WE ARE HERE: ASIAN AMERICAN LEADERS

Asian Americans are widely viewed as “model minorities” on the basis of education, income and competence. But they are perceived as less ideal than Caucasian Americans when it comes to attaining leadership roles in U.S. businesses and board rooms, according to researchers at the University of California, Riverside.

This study is so obvious fascinating for so many reasons.

I go to meeting after meeting, professional conference after professional conference, panel discussion after panel discussion, and I am usually the only Asian American in the room. Sometimes, no lie, the only Asian American in the building. Okay, I’m lying. I’m probably not the only Asian American in the building; but, I’m sure as heck one of the few who I see out in the public light speaking my mind, facilitating workshops, stirring up controversy, and doing what I do best: BEING A LEADER. What do we need? We need more Asian Americans in leadership.

 

That’s why I love ASPIRE. ASPIRE is an organization of amazing Asian American women who are committed to learning about, sharing, and passing on leadership that empowers others. ASPIRE rooms are filled with dedicated, motivated, passionate, and socially just women who strongly believe – and practice – thoughtful mentoring. And, through these interactions, meetings and shared spaces, we encourage leadership.


At a fairly early age, and I mean in my 20s, I was taught I could be a leader. I was taught that I had the confidence, the intelligence, and the maturity to actually influence minds, hearts, and pocketbooks of people. I was encouraged to study Public Speaking, was mentored through effective lesson planning, lead professional workshops, and facilitated difficult and meaningful dialogue. I took charge over groups, programs and projects. Outside of my family, (my parents still believe in a “low profile” kind of existence) I was taught to tell my story, to serve as a spokesperson, and to be the public face of a number of causes and organizations. And, I was speaking out about things that my family – my culture – told me I shouldn’t be talking about: race, power, racism, privilege, personal issues, strength, and leadership.

 

In short, I was groomed for Leadership.

 

But, don’t get me wrong. I fought for every single step I’ve taken. I’ve had to battle stereotypes, bust through some glass ceilings, and work 200x harder just to get a seat at the table. And, despite my ability to work across the aisle, to approach situations with confident assertiveness, and possessing the qualities of  an outstanding leader, I walk every day in a body that is still poked with the glass shards from above me. I feel the sting of the bamboo ceiling, the cuts of the glass ceiling, and the every day assumption that I am not a leader. And, if I don’t walk carefully or duck my head low enough, the glass ceiling reminds me that its there. Every day.

If there are no examples of leaders of your race or gender, you’re less likely to believe you are leader-like and consequently you don’t aspire to be a leader,” he explained.

I’m 35 years old young. I’ve been a professional student since I was 5 years old. I’ve seen a lot of people, been to school with a lot of students, and played with lots of kids in the school yard, study room, on the athletic fields, and in road races. I have never had an Asian American teacher. Never. I have never been in a classroom where an Asian American stood in front of me and taught me, encouraged me, or learned with me. Now, the statistics show that Asian Americans are high achievers in education, in doctoral programs, and in post-doctoral programs. Yet never, ever, have I had an Asian American (or Asian national, for that matter) educator.

I’ve never had an Asian American coach.

I have never had an Asian American supervisor or boss.

I have never had an Asian American adviser or mentor.

And, only last year, did I work on a staff with an Asian American colleague.

I am currently the only Asian American director at my work.

 

I’ve been around the educational and professional block a few times, and yet the neighborhood has looked remarkably unremarkably the same.

 

So, if We are a model minority. If We are a culturally educated population. If We are supposedly surpassing the majority population in jobs and taking over coveted spots in higher education, then why are We not in leadership?

Asian Americans represent approximately 5 percent of the U.S. population and are projected to account for 9 percent of the population by 2050. However, they account for only .3 percent of corporate officers, less than 1 percent of corporate board members and about 2 percent of college presidents, despite their higher representation in business and professional occupations.

While there are institutional and structural challenges (along with inherent biases) for Asian Americans in leadership, I strongly believe that the first step is in being aware of the very stereotypes that we, and others, hold of us as Asian Americans:

Traits often associated with Asian Americans, such as social introversion, emotional withdrawal, verbal inhibition, passivity, a quiet demeanor and a reserved manner.

 

For many of us, those traits are true (just as they are with any person, regardless of race). Our challenges as Asian Americans — if we aspire to leadership positions — is in breaking down those stereotypes in a genuine and functional way. Know the stereotypes. Come up with a personal strategy that is comfortable for you, genuine to you, and resonates with you. Then, use those strategies to bust through the glass/bamboo/shit covered ceilings. Once you do, once you’re on your way, inspire other Asian Americans. Let them know it’s possible. But, do more than just tell them. Show them. Help them. Work with them. Mentor them.

 

It’s not that we aren’t good leaders.

It’s that we are perceived not to be.

But, the perception isn’t just in the mind. It’s institutional. It’s structural. And, it’s real. We need to find ways to productive increase Asian American leaders in positions of influence so that we can show — as a community of people — that we are good leaders. That we are agents of change. And, that we are here.

OH HAPPY DAY …

I grew up in a white, Irish Catholic suburb of Boston. My town was so overwhelmingly Catholic that I saw my same school friends 6 days a week — Monday through Friday I saw them at school; Sunday I saw them at CCD, a Catholic education program that teaches children about sacraments of the church, biblical readings and how to always feel guilty for bad thoughts and deeds.

 

As kids, we always geared up for Christmas and Easter. I’m sure the few Jewish students and the even fewer Atheists at my school somehow managed to get swept right into the mix of Catholic and Christian holidays.
But there was one day — one day — where everyone seemed to share the same interest. The same background. The same heritage.

 

That day was St. Patrick’s Day. A day when, no matter if you were Asian, Black, Hispanic, Jewish, or Italian, you were Irish.


Sure, slight correction. You may not have been suddenly and magically made Irish for the day, but you sure as heck wore green. A sea of children became unrecognizable as the chill of the March landscape became overwhelmed with kelly green, lime green, dark green and white green. If we moved fast enough, our group of children appeared to be wisps of grass blowing in the cold March air.


Everyone wanted to be Irish.


Working at a Catholic college, the ramp up to St. Patrick’s Day reaches epic proportions. Though many do share the ethnic Irish heritage, few embrace foundations of the religious meaning of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Rather than attend church in observance of a holy day of obligation, many go to the local church, the Church of Beer. And, like nearly everything on that day, even the beer is green.  No matter where you go or who you are, you are wished a “Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!”


Though my family is not Chinese, we celebrate Chinese New Year. We don’t go all out — we don’t close up shop, surround ourselves with family, nor eat until our bellies extend past our knees. Rather, we take key aspects of the tradition and share it with our children. Admittedly, we Google which Lunar New Year it is and which animal sign is associated with that year. We wear red. We clean the house thoroughly the night prior. We sometimes get a new haircut (if we’ve planned enough in advance). I have a stash of red envelopes in my office drawer that I take out once a year and present to my kids.

 

On that day, I wish everyone I meet a “Happy New Year.” Mostly, I get funny looks. Usually, I have a second to explain that it’s Lunar New Year. Then, I nearly always get “But, Liza, you’re not Chinese.”

 

My response: “Recognizing that others celebrate traditions around the world isn’t dependent on me being that identity.”

 

I’m not being un-authentic. I know that I’m not Chinese. And, I know not to go so far as to offend a cultural tradition that spans thousands of years. I don’t pretend to be Chinese nor do I pretend to know more about Lunar New Year than the average person. But I do know that we need to expand our view of who’s holidays we celebrate, who’s holidays we hear about, and who’s holidays we see as weird or strange.

 

I want my children — my students, my colleagues, my friends, strangers — to be reminded that our country is made up of many different cultures and traditions. That the beauty of the United States is that people have the freedom to celebrate their faiths and beliefs without persecution. And, of course, we don’t always live up to that foundational belief of our country when we deem other people’s cultural traditions as “not-American.”

 

I recently was having coffee with a Vietnamese friend of mine who said that, earlier, a white woman smiled at her and said, “Happy New Year.” Though the exchange was brief and seemed friendly, my friend was pissed off. “Why the heck does she have to assume that I’m Chinese? This whole we-all-look-alike mess has got to end!” she exclaimed. “Girl,” I replied. “I kind of give that lady props for even knowing it was Lunar New Year. After all, how many people don’t even give a damn right now or who think that celebrating lunar-rabbit-anything is some ancient Chinese secret?”

 

I admit. On Chinese New Year, I wish everyone a “Happy New Year”, too. But, it’s not because I ignorantly think everyone is Chinese; I do it because I want to honor that we almost never get to celebrate our cultural heritage and most certainly never have it recognized by our fellow Americans. When I wish you a “Happy New Year”, it’s because we share a community of memory, a shared experience of simply having black hair, almond shaped eyes, and an assumption of what we sound like even before we open our mouths. We share a common experience of being both invisible and being a model of success. We share a common experience of being both loved and hated. We share a common experience of being both motivated and overbearing.

 

While we may never be able to know every cultural holiday nor every cultural tradition, it is important for us to include the diverse perspectives that make up our country and society. So, if I wish you a Happy New Year or Happy Saint Patrick’s Day or Happy Easter, Rosh Hashanah, Eid Sa’eed, or Happy Earth Day .. it’s because I want you to know that we can respect traditions of others. That, to be a truly inclusive society, we must include the traditions of others.

 

So, happy day to you!