How to Address Anti-Asian Hate in Your Organization
Updated: May 29
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and as we draw to its close, it feels timely to finally share our thoughts on attacks against AAPI community members. As you consider the pros and cons of speaking out against anti-Asian hate speech in your organization, remember that silence is also a form of leadership rhetoric, one that can impact your organization in predictably negative ways. Loss of talent, loss of trust are among the consequences of “staying neutral.” More importantly, when you choose to keep silent about the safety of fellow employees. you miss an opportunity to learn and grow as a leader and as an organization serving diverse communities.
Here are a few things to remember as you decide how, when, and whether to communicate about sensitive issues that affect your teams.
1. WORDS MATTER
“Stigma, to be honest, is more dangerous than the virus itself,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization director-general stated in March 2020. When COVID-19 ravaged America over a year ago, U.S. leadership chose to deflect mishandling of the pandemic by scapegoating China. “China Virus” was the sound byte that would catch fire. Quotable, digestible, attention-grabbing, this blamethrower contained all the characteristics of good copywriting that we, too, might recommend to our clients. Like COVID itself, the slur birthed variants. “Kung Flu,” was coined for less formal gatherings, and more.. Each term demanded headlines, and each easily shrugged off with, “Well, it’s true” or, “It’s just a joke!”
Predictably, one year and 3,800 reports later, hate incidents against Asians in America have risen by more than 150%. Asian-owned businesses were vandalized, Asians verbally abused, Asian families harassed at all hours by neighbors. Asian individuals of every age, gender, and varying degrees of vulnerability -- from the elderly to pregnant women with children in tow - were coughed on, spat on, punched or lived with the fear that this fate awaits them, too.
Words have impact. They reflect thought and inspire action. On a personal and professional level, we all have the opportunity to wake each other up. Use your platform to reinforce the very real impact of harmful language on AAPI community members. Bring it up in conversation. Check in with your AAPI colleagues and teammates. Have the courage to speak specifically about the subject of anti-Asian hate in America. Part of the importance of celebrating months like AAPI or Black History Month at your organization and in communications is to reinforce that you stand behind communities who make your business possible. Use those internal communications as strategic opportunities to share staggering statistics, highlight related articles, or publicize events and resources. Each communication is a chance to advance equality and respect by expanding awareness through your well chosen words.
2. INVEST IN EDUCATION
Inclusion and diversity - words that mean so much to so many - often do not include addressing discrimination and hate against Asians. Bolstered by the ‘model minority’ myth, microaggressions foster a culture of silence often upheld by systems that deny their existence. Dismissing personal and professional calls to action feeds the problem of invisibility and Asian-Americans’ experience of being treated like “perpetual foreigners.”
Tacit acceptance of anti-Asian sentiment is often dressed up as affectionate othering: “Your English is so good!” or “You’re not like those other Asians.” Or worse yet, “I just don’t see you as Asian.” How do you respond when comments like that occur in your presence? Educate yourself on ways to stand up appropriately -- check in with the person about whom the comment was made. Discuss how they want to proceed. If only you are present, consider what you will do if racist comments are said. Then do it. People rebrand their silence and inaction as respect or even spiritual transcendence, (ironically, all the while culturally appropriating indigenous and Eastern traditions for Likes). Asian women experience the majority of reported hate crimes against Asians. The killings in Atlanta only reinforced a stereotypical exoticism Asian-American women reckon with every day. Is this something your leadership understands, and how is this understood by colleagues?
Ongoing training is key, not only to ensure colleagues comprehend what is expected from a human resources perspective, but from a human perspective. Importantly, as trends and laws change, it’s crucial to keep current. Invite outside speakers or trainers as a business priority.
3. CREATE SPACE
These are historic, tumultuous times. Trainings sometimes offer only minimal chances for employees to engage meaningfully. Consider whether it’s time your company introduces employee resource groups (ERGs), a salon series on dealing with violence against Asian-Americans, systemic racism, women’s rights, or forums that embrace intersectionality of interested colleagues.
Devote time in weekly check-ins to listen. So much of the outrage from the Asian community stems from the lack of outrage expressed by their closest friends and colleagues. Where were those friends and colleagues who had posted messages of solidarity with Black Lives, a year ago, many asked. Leadership rhetoric encourages employees to bring their whole selves to work, and setting the stage for dialogue, even if it’s not used, proves to your teams that the invitation for people to bring their whole selves to work is an authentic one.
Diversifying personal outrage is exhausting on an individual level, and nearly impossible on the corporate level. Companies may defend their silence by saying, “Well, it’s on-brand for Google CEO Sundar Pichai to email employees about anti-Asian attacks (plus, he’s Asian after all).” Or, leaders may point to companies like Patagonia who, as Forbes stated, has a “long history” of social justice communication, and justify their inaction as “We’ve never done anything like that.”
To that, we say: Long histories start with a single act.
If you are a company or a leader who has not yet addressed Anti-Asian violence, hate speech, or racial bias, you may wonder, “Where do I start?” The answer: Start exactly where you are right now.
4. BE HONEST ABOUT WHERE YOU ARE
Resist the instinct to “jump ahead to the finish line of racial equality,” as Ijeoma Oluo states in So You Want to Talk About Race. [Note: This book is required reading for anyone serious about becoming a more effective person and leader.]
Communicate honestly with your employees about the current state of your union. Your willingness to directly look at all the ways your organization's systems and culture operates will generate needed dialogue. When someone tells you that unconscious bias or racism is present, is your first reaction to defend and deny? Do you point to your proximity to people of color as a means to invalidate the assertion (“I’m not racist, I have [black, Asian, etc.] friends!”)? Individuals and companies, by getting uncomfortable, could help cure both the cause and the impacts of hate speech by becoming self-reflexive, and then becoming active in how they are supporting Asian people in their organizations and networks.
Ask yourself the hard questions. Do you think your company offers adequate resources to report and deal with hate crimes or racial bias against Asian-Americans? Do your employees feel safe using these resources? Would you feel safe in their shoes? Is the issue sensitive, or are you sensitive. Get serious about the kind of culture you get to create in your organization.
“The companies that win will take hard and necessary steps both internally and externally to ensure that we move beyond representation and tokenism, into a world where voices and communities of color are authentically portrayed, elevated, and given a chance to succeed.” - Lisa Osborne Ross, CEO of Edelman U.S.
If the answers you find feel lacking, that's ok. Communicate anyway. Clumsy is fine. Invalidating an entire community you share space with is not. “China Virus” was contagious and its aftermath still lingers today. As with all rhetoric, it's not just about those disastrous words and its welcome reception by so many, it’s about the in-between - the before, the after, the during of those words. It's the difference between staying neutral and having the courage to stand up for what is right, between performative allyship and proactive anti-racism, between tolerating differences and authentically honoring diversity.