The Asian Woman’s Workplace Struggle, And Why Not Fitting In With “Office Culture” Is Code For “You Don’t Belong”

When I saw a publication I used to write for, post a quote by my favorite author Audre Lorde on Instagram, my eyes brimmed with tears. Angry ones. Audre is a radical black lesbian intersectional feminist, whose words empower me. Her essays pushed me to become a more inclusive, intersectional feminist. They propelled me to examine my own blind spots and privileges, something I try to do every day.

The CEO of this small company demoted me from Assistant Editor to a remote contributor position without warning — and over a text message. When this happened, the rug was pulled out from under me. In the two months I was there, I received nothing but praise from both the CEO and managing editor. They told me they loved my articles ideas, writing and editing expertise, and quick learning skills. I wrote more than 20 pieces for them.

The core staff now is comprised of almost entirely white, cis, straight women. A white woman replaced me. The only other BIPOC who worked on the staff when I was in the office was also replaced with a white woman. Every person in a leadership role is white. When I was demoted, the CEO said I performed well, but mentioned how I didn’t fit in with the “office culture.” This, to me, read: you can’t sit with us.

Audre’s words looked hollow on the company’s page. The quote was even a vague one. This is unsurprising, as the company has chosen to be vague about their support of Black Lives Matter, which simply doesn’t meet the moment, especially for a “progressive” publication. This has drawn criticism from some of their readers, displayed in their comments on Instagram. Some also claim their comments expressing concerns about inclusivity were deleted.

This publication uses the wisdom, experiences, and pain of their BIPOC remote contributors for articles about race and identity, and the LGBTQIA experience. But those writers are just that: remote contributors who don’t interact with the CEO or staff on a regular in-person basis. This was the position to which I was demoted. At first, the trauma of what had happened didn’t sink in.

I continued to contribute even though, deep down, I felt uneasy and even untrue to myself. The whole situation was upsetting. I didn’t do anything wrong but was suddenly being treated like a second class citizen. I decided to be polite and amicable. In the end, I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I was more like the CEO — if I was white, even, I would have gotten a second chance. Or at least the dignified conversation I deserved.

The Lose/Lose Double Bind

According to Slate’s article The Bamboo Glass Ceiling, “Harassment in the workplace looks different for women of color, including Asian womxn. Racial prejudice can present itself in the form of stereotypes and microaggressions.”

In the article, 31-year-old digital marketing director Maria Cruz Lee (who is Filipino-American) says, “I’m a very assertive person. The idea that Asian women are more quiet [and] won’t push back as much, I think, is what throws off a lot of my colleagues when I’m no holds barred.”

Forbes points out a unique double bind to which Asian womxn are subjected. When Asian womxn are polite and quiet, they are viewed as lacking leadership skills. When they are outspoken and opinionated (how I would definitely describe myself), they are seen as aggressive and unlikeable.

The article states, “Precisely because of this lose/lose behavioral double bind, Asian-American women are the least likely demographic group to be promoted from non-manager professionals to executives.”

An Unequal Playing Field

Korean-American H.L. Park is no stranger to discrimination at work. She says, “In my workplace (I’m an instructional aide for special needs children), almost all of the teachers are white women, while almost all of the instructional aides are women of color. I often find myself feeling like an outsider looking into classroom after classroom of older WOC fighting amongst themselves to gain favor with the white woman teacher.”

Park works with wonderful teachers who try their best to be inclusive. However, she’s noticed other teachers using this infighting to their advantage; they do this by creating an ongoing contest to see how far these aides are willing to take on their teachers’ responsibilities.

While the district has been hiring younger and more diverse aides like Park, she says, “The people in power are still definitely all mostly rich, straight, white women, and it creates a tense and backstabbing type of work culture.”

Park has noticed many of her white women bosses wanting her to congratulate them and “kiss up to them.” One of the teachers expected her to be a quiet person and was unhappy when she found out that Park was willing to change aspects of her classroom and call out her bad behavior.

“I think [white women in leadership positions] want a doormat. They get very mad at you when you’re not jumping up and down to serve them or trying to be their best friend,” she says.

Tiffany Tran, 25, is generally quick to speak up when something doesn’t feel right and can be confrontational when someone takes advantage of her — which also doesn’t align with the stereotype of an introverted, submissive Asian woman.

“I feel that employers generally expect Asian womxn to be subservient and docile, happy with what they’re given, and to never want more,” Tran says. “I also feel like they expect us to assimilate with workplace culture, which sometimes means smiling and nodding along with microaggressions and intrusive questions about Asian culture from coworkers. If an Asian woman defies that norm, she can be labeled as difficult, critical, and uptight.”

A New Kind Of “Office Culture”

When it comes to fitting into “office culture,” Tran says, “This seems like a thinly-veiled attempt for someone to ask that you try harder to be liked by everyone else.”

Park says, “To me, it means you have outsider tendencies, and the workplace chooses to view that as a threat. Instead of realizing that everybody is different and not everybody should be relegated to a certain archetype, they see your difference as a personal ‘failing’ rather than a new viewpoint that can benefit the workplace.”

When it comes to reversing stereotypes placed on Asian womxn, Tran says the first step is to make diversity and inclusion training a requirement for every new hire. Those in leadership roles should prioritize this and hire a diverse staff. Park shares the same sentiment about diversity training.

In addition, she says, “We should seek to put Asian womxn in leadership positions. It feels wrong to me that we still have so many places of employment where a majority of the workers are BIPOC, but the ones in power are white.”

As for me, I’ve learned an important lesson: all you can do is better yourself and let go of the past. It’s been a year since I was demoted at the publication, and I’m finally healing. I made a promise to myself — from now on, I’ll only be writing for publications with strong BIPOC leadership and staff. That’s the kind of “office culture” I support, and where I want my words to shine.


Originally written for Overachiever Magazine: CLICK HERE FOR THE STORY. 

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