Representation Matters

Monday mornings I try to get into the office earlier for some focus time before the workplace really starts buzzing. But this Monday was a special day for those of us closer to the tech industry — it was the morning of the Apple event.

So instead I spent my morning half working, half watching the WWDC keynote gathered around desks with my co-workers. One of the first sessions was on watchOS.

Stacey Lysik presented a new handwriting feature for messaging on watchOS 3 called “Scribble.” To showcase the language capabilities of Scribble, Stacey demoed the handwriting recognition not only for English, but also for Mandarin. She received a fabricated text asking what time she’d get to dinner, with a prompt to reply in Chinese.

Oh no, I thought audibly, as I began rocking forwards and backwards on my bar stool chair. I did a quick survey of the people gathered around the TV, but didn’t see any of my Chinese coworkers.

I watched with a pained expression as Stacey wrote out the characters for 八点 (meaning 8 o’clock), followed by a crude pronunciation of the words, bā diǎn.

My brow furrowed deeper and I cringed.

Why did this strike such a nerve with me?

Stacey is a white woman.

A white woman. Chosen from a company with a non-insignificant number of Asians. A company whose second largest market is “Greater China.” A company building new features specifically for this Greater China market because they recognize its value. After all, Scribble launched with support for only English and Chinese.

Now, I recognize the hard work it takes to learn a new language, especially one as difficult as Chinese. And I’m all for that. Shoutout Stacey for that. But this isn’t about elevating the work of a non-marginalized individual; it’s about the deletion of a marginalized group’s presence.

I always feel weird when white people demo things publicly in Chinese. Even when the opportunities arise to put a non-white person in the foreground, those roles are still given to white people. We don’t let Asians talk — even when the situation literally calls for it.

Hollywood’s extreme whitewashing has been recently spotlighted, but other industries — business, politics, tech — do it too.

It’s this repeated, subtle erasure of any Asian presence. The stories we adapt for movies are based on Japanese manga, but star white women. The features we announce are built for the Chinese market, but a white woman stands on stage scribbling characters and trying to pronounce Mandarin.

Society applauds this behavior, reinforcing that this is a thing that’s okay to do. We don’t even question the premise, because it never occurs to us that it would make sense for anyone other than a white person to be up there on stage, at Apple’s largest event of the year, writing and speaking in Chinese. It’s held up as an example to aspire to, an impressive display of smartness.

It just feels shitty. It feels shitty to not be represented. It feels shitty to have your opportunity for representation glossed over and replaced. It feels shitty to then see others celebrate that replacement. It feels shitty when white people get congratulated for things like learning Chinese yet do nothing to accurately represent the real people to whom they are trying to appeal.

What separates the people of color from white people is not just opportunity, but that we simply get erased or passed up for opportunities even if they arise. The only thing that can help challenge this status quo is having more diverse representation at the leadership level, who in turn can drive representation of minorities on stage, as mentors, and as leaders in their own right.

Representation matters.