This week I had the privilege of interviewing Yinnan Shen, a consultant and coach with Logos Consulting Group. Shen also leads the “Elevating Multicultural Competence” elective at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. She researches topics around diversity and inclusion, cross-cultural communications, and the neuroscience and psychology of leadership.
What unique challenges have you experienced as an Asian-American in business?
Having a non-American name is the first challenge. People often mispronounce my name without trying to figure out the correct pronunciation, or just choose to not engage with me to avoid embarrassment or discomfort, which can cost me professionally. This is always a dilemma for us – do we keep our unique name and risk getting less opportunities, or do we adopt an American name and risk losing our identities?
Because of the model minority myth, we Asian Americans are extra pressured to prove our worthiness in the workplace. We’re constantly in the mindset that respect to us is earned not given. We must not let people down, we must be diligent and perform well, otherwise we don’t deserve to be part of America. Additionally, because of the persistent sense of otherness we feel in this country, we’re accustomed to just be quiet and work hard. “If I can just blend into the mass, maybe no one would notice that I’m different, maybe I would belong.”
There are also unique challenges being an Asian woman in the workplace. Since Asian women have been historically sexualized and exotified in the western culture, men can treat us frivolously if we’re not careful. The onus is again on us to dress more conservatively, to carry ourselves with more assertiveness and extra level of professionalism in order to be taken seriously.
Have you experienced a noticeable difference in discrimination since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes, especially being Chinese. I had friends on Facebook leaving racist comments under my posts. Before we started to work from home, I had multiple encounters such as a woman staring at me with hostility on a train for the whole trip, or a cashier treating me very differently from the other customers.
How do you cope with discrimination, and what might you suggest to other Asian-American professionals who might be facing the same discrimination?
Given all the anti-Asian hate happening around the country now, my top priority as an Asian woman is my safety. So, I try to engage as little as possible or just withdraw from the situation whenever possible.
However, if I can be sure that I’m in a physically safe environment, such as a professional social setting, I would push back and let the person know the action or language is unacceptable. If the discrimination/harassment cannot be resolved or is even escalated, report it to whomever has the authority to resolve the situation. I advise all my Asian and Asian American fellows to do the same. We’ve stayed silent for long enough. We each have a share of responsibility to tell our stories and to make our voices heard.
What are some of the key factors in overcoming acts of discrimination?
Culture change will be the key, whether for an organization or for a country as a whole. And the culture shift needs to come from the top. For example, the escalating anti-Asian hatred we’re seeing now was at least partially caused by Trump’s anti-China language and branding of COVID-19 as the “China Flu” or “Kung flu.” Through his language and actions, he pitted the entire country against the Asian community and signaled to people that harming Asians was acceptable and even encouraged.
Leaders have a responsibility to model and reward the behaviors they hope to see more. They also have the responsibility to create an inclusive environment, where resources are equally distributed, and where all people are treated with respect and valued as who they are.
Until an inclusive culture is in place, any progress in overcoming acts of discrimination will be limited.
What can non-Asian Americans do to support their Asian American friends and colleagues who are facing discrimination in the workplace or on the street?
The answer to this rise in hate and violence may be deceptively simple: We must stand in solidarity with one another – with the Asian community, with the black community, with the Latino community, with the indigenous community, with the LGBTQIA community, and all other marginalized groups.
The systems of oppression and hate that we face thrive off our division. White supremacy relies on each of our communities that have been oppressed to fight alone and to fight against one another. But when all those who face oppression and our allies stand together, when we fight for one another instead of against each other, when we lift up each other’s struggles rather than tear down and compare our struggles, when we recognize that, as Emma Lazarus said, “until we are all free none of us is free,” we have a chance to make the dream of a better, freer, more just country a reality.
You can follow Yinnan on LinkedIn.