This piece was originally published in AdWeek as part of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
Owning my racial identity took some time. Growing up, 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. As a first-gen Chinese American, 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.
But with time, and kids of my own, I’ve reflected and recalibrated. I’ve faced the sad truth that teasing and name-calling don’t represent fleeting childish behaviors. I’ve embraced a stronger appreciation for how my race has shaped me and will continue to. And I feel a much deeper connection to my Asian roots. The result isn’t merely heightened pride and comfort in who I am. It’s also a new view on my role as a citizen and as a business leader with a deeper drive to champion what diversity brings to individuals and society. My own self-discovery has changed how I process the world.
Though there have been shared moments of hope, this virus has been far from an “equalizer.”
For all of us, “processing the world” has gone into overdrive due to COVID-19. As if trying to make sense of a pandemic and its lasting behavioral repercussions weren’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 inequities associated with job flexibility and unemployment claims within the Black and Latinx 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 the Asian American community were reported. Of course, that’s a mere sampling of what’s actually happening. It also 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 our Google Search data too. Searches for “attacks on asians” reached a dramatic high in March 2020.1
We also see the finger-pointing trend more explicitly, with search interest for “china to blame for coronavirus” spiking more than 5,000% over the past 90 days in the U.S.2 And then there’s ignorance and discrimination posing as humor, like the spike in search interest for “bat fried rice t-shirt.”3
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.
On the other side of the numbers are emotional stories of real people, including myself, being called out or confronted for our Asianness. But we can’t just turn inward and make it an “us or them” thing, 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, of course, and any specific moment, identity, or community. Authentically and consistently championing diversity, equity, and inclusion move us from diversity being seen as a moment, like APAH month, to a movement. Here are three facets to consider:
1. 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 our 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 woman 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 box to check before a casting call to it being a consistent presence — from insights gathering to agency selection, from music choice to how our registration forms are written, from team makeup to what networks we advertise on.
2. 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. I personally was extremely inspired by “The Most Searched” spot Google aired during Black History Month, which so poignantly celebrates Black historymakers. And who didn’t feel something from the Ad Council’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 but, more importantly, as a father to two young girls. Because 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.
3. Advocate through bold action. Brands are forces — and those forces can be directed in ways that not only share a stance, but demonstrate real skin in the game. Yes, doing so can quickly become tangled in politics these days. But it’s worth asking: What big, meaningful action can we take that proves our 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, like Google’s long-standing support of the LGBTQ+ community and marriage equality. This month I’ve found myself pondering what the parallel might be for the Asian American community. How might brands not only show support, but also action change? 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 rally around 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.”