Research: How Anti-Asian Racism Has Manifested at Work in the Pandemic
To more fully understand how Covid-19 affected the racial dynamics experienced by Asian professionals in the workplace, in their recent study, the authors interviewed and gathered stories from 35 professionals working in a range of different industries, including finance, health care, technology, and higher education over the span of three months. Participants included a mix of Asian American and Asian Canadian professionals, and the findings applied to both groups. They uncovered several important findings about how racism against Asians can manifest at work and how Asians are responding to these forms of discrimination — all of which highlight the imperative for leaders to help repair cross-racial relationships and create an organizational culture that is inclusive for all.
The Covid-19 pandemic challenged any notion that Asian Americans are a privileged, white-adjacent group skirting above racism. The virus was quickly racialized and labeled as anAsian virusby prominent leaders and politicians, amplifying existing undercurrents of racism toward Asian Americans.
To more fully understand how Covid-19 affected the racial dynamics experienced by Asian professionals in the workplace, in our recent studywe interviewed and gathered stories from 35 professionals working in a range of different industries, including finance, health care, technology, and higher education over the span of three months. Participants included a mix of Asian American and Asian Canadian professionals, and the findings applied to both groups.
We uncovered several important findings about how racism against Asians can manifest at work and how Asians are responding to these forms of discrimination — all of which highlight the imperative for leaders to help repair cross-racial relationships and create an organizational culture that is inclusive for all.
What Microaggressions Against Asians Look Like at Work
Microaggressions are verbal and nonverbal slights that intentionally or unintentionally communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to certain individuals or groups. The prefix “micro” refers to the briefness of the encounters and not to the meaning or outcome associated with these momentary slights.
We found that racial discrimination against Asians surfaced in four unique ways, as blatant and subtle comments and behaviors. The overt microaggressions were particularly alarming given their explicit and direct form, which is usually considered taboo within organizations. We summarize what we found below.
- Portrayal of Asians as a “yellow peril.” This form of blatant microaggression emerged as explicit comments from colleagues, supervisors, and clients that portrayed Asians as dirty and diseased (e.g., “Asians brought the virus!”) and barbaric (“Asians need to clean their food. It’s because they eat dog!”), as illustrated by two quotations from our study.
- Bordering behavior that stresses group differences. This type of microaggression emerged as behaviors or comments that amplified group differences, creating a strong “us versus them” dynamic. It manifested as physical avoidance in the form of singling out an Asian colleague to sit farther away from everyone else during a meeting or mandating that an Asian employee quarantine or stay at home but not asking anyone else to do the same.
- Portrayal of Asians as a monolith. This type of microaggression manifested as the treatment of all Asians, despite their nationality and or ethnicity, as a single Chinese entity that can speak on behalf of China (e.g., singling out a Vietnamese American about China’s role in the pandemic).
- Denial of their experience dealing with racism. This microaggression surfaced as comments and behaviors that minimized or diminished the racial reality faced by Asians and emerged in two ways: 1) colleagues denying or trivializing an Asian employee’s experience dealing with a racially charged incident, and 2) denial at the organizational level, which showed up as organizational silence on the targeting and violence experienced by their Asian community during the height of the pandemic.
The Asian professionals we surveyed had not previously experienced the first two forms of microaggressions (bordering behaviors and portrayal of Asians as a “yellow peril”) in the workplace. They all shared that this was something they experienced after Covid-19 was publicly racialized as an Asian virus in the media. They also shared that although they had experienced the two other forms of microaggressions (portrayal of Asians as a monolith and denial of their experience with racism) before the pandemic, they noticed that Covid-19 amplified and increased them. We also unearthed threats of violence and actual violence, most notably among the health care workers, highlighting frontline workers as a particularly vulnerable group.
Frequently experiencing these encounters was linked to a wide range of negative outcomes. These emerged mainly in the form of negative emotion (e.g., anger, frustration, and despair) and rumination (i.e., spending time deciphering and processing the microaggressions). Additionally, health care workers shared that they felt a heightened sense of threat to their physical safety. Importantly, most participants shared that the denial and silence they experienced from both their colleagues and leadership within their organizations made them feel minimized, invisible, and erased, highlighting how organizational silence toward the unique racism experienced among Asians can foster feelings of exclusion.
How Asians Are Fighting Back
Despite being on the receiving end of microaggressions, most of the Asians we interviewed demonstrated acts of agency and resilience. Participants shared three forms of responses:
- Confronting the aggressor. Participants shared that they actively and openly confronted the aggressor to correct the unwanted or stigmatized identity. Examples included telling an aggressor “I’m from here [the U.S.]” when the colleague falsely assumed they were from China.
- Reporting the aggressor. Many participants reported aggressors to management or HR in order to document the exclusionary and racist behavior and escalate the situation.
- Talking about the racism they faced. Participants shared that they openly talked about their experience with colleagues through informal discussions to raise awareness of their experiences navigating racism during Covid-19. One even spoke to The Washington Post about their experiencesto publicize the racism and unique hardships Asian professionals were navigating during the pandemic.
By practicing these responses, many were able to reclaim their identity and assert how they wanted to be seen (“I’m from [the U.S.]. I’m not going anywhere!”). We noted that these individuals were helping to break the stereotype of Asians as passive, submissive, docile, and quiet, choosing instead to project themselves as proactive individuals who can and did fight back.
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Although the pandemic is coming to an end, its secondhand effects in the form of racialized attitudes and behaviors toward Asians are likely to linger, negatively affecting cross-racial interactions between Asians and majority group members. As organizations and companies navigate the post-acute phase of the pandemic, it is crucial for leaders to remain mindful of the persistent discriminatory challenges faced by their Asian employees and colleagues.