the country’s universities and high-status careers, they are effectively shut out from the upper levels of management. In 2018, despite comprising 6.5% of the U.S. population, only 3.8% of Fortune 100 board seats were held by Asians and Pacific Islanders, a smaller proportion than any other ethnic and racial minority in the U.S. For many Asians in the workplace, promotions continue until a managerial opportunity is next, at which point further ascension is nearly impossible. Researchers are still working out the reasons behind the Bamboo Ceiling. One theory suggests that the management of an organization is generally where dominant racial groups close ranks to anyone who lacks a cultural affinity to that group. Other recent findings show that observers associate East Asians with fewer leadership characteristics—most notably charisma—than they expect to see in executives.
Why it matters. Without Asian representation in the managerial ranks of an organization, it becomes harder to push for the equitable treatment of Asian workers at all levels across all sectors. Recall from above how the model minority label can do more harm than good to Asians by imposing race-based expectations on them that often serve as an arbitrary basis to exclude, dominate, and overlook them. Without representation in positions of power in organizations, the unseen indignities of being treated with these expectations go unchecked. Moreover, it creates the myth that Asians, as a category, lack the qualities of a leader and therefore do not deserve to be listened to. At worst, this becomes a self-colonizing myth, in which Asian people themselves behave according to an unfounded assumption about their own racial group.
Podcast: “Looking at The ‘Bamboo Ceiling’” (audio clip from NPR’s All Things Considered)
Articles: “Why East Asians but not South Asians are underrepresented in leadership positions in the United States” by Jackson Lu, who received his PhD from CBS, and Michael Morris, Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership at Columbia Business School (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences); “Asian Americans are the Least Likely Group in the U.S. to Be Promoted to Management” (Harvard Business Review)
Book: Stuck: Why Asian Americans Don’t Reach the Top of the Corporate Ladder by Margaret M. Chin
The Hyper-Sexualization of Asian Women and De-Sexualization of Asian Men
In Hollywood, women on film often gain notoriety as objects of sexual fascination whereas men typically have breakthrough roles associated with superlative strength, intellect, or charm. As problematic as this is, for Asians in Hollywood, the sexualization of women is pushed to extreme levels while Asian men usually play characters who are sexually inert and otherwise passive. Some exceptions are beginning to emerge, but the dominant narrative still pervades. Hit movies attract audiences and generate profits when they serve up familiar tropes, and it just so happens that audiences are most familiar with Asian women as hypersexualized objects and Asian men as passive and nerdy eunuchs. In fact, the legacy of sexually fetishizing Asian women has institutional roots: in 1875, the U.S. Congress passed the Page Act, which barred Asian women from entering the United States because of the belief that all women from China were prostitutes who carried venereal diseases (yes, this is actually in the U.S. Congressional Record).
Why it matters. In addition to the unique challenges that Asians face in American society—such as the Bamboo Ceiling and the legacy of institutionalized exclusion—they are often targets of a specific form of race-based gender discrimination across social settings and workplace environments. The spread of streaming and social platforms has only intensified the extent to which media infiltrates our lives. When stereotypical gender-binary portrayals of Asian men and women spread across Netflix and TikTok, it only reinforces preconceptions about Asian men as passive and impotent and Asian women as sexual temptations. Both treatments are especially pernicious because they dehumanize Asian people, conjuring a fantasy that their functions are either to have no sexual desire or to serve the most stigmatized of sexual desires. It goes without saying that the Atlanta shootings reveal the tragedy that can result from these assumptions.
Podcast/Video: “The Slanted Screen” (film from the Center for Asian American Media); “A Sociologist’s View on the Hyper-Sexualization Of Asian Women in American Society” (audio clip from NPR’s All Things Considered)
Articles: “2016: The Year in Asian-Americans Fighting Back in Hollywood” by E. Alex Jung, who received his BA from Columbia University in 2007 (Vulture)
Books: Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture by Gary Okihiro, Professor of Ethnic Studies at Columbia University until 2017
I have experienced each of the four phenomena described above in various forms. This might strike some readers as surprising, but to many other readers who have experienced the same, the descriptions above are painfully resonant and unfortunately routine. Here, “other readers” do not just refer to other Asians living in the U.S., but also to the many members of other marginalized communities, who have been silenced or oppressed because of some unfounded assumption about the racial or ethnic category they happen to belong to.
The recent wave of Anti-Asian violence—and the social movement against it—is inextricably woven into the narrative of shared injustice confronting all marginalized groups in the U.S. For example, exclusion from professions and elite institutions is familiar but painful territory for Jewish Americans in the early half of the 20th century. The brutality of recent incidents against Asians recalls memories of the murders of Vincent Chin and Emmett Till. And, let us not forget that the birth of the Asian American movement and political mobilization has deep roots in the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.
Is there an equivalence between the injustice felt by Asians in the current moment and by Black Americans after the murders of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor? And by Muslims after 9/11 or more recently, the ban on travel from the Middle East in 2017? And by members of the Latinx community amid the anti-immigrant vitriol symbolized by the Mexican border wall? Asking these questions misses the point. The circumstances of oppression are unique to each group, but all oppressed groups live in a shared reality. Supporting one another starts with understanding the roots of the pain and exclusion experienced by our most vulnerable friends, colleagues, and classmates. Only then can we hope to have the collective willpower to eradicate the ills of racial injustice.