In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, leaders should celebrate and elevate the contributions of their AAPI colleagues. They should also focus on committing to inclusion efforts that include AAPI professionals, with an awareness of how exclusion can show up differently for us.
Education regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion often includes discussions on microaggressions and their harmful impact on people with marginalized identities. Just as microaggressions show up in specific patterns for LGBTQ people, women, Black people, and other people of color, microaggressions show up in particular ways for AAPI people. Many, unfortunately, often fly under the radar.
This awareness is especially crucial today. Harassment and hate crimes against AAPI people have escalated since the start of the Covid pandemic. Research from Stop AAPI Hate found 6,600 reports of hate incidents against AAPI people between March 2020 and March 2021. The Anti-Defamation League reports that in comparison with other groups, Asian Americans have experienced the single largest year-over-year increase in severe online harassment.
While microaggressions might seem minor in comparison with harassment and hate, their harmful, dehumanizing impact is the same. On a personal level, they demean, belittle, shame, and can stifle careers; on a societal level, they can lead to violence.
Here are some common microaggressions that might be impacting the AAPI people at your company, and what you can do to stop them.
The myth of the "model minority"
Asian Americans are often held up as inherently successful, hard-working, and problem-free, a stereotype that casts them as exceptions to the stereotypes leveraged against other people of color and immigrant groups. While this myth might seem harmless or even complimentary, it in fact erases the hardships that many Asian American communities face and often serves as a cover for racist and discriminatory practices.
Be wary of making assumptions of your AAPI colleagues that fall into this stereotype. Instead, respect each person as individual, with their own unique lived experiences.
Not learning how to pronounce names correctly
To American eyes and ears, many Asian names are difficult to pronounce on the first try. Microaggressions occur when people consistently mispronounce someone's name or, fearful of saying it incorrectly, opt to not address them at all. I experienced this in college, with professors who ignored me in class rather than attempt to pronounce my Chinese name.
Saying someone's name correctly is, at its most basic, a form of respect. People are often afraid of "getting it wrong," but asking how to pronounce someone's name is never offensive if asked with genuine care and respect. After you've heard the correct pronunciation, repeat it and check to make sure you've got it right. Then, practice until it sticks. If you have to ask all over again if re-meeting someone at a later date, showing genuine interest in getting it right is still an inclusive behavior that communicates care and respect.
"Your English is so good!"
Many microaggressions are examples of the difference between intent and impact. While someone might think they have good intent and are complimenting someone by commenting on their English, the impact of a statement like this is that it immediately casts the receiver as an outsider. The subtext is also heard loud and clear: "I was not expecting you to speak well."
The simplest way to avoid this microaggression is to refrain from commenting on someone's English at all. If you want to compliment a colleague's communication skills, stick to specifics: "I love how you opened your presentation" or "You summarized that complex information so clearly."
Inclusion initiatives aim to create safe working environments for all, spaces where everyone can bring their whole self to work -- and companies can benefit from the diversity they work hard to cultivate. Be aware of the barriers that the AAPI community faces in the workplace and challenge those barriers -- during AAPI month and always.