Category Archives: Race and Social Justice

Are you treated like a child at work? 6 ways to respond.

Hi everyone! It’s my third week as a new Executive Director and I’m starting to feel settled into the role. All of the nightmares I had about team meetings have gone way. The staff are also starting to show me the respect I deserve. I’ve asked them to address me with the title bác, which is a Vietnamese word used when speaking to elders. “Hello Bác James. Let me help you up the stairs.” “Bác James, tell us what it was like to use a flip phone.”  “Bác James, my tummy is hurting again.” Go see a doctor then! You have health insurance benefits! “Bác, why didn’t you become a pharmacist?” Ugh, youth these days…so disrespectful.

I’ve previously written about how race and ethnicity can impact people’s perception of leadership. Similarly, age and the perceptions of experience can also be challenging–especially for Asian Americans where cultural norms around these issues are very powerful. Many of the challenges I have experienced in my career are because people viewed me as too young (other challenges include not knowing how to Tweet and Snapchat). It’s like I am a Vietnamese, non-profit, social justice version of Justin Beiber.

I recently had a conversation with a colleague about similar challenges she was having. We wondered how young leaders can make a meaningful impact in our careers when our age and perceived lack of experience become barriers to success. It becomes very tiring because it makes us second-guess everything we do. For example, it took me a very long time to see myself as an Executive Director. Fortunately, I had the support from mentors, friends and colleagues who pushed me in that direction. While I am grateful for this opportunity, I recognize there are so many other young professionals who are ready to step up too.

Here are some comments that I’ve received and how I have responded to each of them. For anyone looking for an extra bit of help, you can also read my article “7 Ways for young Asians professionals to get respect.”

“You look so young. Are you a volunteer?”

Just because some of the students we serve are taller than me, doesn’t make me a volunteer. What’s up with always associating youthfulness with volunteerism? They don’t necessarily go hand in hand. When I was in the Peace Corps, I had the honor of serving with volunteers who were already retired; one was a dean of a graduate school; and some volunteers were in their 40s and 50s. Assuming that just because all young people are volunteers is rude, and doesn’t acknowledge the skills and perspectives we bring into the work. It is also a disservice to actual volunteers–the ones who give up their time and energy to support their community.

How you can respond: “I’ll make you a deal. If you donate to my organization, I’ll tell you what type of moisturizer I use. Spoiler alert: It has coconut extract! But no, I’m not a volunteer, though I really appreciate all of the passion and support they bring to our work. My role as a staff member is to make sure that we’re enabling our volunteers, students and community members to succeed.”

“Is this your job? Do you get paid?”

What is this? Do people assume millennials just sit around drinking craft beer and organic coffee all day? We only do that after 5:30pm or when we’re singing karaoke. Of course I have a job! How else do you expect me to survive? It sure as hell ain’t from blogging. All of those stereotypes that millennials can’t find employment and have to live at home with their parents are crap. AHHHHHH!!!! BLARGHH!!!!!! UGH!!!!!!

How you can respond: Listen Mom, you’re crushing my individuality! Yes, this is my job. And I already told you, I’m never going to be the doctor you wanted me to be. I’m not like every other Asian kid. I want to help our community.

Side note: If you actually did become a doctor, then simply replace “doctor” with “lawyer” and “help our community” with “make money and live debt free.”

“I’m not sure if you have the experience quite yet.”

This comment annoys me the most. It’s condescending, like people think they’re doing young professionals a favor by “protecting” them from failure. We can only get the experience if we are given the opportunities to learn, grow, make mistakes, and succeed. Society said that everyone needs a higher education to be successful. Many of us did exactly that. How much more experience do you want?

How you can respond: Although your gut reaction might be to face palm whoever made the comment, it is critical that you resist this impulse. As Asians, there’s a cultural norm not to question authority or challenge the status quo. Humbleness and humility are important, but don’t be a push over. Advocate for yourself! Try this:

I realize there’s still a lot I can learn in this field/position/role/etc. I would really appreciate any feedback or suggestions you have. I want to respectfully push back though. I’m willing to work hard and give this role my all, but that will also require your support to enable that success. I’d love to work with you to figure out ways I can get the coaching and training you think I’ll need. Thanks a bunch, you’re totes awesome.

“Look kid, I love the enthusiasm, but you’re out of your league. I’m 62, which makes me twice as smart and good looking.”

So…no one has actually ever said this to me before. I don’t give them a chance to. I walk around with my head up; ready to stiff arm anyone as if I were Marshawn Lynch. We millennials are bad asses! Organic buying, gluten-free, ride-sharing, socially conscious, bad asses.

How you can respond: I’m sorry you feel that way but I beg to differ. I grew up in the generation that invented Facebook and transformed social media. Our vote helped put the first African-American President in the White House. We embrace marriage equality and women’s rights. And yes, despite what you might think, we do care very much about money and the economy. Even though we didn’t have anything to do with The Great Recession, you’re welcome for the bailout. So if you’re done with your anti-millennial tirade…do you have a usb charger I can borrow? My phone died and I super need to check my Farmville score.

Wow! You’re such an exception.

Though this may seem like flattery, don’t fall for the trap. Singling you out as an exception (even though we’re all exceptional individuals) is a disservice to all of the other smart and talented young professionals out there. It pits us against one another, but we must stay strong and united. That’s one of the main reasons I started Asian Happy Hour, to find and support other young leaders in our community…and because going to happy hour alone is really sad.

How you can respond: Thanks…I think. What exactly do you mean by that, if I may ask? From my experience, there are a lot of talented young professionals out there. I’m happy to introduce you to them if you’d like.

“Can I ask you how old you are? For anyone who works in a management or director level position–or position where you have power and authority over other employees–never ask an employee their age! The HR in me says it opens the door to age discrimination–real or perceived. You don’t want to go down that road. But on a peer-to-peer level, it’s just rude. It’s like asking someone their weight. The only difference is people can lose weight, but you can’t lose age. No sir…can’t lose it at all…your age just gets bigger and bigger every year…for the rest of your life…until you die… Then you’ll be reincarnated and the cycle begins anew. Why is life so hard!!!?

How you can respond: So are you asking me for my permission to ask me how old I am? Or are you directly asking me how old I am? If the former, then no, you may not. If the latter, why don’t you just say “How old are you?” to which I would respond “I’ll only tell you if you have sincere intentions to celebrate my birthday with ice cream and candles. Otherwise, none of your business!”

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To everyone who ever thought Asians make terrible leaders…

Holy crap! Last week was crazy. And I’m not talking about the Seahawks whoopin’ on the Panthers type of crazy (which was awesome btw). I was offered the Executive Director position, which I accepted on the condition that they let me keep my standing desk. You can read the Board President’s announcement if you’re curious. And also, as an ED newly born into this world, you can read my  adorable first words.

Everything is still very new and happening fast. I’ve only been on the job three days and have had to make 128 decisions so far–from the mundane “What kind of socks does a new ED wear?” to the philosophical “How to honor the Vietnamese culture and heritage while being inclusive of other communities?”

I’m very excited for this new position and am honored to have the opportunity to serve the Vietnamese community at this level. I promise to use all of my skills and experiences to help advance the successes of the Vietnamese and broader Asian American community. I’m especially grateful to everyone who has supported me on this journey.

Anyways, I’ve been getting a ton of emails, Facebook messages and texts on my phone since the announcement went out, and have been doing my best to keep up and respond to each and every one of them. Many folks have been asking me questions about the new role, and I’ve summarized a snippet of them below.

How’s it feel?

It has been a roller coaster ride of emotions that range from “another plain ol’ day at the office” to “Holy crap, I’m on the edge of my seat freaking out because I might actually be slipping off but I need to take a selfie first, omg what do I do?” (aka, Disney’s Space Mountain).

The other night I literally had my first ED nightmare. I dreamed I was trying to lead a staff meeting but everyone was jumping up and down on the tables, drinking and partying. “No one respects me,” I thought. “I’m a terrible ED.” Times like these I just want to be swaddled.

Why did you choose now to become an Executive Director?

This was something I was on the fence about for a while; I was very hesitant and went back and forth. My rationale, at the time, was that I was already able to serve the community in meaningful ways. I was very happy and comfortable where I was at.

Ultimately, after the previous ED left, the space and separation gave me a chance to practice my leadership in new ways within the organization. It helped me visualize my potential role as a new Executive Director, and the skills and perspective that I could contribute to the position.

We had to navigate complex partnerships and I thought “I can do this.” We had to make difficult decisions of types of funding we wanted to pursue or not and I thought “I can do this.” We had to say goodbye to some really wonderful staff and I thought “I can do this.” I had to email the staff to let them know that we ran out of ice cream in the freezer and I thought “I can do this.” Then the staff mutinied, demanded more ice cream, wanted my head on a pike, and I thought “This sucks.”

What kind of leadership do you bring to the organization?

I previously wrote about task-oriented people and relationship-oriented people. If you ever came to me with a problem, my first instinct would be to break the problem down into small steps, and move through them one by one. I’m super task-oriented. This is a strength that I bring to the organization.

Overtime, I also learned that I needed to develop my “people skills” in order to strengthen my leadership. I practiced skills like “active listening” and “compassion” and “empathy.” For example, before when people wanted my time and attention, I would ignore them…like parents to me. Now, whenever someone talks to me, I reply with “Uh huh” and nod my head. Effective leadership rocks!

Are you vegan like your predecessor?

A lot of folks have wanted to take me out to lunch to celebrate and have been asking, “Your last ED was a vegan. Does that mean you’re one too? Are all EDs vegan? James, do you want carrots and hummus?”

My definitive answer is “Heck no.” I enjoy the taste, smell and look of meat. Honest to goodness, I can stare at a piece of meat for hours without blinking. I admit, however, that I have recently switched to a “no cooking meat at home” diet, which has been a great exercise in more sustainable cooking. At the same time, it’s increased my meat cravings tenfold as well as my obsession with zombie flicks.

Wow, your parents must be proud of you!

They are! I think…

Their initial reply was “Executive Director!!! Why not Mayor? Or City Council? Or Amazon, like your sister.” Ugh, that brought me back to my school days when even an A- would disappoint Asian parents.

What vision do I see for the organization and for the community?

Ok, this is a big question. In this blog, I’ve written about challenges that impact that Vietnamese and broader Asian American community. For example, the need for more inclusive early learning programs, promoting civic engagement in the Vietnamese community, transforming how we approach youth development, and broader social justice issues.

I also want to focus internally on the organization. It’s critical we have an organizational culture and structure that will support and nurture our staff and volunteers, and provide a safe environment where everyone can work with dignity and be compensated for their skills, passion and service. For starters, disconnecting people from their work email when they’re not at work!

What are you going to do in your first month?

Huh? Is this a test? Quit asking me so many hard questions. Realistically, I’ll be spending the first month checking in with all of our staff and board to listen to their vision and dreams for VFA and the community, where they see themselves growing, and any anxieties or concerns they may have about me as ED…because I probably have them too!

Then I’ll meet with all of our board members to thank them profusely for hiring me, and to beg them even more profusely not to fire me within the first month.

Finally, I’ll reach out to our community members, supporters, funders and donors to discuss the vision and direction that VFA is headed.

Oh yeah, buy some more ice cream for the freezer too—lest I want another revolt.

***

Anyways, thanks again everyone. If you have any advice for me on how to be a good leader, how to honor our communities, and what kind of ice cream I should buy, I’d love to hear it! Leave your comments below or on the Asian Slant facebook page.

5 Causes Asians should donate to right now

Every year there is a large uptick in charitable giving around the holidays, for many reasons.

  • Donors need to make their gifts by December 31 in order to qualify for tax deductions. It literally pays to give. So why not?
  • Retailers aren’t the only folks who need to end up in the black. Many non-profits increase their solicitations between Thanksgiving and New Years in order to close out their year positively. Maybe recently you received a direct appeal in the mail?
  • The holidays are support to be a time of goodwill and charity; perfect for supporting those less fortunate than ourselves.

This year, I decided to make gifts to the UW Pipeline Project, Jackstraw Cultural Center, and $1 to the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition. I was actually just testing their donation page to see if it worked–it did.

But with all of the worthy causes out there who need our support, which ones should you give to? A New York Times article wrote that Asian Americans tend to donate to their communities and native homeland. They are also “giving to prestigious universities, museums, concert halls and hospitals.”

Of course, not every dollar needs to go to a “prestigious” institution. There are many wonderful grassroots community organizations that need our support too. Here are five areas Asian Americans should invest their charitable dollars. Hopefully one of them resonates with your vision and values!

Youth Development

Recently arrived refugee and immigrant students experience tremendous barriers to success and self-sufficiency, including language and cultural adjustment. They are often unfamiliar with English and the American education system, which makes it difficult for them to succeed in school. As a result of these barriers, about 26% of Limited English students in the Class of 2012 dropped out of school in Washington, compared to 14% statewide. The graduation rate for this group is 60%, compared to 79% statewide.

How you can help! Donate to academic and enrichment youth programs. Look for organizations that provide culturally competent services, such as language support or honors youths’ native cultures.

James’ recommendation: My organization of course! The Vietnamese Friendship Association! Students who participate in our programs achieve one grade-level higher than their peers on math and English. Woohoo!

Civic engagement

Asian-Americans are one of the fastest growing communities in the United States according to the US Census. This rapid growth means that our impact and influence on US politics will greatly increase over time. Asian Americans have the potential to reshape the political landscape over the coming decades by continuing to exercise our voting rights, and all signs point in this direction.

How you can help! Donate to organize that promote civic engagement in the Asian American community. Although it’s a broad category, civic engagement can take many forms: voter education, get out the vote campaigns, political candidates, leadership development…just to name a few. Find one that works for you!

James’ recommendation: The Asian Pacific American Coalition for Equality (APACE) works for social and economic justice by transforming our democracy through the political empowerment of the broad API community.

Senior Services

From 2000 to 2010, there has been a 44% increase in Seattle’s Vietnamese senior population. According to the 2010 census, Vietnamese seniors currently make up nearly a quarter of the local Vietnamese population. Depression and social isolation are commonly reported among Vietnamese seniors. Perhaps most worryingly, more and more seniors are living on their own, independent from the care of their children. This is a big fat Asian faux pas (almost as bad as failing math). One time, I interpreted Vietnamese (poorly, I admit) for an elderly man and his dentist because his children weren’t there to help him.

How you can help! Donate to organizations that provide social, mental and emotional support to our seniors. Hot meal programs are very popular among Asian elders, especially if the meals include rice. Seniors also have difficulty accessing transportation, so consider supporting any programs that address this need.

James’ recommendation: Kin On! Their mission is to support the elderly and adults in the greater Seattle Asian community. They offer a comprehensive range of health, social and educational services sensitive to their cultural, linguistic and dietary needs. Plus, they host Mahjong Nights. It’s like the Asian version of senior bingo.

Health

It is widely accepted that the United States spends more on health care than most other countries in the world. Yet we’re no better off for it. Health disparities are even greater for many Asian American communities. “But wait, I thought most Asians were doctors. What gives?” False! Language and cultural barriers prevent many Asian Americans from getting the care they need.

How you can help! Donate to community health centers. These awesome organizations offer affordable health care services to many vulnerable communities. They are usually located in medically underserved areas; places where traditional hospitals might not reach. Health centers also provide a great alternative for Asian children, who fear being coined by their parents.

James’ recommendation: International Community Health Services provides affordable health care services to Seattle and King County’s Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities, as well as other underserved communities. They serve over 20,000 individuals a year!

Human and Social Services

The Asian American community has enormous, even unlimited, potential for success. Despite the “model minority myth” (flattering yet misguided, like the Kardashians) many Asians continue to face systematic barriers—economic, political, cultural, social, etc—that prevent them from achieving their dreams. For example, Asian Americans still endure ugly biases and prejudices from people who think we’re all foreigners.

How you can help! Donate to human and social services! Do not get suckered into all the talk around “efficiency” or “sustainability” or “collective impact.” While these are important, they alone don’t tell the full story when it comes to charitable giving. Basic needs are equally vital. Until people have their basic needs met, they will never be able to realize their full potential. Find an organization that provides these life-saving and life-changing services. Do it now!

James’ recommendation: The Asian Counseling and Referral Service is an organization I have tremendous respect for. They have a food bank, ethnic meal programs, citizenship classes, job training, violence prevention, and much more.

***

Where else should Asian Americans donate their money and time? Any suggestions? I’d love to hear where other’s are giving to this year. Leave a comment below or on Facebook. Thanks!

New Asian talk show promises to be sleazy and raunchy

The other day I was out at lunch with a couple of my co-workers. As we ate and talked, we noticed the television playing in the background. It was showing a live broadcast of The Steve Wilkos Show. For those of you who have never seen this, Steve Wilkos was the former director of security on The Jerry Springer Show. Apparently, Steve was so good at his job that they decided to give him his own tabloid talk show.

When I was in middle school, tabloid talk shows were all the rage. The show follows a simple format. A typical show begins with the host introducing a “topic of the day” and then interviewing a guest who is experiencing the particular situation. After the interview, the host introduces a second guest whom the first guest would like to confront. A fight usually breaks out—pulled hair, thrown chair, etc—and then big Steve Wilkos comes on to break it up. And sometimes, for funsies, a third or fourth guest may even come on to the show—followed by more fighting and name-calling.

Most of the episodes for these shows are staged in a way to bring out the worst in people; they are never flattering topics.

  • “Doomed Grooms”
  • “Quadruple Dog Dare Disasters”
  • “She took my man…and my car!”
  • “You ripped my hair out!”
  • “It’s the Rooster or Me!”

My co-workers and I sat there commenting on how childish, stupid and silly these types of shows are. “Why would anyone want to degrade themselves on live tv?” I asked. “Some people just crave the attention,” replied a co-worker. Then we slurped some more pho broth and kept watching. “OMG! We should start a tabloid talk show around Asian American topics!” I finally said.

I’ve previously complained about Asians lack of representation in the media. We may as well break ground on the tabloid talk show genre too. Why not? There are literally hundreds of topics we can talk about.

We’ll call it The James Hong Show; to be hosted by the famous American actor and director, James Hong. What? Did you honestly think I’d volunteer myself to host a sleazy tabloid talk show? Ok fine, I probably would. Here are some of the episodes our show will start out with.

“First born and privileged.”
This episode explores the lifestyle of first born male in an Asian family. Viewers won’t believe the lavish privileges these boys enjoy—higher pay, peeing while standing up, first dibs on colleges, and chore free living. If you think this is crazy, you wouldn’t believe what their older sisters have to say…

“English is my second language, but America is my first love.”
After spending so many years learning English and trying to fit in, Minh is rejected by her one true love, America, who is having a love affair with Canadian pop star Justin Beiber. Our guest will share her stories of love and heartache…and also have a chance to punch Justin Beiber (our surprise guest!) in the face.

“Call me submissive and I’ll cut you.”
OkCupid. Tinder. Match.com. Welcome to the world of online dating, where Asian women are the most viewed, most liked, and most sought after thing on the Internet—second only adorable cat videos. You don’t want to miss what happens when these women confront the men who have been messaging them.

“I lived under the rock of oppression and survived to tell about.”
Everyone lumps Asians together within a broad “model minority” stereotype. Is helpful or harmful? We interview a group of Southeast Asians, a relatively recent arrival refugee group, how this stereotype has impacted for their lives. Their stories will shock you. Spoiler alert: There’s hair pulling.

“Crap! My parents tricked me into getting a phd.”
Think your parents are tough? Listen to the traumatic lives of three siblings whose parents coerced them into getting phds. One child went to a public university, another majored in art, and the third joined the Peace Corps. Several years later, these kids have a message for mom and dad. Special guest Steve Wilkos will also join us!

“I’m just not attracted to Asian men.”
Warning, this episode may contain offensive language not suitable for children. Nerd. Kung Fu Master. Introverted. Shy. Video Gamer. Casual. Small. Boring. Unromantic. Effeminate. Weak sauce. These are some a few of the words used to describe Asian men. Hear their side of the story, and what they wish they could say to their would-be bullies.

“I can’t breathe. Because you’re choking me you idiot!”
How do institutional biases impact the way our law enforcement and legal system treats Asian Americans? Does the model minority myth buffer them from such abuses? Our guest on this episode, Johnny Nguyen, recalls his recent brush with the law. We’re giving Johnny a chance to confront his aggressors. And then special musical guest Taylor Swift will perform her new hit “Shake It Off”!

“Where are you really from?”
We put a hidden camera on five Asian-Americans and followed them around for a week. You won’t believe the reactions they get from random strangers. What these five Asians don’t know is…we’ve invited the strangers on camera to come onto the show. We promise this is an episode you don’t want to miss.

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Would you like to be a guest on The James Hong Show? Got problems with your grades? Are you biracial and proud? Are you an adopted Asian child who wants to be reunited with your birth parents? Do you secretly like chicken feet but haven’t told your partner? Email, call, or text us and we’ll schedule you onto one of our upcoming episodes.

Are Blacks and other minorities to blame for Ferguson or New York?

On Sunday I was flipping through the television trying to kill time before all of the football games started. Knowing that the Seahawks and Eagles would be aired nationally on Fox, I turned to that channel and left the tv on while I made breakfast. Sometime before the big match, a Fox News show came on, where the topic of discussion was around Michael Brown and Eric Gardner. The host asked panelists, “Are the officers to blame for these events?”

One of the guest speakers, a middle-aged White man, started to answer and I thought “Oh, he must have something very intelligent and wise to say” but then quickly stopped myself because I remembered that stereotypes can be harmful, even when they are flattering (ask any Asian kid).

The man replied (and keep in mind I am paraphrasing here) that the police officers could have shown more restraint and probably needed better training but we should critically examine why Black culture causes such high rates of crime, drugs and violence in the first place.

It was then that I decided an infomercial on the Nutribullet—a revolutionary new kitchen tool that unleashes hidden nutrition inside food—was more intellectual and entertaining.

I’m not sure how we got to this point in our country. As a kid I was taught to accept personal responsibility. It feels like a very American thing to me. If you make a mistake, own up to it.

So how come when we talk about the trauma of minority communities…everything is our fault? On matters of race, gender, sexuality or teen fiction, we’re always quick to redistribute blame. We throw out clichés like “It takes two to tango” or “I think we could all learn from this lesson” or “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Redistributing blame! That’s like the socialist form of finger pointing.

Blaming Blacks and African Americans for misfortune that befalls them…

Is like blaming women for getting raped, assaulted, harassed, and catcalled.
Imagine if the man had said “The rapist could have shown more restraint and probably needs better training, but let’s examine why feminism causes women to get raped.” In fact, you don’t have to imagine it, because people have actually said this.

Is like blaming veterans for being unemployed, homeless, or for struggling with mental health and well-being.
Imagine if the man had said “America could have done more to support our troops, but let’s examine why ‘military culture’ causes veterans to be unemployed and homeless in the first place.” No one says this. Ever! The mere idea is laughable. You’d probably get punched in the face by someone.

Is like blaming Japanese-Americans for their own internment.
Imagine if the man had said “The US Government could have shown better judgment, but let’s examine why Japanese culture caused Japanese-Americans to be interned. They should stop being so passive!”

Is like blaming turtles for being an endangered species.
Imagine if the man had said “Human beings could respect to wildlife more, but let’s examine how turtles failed to use natural selection to their advantage.”

It’s not like turtles are just walking around thinking “Man, I been alive a long time,” a giant tortoise lives a hundred years, “I wish someone would just exploit me. I’m ready to sleep now.”

Is like blaming the Earth for allowing humans to bomb it.
Imagine if the man had said “Humans could have done more to address climate change, but let’s examine why the Earth gave us uranium and plutonium in the first place. I mean, what else we were supposed to do with it? Make batteries?”

Is like blaming the 13 Districts for always sending tributes to the annual Hunger Games.
Imagine if the man had said “The Capitol could have given the 13 Districts the right to vote, but let’s examine why their culture caused them to lose the war and be enslaved.”

No! It’s the Capitol’s fault! Katniss understands it. And so does Peeta. And most of the United States gets it too; especially if you’re an adult between the ages of 18 and 34!

The Capitol created an oppressive system which forces each district to send two tributes each year to fight to the death. It’s not like the children do it willingly—except in District 2, whose tributes actually do volunteer, but you get the point.

***

Going back to what’s happening in Ferguson and New York, we, society at large, need to stop blaming people for their own tragedy. We have a bad habit and history of focusing blame on the people who suffer from injustice, rather than critically examining, and holding accountable, the perpetrators of injustice.

And I use the term perpetrators loosely; to also include systems and institutions that contribute to prejudice, biases and oppression. We must acknowledge these social problems at the level in which they exist, otherwise our solutions will continue to be haphazard and ineffective.

Imagine telling every woman to wear a body camera when they walk down the street. “Because men will be nicer when they know they’re being recorded.” Seriously? Have you watched a football game lately?

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Leave your comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts. And subscribe to the blog for regular, weekly updates!

How to explain oppression and privilege to the average sports fan

What a (mostly) great weekend for sports in Seattle! The Seahawks embarrassed the 49ers; the Huskies soundly crushed the Cougars; and the Sounders beat the Galaxy (only to exit the MLS playoffs, huh?).

Sports made other headlines this weekend too, when a few players from the St. Louis Rams walked onto the field with the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture—a prominent symbol of solidarity around what’s been happening in Ferguson. “Everything about the situation touched me because it could have happened to any of us,” said Jared Cook, St. Louis Tight End. “Any of us are not far from the age of Michael Brown and it happened in our community”

Not everyone was thrilled with this gesture though; particularly the St. Louis Police Officers Association, which condemned the players’ actions. “The SLPOA is calling for the players involved to be disciplined and for the Rams and the NFL to deliver a very public apology.”

This specific example reflects the larger dialogue happening across the country. Regardless of your feelings or perspectives, one thing is clear, there’s a lot of mistrust between law enforcement, government and your average citizen. I believe part of the problem is that everyone is talking about different things. The focal point might be Michael Brown and Ferguson, but everyone is speaking from their personal experiences and frustrations, which vary considerably based on who you are and where you’re from. As I try to better understand the events myself, I realized something: Sports perfectly explains oppression and privilege.

Hear me out…

***

Growing up I was a relatively small athlete. I couldn’t even grow facial hair and pretty much failed at puberty. I blame it on Asian genes and a lack of calcium. I was definitely not the biggest player on the field and quite often the smallest. In fact, you might even consider me a pioneer for later athletes like Russell Wilson (5 ft 11 in) and Lionel Messi (5 ft 6 in). You’re welcome!

I made up for my size deficit by working hard, practicing, and developing my skills so that I could be a competitive player. If I couldn’t out muscle my opponent, I’d out class them. When I saw that other guys were way better at juggling a soccer ball, I learned how to juggle too. When I noticed that I couldn’t win most headers in the air, I learned how to tackle hard and low to the ground. I would play for hours until I got better.

I’ve had my fair share of wins and losses (and ties) throughout my career. By and large, the most frustrating games are the ones where it doesn’t feel like you’re playing the other team…but the referees. A game like this might start out great; things seem to be going your way. Then whoa! Out of nowhere the ref makes a bad call. “It’s just one call,” you think to yourself, “everyone makes mistakes.”

Play on. Then boom! You get tackled from behind by an opponent and the ref doesn’t call that either. Later he misses a penalty for your team. And it happens again, and again, and again. You petition the referee to call a fair game, but he doesn’t see anything wrong. And it just gets worse, doesn’t it? When has it ever gotten better? The ref starts throwing flags and cards at your team, even though you didn’t do anything. And obviously, the other team isn’t going to speak up and tell the ref to call a fair game—they are benefiting from these lopsided calls!

So what do you do? No athlete (or fan) is going to sit back and take it. Hell no! You let the referees know they’re making terrible calls. You curse at ’em. You scream at ‘em. You get in their face. And if that doesn’t work, you retaliate on the field—sometimes even off the field. If the ref isn’t going to call the fouls, you may as well break the rules too. Why not tackle a bit harder? Throw an elbow. Slide with your cleats up. Grab a face mask. Whatever! It’s all fair game at this point, right?

These situations, across any sport, are incredibly frustrating because most people walk into a game thinking they only have one opponent to play; that everything else on the field will be fair. Players are told that if they practice and work hard, they will succeed. Winners are the folks who want it more. Most people never expect they would have to play the referees too.

I had this feeling last week during an indoor soccer game. The other team was making some cheap tackles and the ref missed some pretty obvious calls. “Hey ref! You did you see that tackle? Call it fair.” Mind you, this was a co-ed, recreational indoor soccer game—we weren’t playing for a championship trophy. But both teams wanted to win, and neither wanted the referee to get in the way.

Has this ever happened to anyone else?! What did you do? Just sit back and take it? How many times have you screamed at your television because of a poor call? Remember how loud you got? How angry you were? I bet you even wished someone would punch the ref in the face. How many people have felt “robbed” after a game? (Seahawks vs Steelers, Superbowl XL).

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Now imagine if this was your actual life every.single.day. This is how many minorities a lot of the time. We work really hard to better ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally. We develop our skills and talents through rigorous practice and training, whether by getting a higher education, learning English, or on the job training.

But sometimes, no matter how hard minorities work or how much we prepare…it feels like the game is being called against us; that life is out of our control. It feels like we’re always playing from behind. And it can be a lot of different things that feel unfair, not just one: law enforcement singling out minorities; elected officials targeting immigrants; women being harassed in the work place.

When the game isn’t called fairly, is it so surprising then, at some point, people get fed up and want to protest? People want to scream at the referee and be heard, even retaliate. But in this case, the “referees” aren’t individuals—they are discriminatory laws and practices, rules and regulations that only benefit a small section of the population, and stereotypes and prejudices that devalue the worth and dignity of minorities.

This is what oppression feels like. If we can protest a football game for poor officiating, is it so surprising people want to protest for their civil rights?

And what about “privilege,” this buzzword that you hear minorities use all the time: White privilege, male privilege, economic privilege, etc. Privilege is the team who benefits from bad refereeing. They may not actively tell the ref to call an unfair game, but they sure as hell aren’t making a stink when the calls go their way either. All they have to do is remain silent and let the ref keep messing up.

There’s been a lot of talk around racial discrimination, systematic oppression, biases, and injustice lately. I personally believe the majority of people are well-intentioned and sincerely want to live in a peaceful society where everyone has equal rights and opportunity.

The point is, when the rules don’t work in sports we generally change them to make things fair so that teams can compete based on their merit and talent. This is exactly how social justice works. We want to change to rules so that everyone can succeed (or not) based on their merit and talent too.

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What’s been your experience? Leave a comment below. I’d love to get everyone’s thoughts on this.

Why do people think Asians are arrogant and White men make great leaders?

Hi everyone. Happy Wednesday!!! And Happy Thanksgiving.

I wanted to explore the topic of arrogance today–or confidence depending on who you ask. I’ve thought about this issue for quite a while, but never really knew how to best articulate it. A recent experience finally compelled me to write about this.

I was having lunch with a friend this week, who happens to be White. At one point in our conversation, my friend provided me feedback about my leadership and communication style. “You can be overly confident sometimes, which can come off as patronizing. You should tone it down a bit.” My initial reaction was “Awww, you notice me,” followed by “NUH-UH, YOU TONE IT DOWN!”

Let’s take a step back, because the purpose of this post isn’t to analyze whether I am confident, arrogant or a combination of both. I admit that I have been all of those things at various points in my life. Instead, I’m curious about the racial dynamics involved in these perceptions.

Here’s a football example: Seahawks vs 49ths in the 2014 Western conference playoff. It was the final play of the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. The winner would go on to play the Denver Broncos in the Superbowl. In the final play of the game, Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback, threw a last ditch pass to Michael Crabtree in the end zone. If he caught it, the 49ers would have scored a touchdown and likely won. However, the pass was tipped by Richard Sherman and intercepted by the Seahawks. Many of you may remember Richard Sherman’s postgame interview with Erin Andrews. “I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re going to get.”

Reactions were divided. Some people, most notably Seahawks fans, loved Sherman’s interview. Others derided him for being unprofessional and voiced their opinion in extremely racist ways. The criticisms of Sherman were way over the top. Here’s a snippet of some of the comments I found online.

I’ve noticed a terrible pattern of Black and other minorities being portrayed negatively when they are overly confident, while White players get much more favorable treatment.

Let’s look at Tom Brady. Not many people thought Tom Brady was going to be a great quarterback (we all know how that turned out). But Brady was once quoted saying “I’ve been playing this game my whole life…I’ve started a couple games now, and it’s the same game, man. It’s no different. I kid you not, it’s not that hard. I’m going to be a great one. I’m going to be one of the best at this game.”

Is that any different than what Richard Sherman said? I personally don’t think so; yet the reaction is so different. Sure, Tom Brady has also been called arrogant by some, but rarely have people brought up his race, or ethnicity, or gender, or sexuality.

This double standard exists for many people of color, including Asians. If you seem too confident, too assertive, or too passionate, you get called arrogant, or something worse. Similar to how athletes are single-mindedly focused on perfection, minorities also share the same drive to be the best we can be. Yet we’re told to tone it down; that we should be more humble.

This is incredibly frustrating for me as an Asian American. It feels like I have to celebrate my personal success quietly, and not be too vocal or expressive for fear of being called arrogant. This continuous self-monitoring is very exhausting. Sometimes, when I do something awesome (far and few, to be sure) I just want to “Richard Sherman” it and let the world know without being put down because of my race. It feels like Asians have to moderate our feelings and excitement, whereas most White men can boast about their successes freely and frequently. In fact, arrogance has been viewed as a positive, even advantageous trait, for some White men.

I’ve heard of similar frustrations among women too. There are many intelligent, strong women leaders who are called arrogant or abrasive when they exhibit the same confidence and leadership qualities as men: confidence, assertiveness, directness, and competitiveness. Hilary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer all come to mind.

The duality between being a minority as opposed to a White man is palpable. How come when White men exhibit these same qualities, they are perceived to be trustworthy, reliable, and great leaders? Am I judged by these same standards? Are people turned off because I don’t fit the stereotype of being a quiet, passive Asian? Does it cause resentment when I am vocal and assertive? Or when I challenge authority? Is Whiteness more positively associated with good leadership and confidence? As an Asian-American, does my overt confidence negatively impact how other people perceive me?

The answers to all of these questions are complex and multifaceted, to say the least. I don’t raise these issues and questions as a way to absolve myself of actually being arrogant. Arrogance is still a real thing; and I am totally guilty of it at different points in my life. Nor is my intention to single out or assign blame to old White men. I’m not pointing the finger at each and every single White men and saying “This is your fault. Look what you did to me!” Rather, it is important to recognize and acknowledge these biases and stereotypes exist and that some people benefit from them and others don’t.

There are so many strong, confident and vocal leaders in the Asian American community. We’re tired of being boxed into other people’s stereotypes. We’re not satisfied with the perceptions that Asians are weak and passive, but excellent at math! We don’t to be crappy leaders, but really great doctors. Our goal should be creating a more diverse and inclusive environment where everyone can put their best foot forward, showcase their amazing talents, and highlight their unique skills–without fear of being put down because of their race.

Can you be confident without being arrogant? Absolutely! But is it fair for minorities to be held to a double standard? Heck no. We need to challenge these implicit biases when we see them.

So when it comes to my work, my passion, my leadership and my career, I’ll put it out there. Just like Tom Brady and Richard Sherman: I’m going to be one of the best at this game. And when appropriate, I’m going to celebrate it–loudly!

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How about other folks out there? Ever feel like you can’t be overtly confidence? Ever been told to tone it down? Leave a comment below, I’d like to hear about other experiences. Happy Thanksgiving everyone. And go Seahawks!