Ep 10: Combating racial bias, xenophobia, and discrimination

Ascend Canada > Blog > Podcast > Ep 10: Combating racial bias, xenophobia, and discrimination



Since the onset of the pandemic, hate crimes and racist attacks targeted at Asians have surged across North America. In our latest episode, Janice Liu, SVP & GM, Magnet, reflects on how the Asian community has been hurting, and the leadership that’s required to dismantle our current systems that breed inequity. Tune-in for more on the harmful effects of the model minority myth, the role it plays on the Asian identity, and the importance of speaking up even if it’s uncomfortable.

TRANSCRIPT

Varun:

Hello everyone. I’m Varun Chandrasekar. I’m usually the producer of the Ascend Together podcast, but today I’m your host for a very important conversation. A brief warning to listeners, we’re going to be diving into the rise of anti-Asian hate crime. So this conversation may have content and language that may be upsetting to some. Since the onset of the Corona virus pandemic, Asian Americans and Asian Canadians have faced immense racially motivated discrimination, abuse, and violence. Anti-Asian hate crimes have increased by 150% in the US. The story, sadly, hasn’t been a lot different in Canada. In Vancouver alone, racist attacks targeting Asians have increased by nearly 700% since 2019.

Joining me today is Janice Liu who leads the data engineering and consultancy, Magnet. Janice has been a vocal advocate and champion for inclusion through her work on various boards, including co-founding Filling The Gap, a Toronto based women empowerment not-for-profit conference that donates all proceeds to the Barbara Schlifer Commemorative Clinic. Janice also runs the tech startup Retreat, which has a mission of making wellness and beauty inclusive for everyone. Janice, thank you for being here today. I want to start off by asking a question that we don’t ask ourselves enough during these times. How are you feeling right now and how have you been processing everything that’s been happening over the past few days and weeks?

Janice:

Thanks for having me. I’ll start by saying that it’s been challenging. There was a point when you and I first spoke about a week ago, where I was actually physically feeling it in my body, the burden of stress. Something happened in my processing that really just struck a chord. And I had neck pain for about a week, where I couldn’t really physically move. So I’m better now, but I don’t think it was a exclusive thing just to me, a lot of folks were feeling this all over the world. And I know a lot of people, particularly Asian women, have been feeling a lot of bodily pain, which is a signal that our bodies are collectively not handling what’s going on very well.

So people and women, like I said, particularly who look like me are, or have been now gunned down in north America because of the way they look because of situations that are not known or not called out right now by the media as a race crime. But that’s very traumatizing as you can imagine. And it adds a lot of stress and just negative energy into the collective consciousness as a whole.

Varun:

I’m very sorry to hear that, Janice. But I’m also glad you made a specific call out to women because any conversation around this topic is incomplete without also acknowledging the increased violence experienced by women. Janice, I want to talk about a particular aspect of these hate crimes. Just a few days ago, we saw another attack on a 65 year old woman in Manhattan. Writer and novelist, Viet Thanh Nguyen, said, “The woman being violently attacked as the first crime, but the second crime is a guard who sees her on the ground and then casually closes the door. The crime of doing nothing.” This is so sad to see. How do we reprogram our minds and drive our communities to take action, so we don’t turn a blind eye?

Janice:

I mean, I think the first thing is that we’re getting so desensitized. The incident that happened in Manhattan really showed a few things. One was that the bystander who actually casually closed the door and turned a blind eye, was committing a crime, doing nothing as a whole as well. Because I get it. It’s New York, it’s public. There’s a lot of people, but what that individual really didn’t realize is that by closing the door, he was also being complicit to a system that was meant to protect the majority and the many, but has failed enormously. When we get desensitized as a society, you lose your humanity. The other thing I’ve observed is that most Asian people have a tendency to keep their heads down and not say anything at all, even when something is bothering them. So why is that? I think it’s related to a few things.

One is a cultural component, but the other is this concept of space. And what I mean by space is that, in a system where there’s complete equitability, everyone should be feeling safe. Everyone should be feeling comfortable and sharing feelings and ideas in their own way, by fully so. But if you haven’t been taught your whole life to speak up, if you haven’t been taught your whole life to step out to take that space, because not only is it against your cultural upbringing and norm, but it’s also because you have not been made to feel safe when you’ve spoken before. Why would we say anything now?

Varun:

It’s interesting, you bring up the idea of cultural upbringing versus the very psychological safety to speak up. What do you think has changed now?

Janice:

That’s a good question. I mean, George Floyd’s murder last year was a catalyst for not just the black community globally, but a wake up call that you just couldn’t look away from. His murder, George Floyd’s murder was also the impetus, really, for myself to really lean in to taking action, but also leading several DNI committees, councils within my organization and my community. In my organization, which is a conglomerate of 40 plus agencies in North America, it’s been very challenging because of the fact that some of this is just hard to dissect.

It’s also very uncomfortable for particularly white people to lead these streams because it doesn’t look authentic. It doesn’t look like the experience should be held there. And the lived experience probably isn’t and they themselves don’t feel comfortable or welcome, which is the other big problem. So by participating, though, in the existing system, and what I mean by the existing system is the system of economics. The system of capitalism, the system of our organizations that we live in today that require us to participate in and shouldering most of that D&I work for an organization that has mainly white leaders or made up of the white population, is in itself performative. And so, struggling with that has been something that I’ve been really reconciling over the past few weeks.

Varun:

The thing that struck me most about what you said is really around the system and how it affects you in so many different ways and in so many parts of your life. How it almost is creating this fear of living everyday, as you step out of your home, wondering if you might be the next victim. I think that’s a really horrible, horrible thing. Where do you think this comes from, Janice, and how do we get past this?

Janice:

I mean, we’ve lived through a pandemic, right? And we’ve seen a lot of change already. A lot of change, actually, probably more than some of us have seen in a lifetime, but the systems that we’ve created our world around. They themselves haven’t changed. They haven’t adapted, they haven’t moved. They haven’t, essentially, become more equitable. And so I think we’re at a breaking point now because of how much pressure and stress the system is under, it feels like it’s almost going to break. Women are going backwards and choosing to stay at home versus going to work because of our inequity to be able to allow them to be able to childcare, but also work. I think there was a stat that said the pandemic has set women back by a generation, or at least 36 years. People of color, particularly the black, brown communities are no longer wanting to participate.

And now those who are Asian identifying are waking up more viscerally as well. I myself, who seems like she can navigate this current structure, white North American systems, I myself am questioning this and even ready to leave the system sometimes. And that’s the most disheartening part because I did choose to participate and I did choose to be involved and engaged. Right? So as you’re making people aware and bring attention to this, many of them are also getting quite defensive. For a lot of my white colleagues, it’s also uncomfortable. And I wouldn’t imagine it not being so. But I think the point is, we’re not asking those who have taken space this whole time, we’re not asking you to experience colonization. We’re not asking you to experience slavery or experience what we have lived through, from an experience perspective. We’re just simply asking you to listen and be uncomfortable. That’s the kind of leadership you want.

Varun:

That’s powerful. I feel like as people of color, we’ve become way too good at compartmentalizing. All of these last few days and weeks, I’ve seen my friends and colleagues bottle up their sadness and rage and forced themselves to smile in meetings. Pretend that everything’s okay. Imagine the privilege of never having to do that. Has that been hard to reconcile for you, Janice?

Janice:

Yes, absolutely. I have also had to compartmentalize and separate. And this privilege that you speak of, of never having to push your traumas aside and put on a fake mask in fear of making someone else uncomfortable, is insane to say out loud, but it’s internalized and conditioned into the black, indigenous and people of color communities in this country. Since 2019, we’ve seen the rise of anti-Asian racism and anti-Asian hate, which has technically also always been there. From the Japanese internment camps in the 40s due to World War II, to the Chinese head tax in the 1880s, where Chinese citizens were imported into Canada to essentially build railroads for unequal pay, of course. But guess what? Racist unequal systems hit those who are not at the top against each other, which is essentially the Model Minority Myth. That’s how powerful white supremacy is as an ideology that we all subscribed to without even realizing.

As a society, we’ve also been so focused on one traumatic incident that causes harm to one single community at a time versus the coming together of communities who have all experienced depression. We tend to not recognize that keeping a gender pay gap, discriminating against one racial group or not acknowledging the horrendous racist histories against indigenous peoples of this land is all connected.

Another example is that there hasn’t even been a light shown on anti-brown or anti-Muslim sentiment in North America. We have allowed ourselves to discriminate against Muslim and brown men so openly, from our security checks at the airport to the experience, even on a flight, for some of these individuals and families. Why is that? Because 9/11 happened so long ago and we didn’t yet have, perhaps, this collective awakening and consciousness to understand that although 9/11 terrorists were perpetrators, why did we really have to blame anyone who had brown skin in North America right after? That’s called hate begetting hate.

So enough is enough. Similar to what you said, we’ve all had to compartmentalize, diminish, reduce and put on a smile this whole time, because we never paused to question and think, how dare anyone feel sadness and anger and disappointment? That a system we have so actively supported, participated in and made money for has abandoned us like this. It’s so obvious now you can’t look away. So to the leaders we have today, who are having a hard time understanding this, it’s natural to become defensive and triggered. It’s very natural. But if you don’t understand, please educate yourself and be uncomfortable and seek other perspectives. Just like any form of growth, it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be uncomfortable. But if you’re comfortable compartmentalizing, expecting others to do so, that is not the reality we are living in.

Varun:

Wow. So much to unpack in that response. You raised so many important points and maybe a difficult one to push is having that dialogue, even if it makes you uncomfortable. I’m also reminded of something the diversity and inclusion advocate, Lilly Zheng, mentions, about not looking at discomfort as the end goal, but using your discomfort to learn and educate yourself. And a key part to better understand this issue, as you pointed out, is to look at the Model Minority Myth that seeks to pit races against each other. And it’s been a common strategy used by colonizers, has convinced the Asian community to be obedient, not speak up and almost implicitly accept pain in exchange for their survival. It is the myth that tells black people, for instance, that centuries of oppression and racism can be overcome by hard work and strong family values. Could you tell us more about the ways in which you see the Model Minority Myth causing harm and how can we address it?

Janice:

That’s a great question. I actually think it’s a mind shift that has to happen. I think it’s a way of viewing the world. The way of viewing the world right now, especially the Model Minority Myth, is from a place of scarcity. It’s like this women against men thing, it’s not conducive. It’s not productive. It really doesn’t help anyone achieve anything.

If you look back about five, 10 years ago, there used to be very few women in a boardroom. And we used to think as women that there’s only one spot for one of us, and I’d rather fight you, the other woman, to take your seat versus give up mine. But it’s not like that anymore. Partially, because we all realize that it actually needs to change to a mind shift of abundance, to a place where you need more women in the room to understand that it’s not just one seat and that if you do pin someone down and you do essentially ostracize someone, you’re actually, again, like I said, being complicit. And the intersectionality of all of this is crazy in the country that we live in because of how mixed and how multicultural this place is.

The identity construct itself has also been something at the forefront of a driving force to everything we’re experiencing right now. Identity constructs are essentially this concept of, I can choose how I identify. You can look at me and say, you’re an Asian female, but what if I was trans? What if I was queer? What if I’m half black, but you can’t see that on my skin. And I think what’s happening is, because we are now finally recognizing that there’s so much intangible things we haven’t seen, that there is a space for that and it’s better respected. So organizations really need to realize this. This isn’t going away. This is the future. And this is, essentially, what’s going to help us get to that next step from a leadership perspective. But if you don’t change and you don’t understand this, you’re going to lose out in a talent war, is what I think is going to happen.

Varun:

It’s great to be reassured that it’s not zero-sum. And it’s unfortunate that a lot of people see it that way. The other thing that I really connected with, what you said, was the identity construct. As a newcomer to Canada, myself, I often find myself torn between worlds and cultures. I’m constantly struggling to balance between being too Indian on some occasions and then not being Indian enough in others. But I want to focus on a focus on identity for a moment. What does it mean to be Asian? Are there definitions?

Janice:

Wow, it’s a hard question. I don’t think there are any generalizations in hold that are actually non-stereotypical that we can all subscribe to. Of course, we do have those stereotypical traits such as Asians are usually meek and mild and hardworking, but it’s obviously not all encompassing. I think the meek and mild part, particularly, is something I’ve never really identified with as an Asian woman in this country. And it’s funny how people are so comfortable branding me with that type of description. Right? But at the end of the day, my identity is mine. And I think identity is very individual. So, in actuality, if you want to cast a broad brush across just all Asians, that in itself is too reductionist, it’s not enough. And when it comes to North American identities and trying to fit in to a specific structure, it’s really challenging, particularly for those who are coming here for work, for immigration, to be with family, even.

If I had kept my Chinese name growing up, would I be here now? Maybe. But I probably might’ve had to work in a different way. Maybe highly unlikely, even. Separately, we all know that using, “You don’t have that Canadian experience, or you’re not a cultural fit”, during a hiring process is gross. It’s just pure discrimination. It’s not acceptable. Why? Because you, as the person in power, don’t have the openness of awareness to extend a little bit further, to truly understand if the person you’re interviewing or speaking with has the real right transferable skills. I’m also actually taking accountability and admitting that I have been a culprit of that behavior. I have used those words before. Now that I’m more aware, I’ve spent a lot of time unlearning and unpacking and relearning and understanding and choosing my behaviors and how I want to behave and how I want to act. And I see many, at least of my generation, for sure, that are doing this work.

Varun:

So many important themes there in that response. And I’m glad you brought up names in particular, because I really wanted to spend a little bit of time here. We know that many Asian immigrants Anglicized their names to fit into Western society. If you think about it, changing your very name in order to fit in as the ultimate symbol of where power and control lie. And research sadly supports this as well, showing that whitened names lead to more job interviews or more chances of getting hired. How do we dismantle a system like this and push for more inclusivity?

Janice:

Wow, that’s a big question. I mean, I think you can’t dismantle the whole thing. I think every part of the system needs to get looked at and needs to get changed. Similar to you, I haven’t had that experience because my name is Anglicized, but I’ve had friends, particularly actually a Malaysian friend, who chose to change her name when she first came to the country and even applied to the same companies by switching her name. And obviously the name with the English sounding name got the interview. And that which sounded foreign did not. So maybe, I don’t know. Is that acceptable? Of course not. Right?

But I think we’ve changed and we’re trying to keep changing. And how do you really become more inclusive in that whole process? We have to look at the whole experience of an employee from the beginning to the time they leave. And the hiring and the recruitment side of it it needs to be really, really strong because the reason why we feel the need to change our name to be accepted is a betrayal of our own identity, but it is also us being complicit to a system. And those who are in HR, those who are hiring managers, your role is to be curious, your role is to be almost overly curious to understand how you can see this person fitting into your organization. Not about this person changing absolutely who they are, putting on a mask and coming to work. Because not only is that not conducive to effective work, as in, you’re not even going to probably get productive output from someone, but you don’t make people feel like they belong.

It’s as if we’re trying to solve these things right now, by putting key hires into place of people of color, because it’s in itself a faster point to action. But if you bring someone in to a space that’s very, very uncomfortable, like a very white space for someone who is a person of color, it’s going to be very, very challenging for them to even feel like they belong.

Varun:

Yeah. I like the reframe you suggested. That let’s just check our own biases and blind spots. Because if you think about it, our names reflect our heritage, our traditions, our very identity. And by changing them, what we’re really doing is risking accepting the kind of assimilation that cuts us off from our very own culture. I remember when I first arrived in Canada, I considered changing my own last name because I felt like it was too long and it would be too inconvenient for people to pronounce. Now, I’m glad I didn’t because that’s my connection to my dad and my family. And I appreciate being asked by people how to pronounce my last name because it’s one of the things that makes me feel seen.

Janice:

Yeah. I love that. I think that’s amazing. I mean, my Chinese name, my Mandarin name, is Liu Jia Yu. My father actually changed my name to Janice when I was one, but he never changed it legally on my birth certificate. But Janice stuck. I’ve actually recently had friends who have said, have you considered even changing your name back to what is legal and what is truly more close to my identity? And I have. But I think, again, a lot of these things are very individual. It’s not a one-size-its-all. And I think each person needs to understand what they’re comfortable with and what they want to do. And I think that’s the key takeaway.

Varun:

I’m also seeing how this is turning out to be an inflection point of sorts for people to truly lean into their identities and own who they are. Just today at work, we were reviewing a creative ad for Filipino heritage month. And one of my colleagues got really emotional because she felt like she had never seen her community be represented like that before. She said, “I didn’t really realize how small I had made myself just to make others big.” Which really goes to show how much representation matters. So with that, we come to the end of our episode today. Janice, you’ve highlighted a few different things that I want to summarize for our listeners. You’ve helped us understand the importance of speaking up. Even if it goes against everything you’ve been taught your whole life. You’ve also helped us understand why we need to get uncomfortable and have these conversations, challenge these systems and some of the ways in which we can start doing that. Any final thoughts on actions we can undertake to drive change, not only as part of the Asian community, but also as allies?

Janice:

Yeah, for sure. I’ve been talking about this quite a bit. I think one of the things is that the leaders of tomorrow don’t fully exist in form today. And what I mean by that is the younger generation, the next generation, they’re expecting more of us in a different way, and they’re not going to follow the leaders that we are and the way in which we behave today anymore. And I think it’s very apparent in all the stats. But in order to take action and how to prepare for that, I think we all have to unlearn and relearn new things. We have to all understand what our programming is, how much of this has been conditioning in us and how do we change. And in order to do that, I encourage everyone to educate themselves, to learn to excavate more, have those uncomfortable conversations.

And I think for white people, for the white professionals out there, the answer isn’t very, very hard. I think it’s actually very okay to be uncomfortable. And it’s okay to admit that you are uncomfortable. But I think the ask is not for anyone who is white to come and save the BIPOC or the queer people. It’s honestly just hold space. And what I mean by that is, approach with curiosity, listen with intent, actively listen, and just connect on a human level. Because this isn’t about how you and I look anymore. This is about how we can really connect as people, because we have to build a future that’s going to be sustainable for all. Otherwise, it’s not going to work.

Varun:

Powerful words to conclude our episode today. Janice, thank you so much for taking the time to be here with us. I know everyone’s going to take so much from this conversation. I definitely have.