The uncomfortable state of being Asian in tech

In all the discussions about the dismal lack of racial diversity in tech, I am, uncomfortably, Asian.

Ribbons I did not attach to my badge at Grace Hopper.

The tech industry talks about needing more people of color, but only because it casually conflates “white” with successful and adequately or even over- represented; “color” with underrepresented, and perhaps, it begrudgingly admits, disadvantaged. Where, then, to fit Asians in this narrative dichotomy? Asians are a community of color, a minority in the United States, yet disproportionately present in tech. The conversation about Asians in tech is confusing and complicated. So we just get left out, discounted as people of color.

In truth, it’s kind of convenient for us, too. In tech, we get grouped together with White people as the “non-diverse” majority, but we don’t draw any of the same ire against white supremacy and white privilege. We are the “model minority” — quiet, hardworking, well-educated, successful in a middle class sort of way. It’s not as ‘good’ as being White, but it’s certainly ‘better’ than being Black or Latin@, and it’s good enough that we don’t complain about the erasure of our individual identities and work ethic and personal successes, we don’t complain about the bamboo ceiling, we stay quiet on issues of race.

That last bit is what I find most problematic. The model minority myth was constructed by White America in the 1960s as a tool to justify and perpetuate racism. We’ve since internalized it and become complicit in the discrimination against other communities of color, exceptionally so in tech, where we are so overrepresented. And no one’s calling us out on it.

To my fellow Asians in tech: It’s time for us to start caring, to start talking, to start doing something about the racial disparities in our industry.

To everyone else: Don’t let us off easy on this. We’re part of the industry too, and we need to take part in fixing it.

Additional notes:

This was an extremely difficult post to write, partly because the conversation about Asians in tech is so nascent that I felt compelled to survey in all directions on the topic. I had to cut a lot out.

To expand on one point above: There are many reasons that the conversation about Asians in tech is so confusing and complicated. For one, we’re not a homogenous group. East Asians and South Asians have fared well in America, with ample selection bias in the population due to highly skilled immigration, but not so Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders, who have drastically lower economic and educational attainment. For another, the immigrant experience bundles within it not only a different cultural upbringing, often without exposure to other races, and definitely without exposure to the unique fuckery of racial relations in America, but also an instinct for survival in an unfamiliar environment that is more basic and more fundamental that an instinct for social justice. There’s a lot of nuance here. We’ll discuss more another time.

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