Ni hao.” This foreign phrase ruined my day just two months ago. I’d recently moved to Denver and started a new career. I was excelling in my position, and nothing could hold me back — nothing but “ni hao.” I was walking into the office at 6:15 a.m., and a security guard (not Asian) decided to greet me in Chinese. I felt like no matter how much I succeed or how hard I worked, I would only be seen as “other.” And to tell the truth, it bothered me all day.
When I was growing up in Hawaii, being Japanese in the workforce felt like a privilege — when I moved to the continental U.S., it felt like a curse. Adapting to a new set of rules felt insurmountable when also balancing my values and my dignity.
The National Bureau of Economic Research working paper 9873 is titled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.” This experiment sought to measure racial discrimination in the labor market by responding with fictitious résumés to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers.
“To manipulate perception of race, each résumé is assigned either a very African-American-sounding name or a very white sounding name. The results show significant discrimination against African-American names: White names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews . . .
The amount of discrimination is uniform across occupations and industries. Federal contractors and employers who list “Equal Opportunity Employer” in their ad discriminate as much as other employers. We find little evidence that our results are driven by employers inferring something other than race, such as social class, from the names. These results suggest that racial discrimination is still a prominent feature of the labor market.”
When I first learned about this experiment, questions immediately started forming: Should I change my name (I really don’t like my first name)? When I name my future children, am I willing to sacrifice the names I truly desire for them just so that they can have successful careers? Am I willing to change who I am for someone else’s approval? The pride I had in my Japanese middle and last name were momentarily reduced, and I’ve struggled to find meaning in my name and as a perpetual foreigner in the workforce.
I’ve since realized that it would be a journey to value myself and find a way to own the situations I find myself in because of my ethnicity and heritage rather than let them own me.
I am no authority on this subject, but I simply wanted to share my experience and thoughts. I have decided that I should follow a certain set of guiding principles about being Asian American in the workforce:
- Don’t Dwell. The comments that I receive because of my race or appearance are truly worse than sticks and stones. They stick to me and can bother me for days or years. What I’ve learned is not to dwell on them. There are many ways to address them — education, humor, silence, etc. Don’t let anyone chip away at your self-worth.
Find the way that sits well with you and then do like T-Swift and “Shake It Off.”
- Don’t Self-Deprecate. You are not a stereotype; you’re an individual. You are not defined by anyone else; you are defined by your actions. Use your words to bring yourself up because there are more than enough people who are willing to put you down. Everything you say about yourself should be positive.
- Use Your Heritage and Experience to Your Advantage. Do you speak another language? Do you understand another culture? Do you have an in because of your ethnicity (i.e., a social club or business organization)? Capitalize on these talents and networks, contribute to them and grow your self-worth as a person and as a professional.
- Document Negative Incidents. Keep a record of incidents (especially related to gender or race) at the workplace, even the small ones. Anything that bothers you and takes your attention off of work is worthy of taking to Human Resources for discussion. If it comes to the point where you want to file a report about the issue, you’ll be prepared to address it with good documentation.
- Know Who You Can Talk to. Know who you can talk to at work and also which organizations you can talk to outside of work. Your immediate supervisor and your Human Resources department should be the only people you’re sharing sensitive information with. If you don’t see results by talking with them, then seek help outside of your workplace.
- If You’re a Woman, Things Can Be Even More Difficult for You. Even if it’s not a direct form of discrimination, many women have faced some form of inequity in the workplace. This can be in the form of assigning responsibilities, which influences promotions, pay and job classification. Respect yourself and learn how to advocate for yourself. You deserve it!
- WORK HARD! Give it all you got. As I said, your actions are a reflection of your character, so don’t slack. Only from working hard will you have the confidence to succeed at any task in life.
Rhianna Taniguchi is an account executive at the Denver Post. She was the 2014 JACL Norman Y. Mineta Fellow.