Owning my racial identity took some time. Growing up as a first-generation Chinese American in New Jersey, I was made fun of for being Asian. And when I looked around me, it was non-Asians who represented success and coolness to me, so that’s who I found myself emulating.
I succeeded in realizing aspects of the American dream, but I did so in ways that often downplayed rather than celebrated my heritage—and there’s some shame in admitting that. With time, I’ve reflected and recalibrated. I’ve embraced a stronger appreciation for how my race has shaped me and will continue to.
Now as a married man with two bicultural daughters, I feel a much deeper connection to my Asian roots. The result isn’t merely heightened pride and comfort in who I am. My own self-discovery has changed how I process the world, with a deeper drive to champion what diversity brings to individuals and society.
As if trying to make sense of a global pandemic isn’t enough, we’ve also been thrown heightened dimensions of race, politics and culture to ponder. Though there have been shared moments of hope, this virus has been far from an equalizer. Instead, it has shined the light on a range of systemic inequalities, whether it be the digital divide, the disparity in death rate by race or the reported inequities associated with job flexibility and unemployment claims within the black, Latinx and Asian communities. And with this pandemic coinciding with Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I’m particularly incensed by the fear and hatred that has been directed toward my community specifically.
In the past month alone, 1,500 racist incidents against Asian Americans were reported. It doesn’t sit well with me that nearly 20% of those reports came from my Bay Area home, which has often been considered a safe haven for Asians in the U.S. We see it in Google search data, too, with search interest in “attacks on Asians” reaching a dramatic high in March 2020, with the highest relative intensity of searches in New York, California and Texas.
There’s also the more explicit finger-pointing trend, with searches for “China to blame for coronavirus” spiking over 5,000% in the past 90 days in the U.S. And then there’s the ignorance and discrimination posing as humor, like the spike in search interest for “bat fried rice T-shirt.”
On the other side of the numbers are emotional stories of real people—including myself—being called out or confronted for being Asian. But we can’t just turn inward and make it an “us or them” dynamic because diversity is not a zero-sum game. Instead, each of us must take the opportunity to think more broadly about what inclusiveness should look like among all identities and what active role we can play.
We have to do this as marketers, too, because brands (especially big ones) wield tremendous power in how attitudes are formed and ultimately how society evolves. This transcends Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and any specific moment, identity or community. Authentically and consistently championing diversity, equity and inclusion help move diversity from being seen as a moment, like APAH Month, to a movement.
Here are three facets to consider:
Commit to continual progress
Bias is stubborn and sneaky. It has a way of creeping into our processes and our work if we’re not vigilant in defending against it. To work toward a more equitable world means continually deepening our understanding of privilege and power. In other words, our work is never done here.
Evolving our hiring practices and workplace culture is a good start, but we should also strive to constantly chip away at the systemic inequities that exist in society and thus in our programs, products and campaigns. We’ll know we’re making progress when marketers on our teams are troubled by an Asian or Latina represented in a subservient role, or when we are building accessibility into our products from the start.
Every facet of product and campaign development should be an opportunity to embed diverse perspectives. That’s how we graduate beyond inclusive marketing as a checkbox to happen before a casting call to it being a consistent presence, from insights gathering to agency selection to music choice to how our registration forms are written to team makeup to which networks we advertise on.
Elevate communities through our craft
Few things shift hearts and minds more than a moving story. As storytellers, we have an opportunity–and responsibility–to use our craft to elevate and celebrate under- or misrepresented communities. We can recognize them. Validate them. Pay homage to their experiences and to their contributions. In doing so, we can make people think just a bit differently or reflect just a bit more deeply. Who didn’t feel something from the AdCouncil’s “Love Has No Labels” work? Or get fired up by P&G’s empowering “#LikeAGirl“ campaign? That work has always spoken to me as a marketer and as a father to two young girls. When we see someone in the media who looks like us, and they’re not represented as a trope or stereotype, our own understanding of who we can be and what we can achieve starts to expand.
Advocate through bold action
Brands are forces, and their force can be directed in ways that not only share a stance but that demonstrate real skin in the game. Doing so can quickly become tangled in politics these days, but it’s worth asking what big, meaningful action we can take that proves commitment to being part of the solution. Maybe it’s teaming up with local governments to chip away at the digital divide so lack of access to Wi-Fi or technology aren’t inhibitors for student success. Maybe it’s taking a very public position on a key social issue.
How might brands not only show support but also action change in the Asian American community? What learnings can we bring from one community to another?
Xenophobia toward Asians existed long before Covid-19 and will exist after the pandemic retreats. We can’t solve racism, but let’s not waste the opportunity in front of us. Covid-19 has delivered a shared experience that’s unprecedented for every type of person around the globe. It’s a unique chance to galvanize behind our shared humanity and recommit to driving unity.
WHO director general Tedros Adhanom said it best: “Let hope be the antidote to fear. Let solidarity be the antidote to blame. Let our shared humanity be the antidote to our shared threat.”
Overcoming this pandemic means overcoming the bias that exists in all of us. It means owning your identity and being proud of who you are without threat of persecution, ridicule or violence, but it also means making room for others so we can rise together.
Multiple organizations are working tirelessly to fight racism and xenophobia toward Asian Americans, especially now. I encourage you to learn about their efforts and support any that speak to you. A few examples include Stop AAPI Hate, which captures reports of racist incidents; Act to Change, which has organized a #DayAgainstBullying; and Ascend, which has issued a collaborative Covid-19 action response.