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We Need to Talk About What It Means to Be ‘White-Adjacent’ in Tech

Privileged, yet excluded. Activists Ellen Pao and Tracy Chou explain the double-edged sword — and how to use it in the fight against racism.

Co-authored by Tracy Chou, Founder and CEO, Block Party; Co-founder, Project Include and Ellen K. Pao, Co-founder and CEO, Project Include

sians in tech are now frequently considered so white-adjacent that we are no longer identified as people of color, as if the relative overrepresentation of some East and South Asians with socioeconomic and educational privilege means that the entirety of the AAPI community is no longer subject to issues of racism. But it is that mix of privilege and exclusion that also gives us a unique position from which to advocate for anti-racism and the dismantling of structural and systemic racism.

While Asians comprise 5.7% of the U.S. population, our representation in tech is almost 2.5 times that at 14%; compare that with 0.9% of elected AAPI officials. (Note: Most data do not include numbers for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, who make up 0.2% of the US population, and should be considered part of the AAPI community.)

Photos courtesy of Tracy Chou, Founder and CEO of Block Party (left) and Ellen Pao, Co-Founder and CEO of Project Include (right).

The list of wealthy and influential Asian tech titans is significant and growing, with increasingly more Asian founder-led and Asian investor-funded companies achieving meteoric success. In the past year alone — as the pandemic moved schools’ whiteboards to Google Classrooms, business offices to Microsoft Teams and Zoom, and online grocery shopping to DoorDash and Instacart — their respective Asian American CEOs generated billions in stock market gains in the process. Given technology’s outsized impact on society and our lives, the fact of our outsized representation in the tech industry is not to be understated; we are at least in those meetings where critical decisions are being made that have ramifications all across society.

Yet, despite our privilege and these high-profile examples of success, we also experience significant systemic racism. The oft-cited “bamboo ceiling” describes a real structural disadvantage for Asians in the corporate world. The data shows how much less likely Asians are to make it to the tech executive suite than White and Latinx employees, and than Black employees, too. Less well-known are the cases when tech companies discriminate against Asians in hiring and pay.

face aggressions on a daily basis as well: We have all been called by the wrong name. We are regularly asked where we are from. We are subjected to racist jokes and comments. We are often excluded from diversity and inclusion efforts. We are stereotyped into specific roles and job functions. We are not expected to speak up or self-advocate and are often punished when we do. Tech products like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are used against us as weapons for anti-Asian hate and harassment. For many Asian immigrants, the feeling of moving to a lower social status in the United States has led to symptoms of depression in adults and loneliness and isolation for their children.

We are also treated as a monolithic group, despite comprising more than 19 groups speaking over 38 languages. Anti-Chinese racism — rooted in harmful lies peddled on tech platforms blaming China for Covid-19 — has sparked a wave of hate crimes against all Asians undifferentiated by ethnicity. But the AAPI experience in America is wide-ranging and the demographic data disproves the model minority myth.

In 2019, only 88% of all Asian Americans 25 years or older had a high school degree compared to 93% of non-Hispanic Whites. A lower percentage of Asians own homes than that of the overall population (59% compared with 64%). In 2014, 18% of New York City residents living in poverty were Asian American; at the same time, 29% of NYC-based Asian Americans were living in poverty, a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group, according to the Urban Institute. And AAPI workers were disproportionately unemployed during the pandemic.

The zero-sum structures in many institutions force competition between communities for limited resources and opportunities.

Disaggregating data shows even more disparities among the diverse AAPI community. Burmese Americans had significantly lower incomes of $44,400 than Asian Americans overall at $85,800, and compared to the average U.S. household at $61,800; 25% of Mongolian Americans live in poverty. In 2017, Asian immigrants comprised 14% of the 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Source: Washington Center for Equitable Growth
Source: Washington Center for Equitable Growth

iscrimination exists within the AAPI community, too, often based on these differences. Many U.S. Asians look down on less privileged AAPI people: those less educated, those living in poverty, hourly service workers, the 38% of U.S. Asians who are not proficient in English. Colorism is rampant, leading to discrimination against people with darker skin within Asian ethnicities. Casteism came with South Asians to the United States and continues; the Dalit rights movement to end it recently brought more public attention to casteism in tech through a July 2020 discrimination lawsuit against Cisco.

It’s that mix of privilege and exclusion that gives us just enough power to speak up but not enough to gain equitable access to opportunities and safety.

From our position of privilege, we often exclude others, complicit in using the model minority myth as a tool to limit Black and Latinx progress. We hold down members of other races and ethnicities — and we even erase the socioeconomic and other struggles that many AAPI communities experience. The colorism and racism in Asian communities extends deep into anti-Blackness. The assumption that working hard leads to success, and the internalization of racist stereotypes of Asians as hard-working and other groups as lazy, can cause Asians to buy into the racial hierarchy in the race for proximity to Whiteness. The zero-sum structures in many institutions force competition between communities for limited resources and opportunities.

Identifying both as a woman and/or non-binary person and as AAPI brings additional forms of discrimination and stereotypes — and violence. Media descriptions of the Atlanta shootings of eight people, including six Asian women, combined sexist and racist stereotypes, including unbacked assumptions that the victims were sex workers. This sexual violence and hate against Asian women comes from America’s long history of fetishizing Asian women as hypersexual and docile; the Page Act of 1875 was passed to ban the entry of “immoral Chinese women.” More recently, the alt-right has promoted their racist and sexist fetishes. A 2017 study found that more than half (54%) of Asian women in the Chicago metropolitan area had experienced some form of sexual violence.

t’s no coincidence that the people who initiated the first wave of lawsuits against tech monoliths like Kleiner Perkins, Facebook, and Twitter, and who called out investors like Justin Caldbeck, Dave McClure, and Chris Sacca were almost all Asian women. It’s that mix of privilege and exclusion that gives us just enough power to speak up but not enough to gain equitable access to opportunities and safety.

Recent actions, many inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, are driving more change. Stop AAPI Hate and AAPI Data are already making waves by using metrics to highlight AAPI experiences. Project Include recently researched the impact of remote workplaces on the tech workforce since Covid-19. Our surveys showed Asians were more likely to have experienced increases in harassment and hostility, work pressure, and anxiety with Asian women and nonbinary people more likely to be impacted than Asian men.

AAPI journalists are telling their own stories to highlight racism and coverage of racism. Long-time organizers like Asian American Journalists Association, Red Canary Song, and National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum are gaining more attention as people amplify their stories. Protests against colorism have hit Bollywood. In the tech world, activists like Tech Equity Collaborative are actively calling for an end to anti-Asian racism in tech. Two tech leaders helped found The Asian American Foundation to increase investment in and empower AAPI communities.

We hope the growing awareness, and participation, in the ongoing fight for social justice means the next generation of tech workers will speak up, too, by continuing to unionize, sharing their stories, going on strikes, and quitting or refusing jobs at problematic companies. We hope CEOs and executives educate themselves on racism against the AAPI community, as well as against the Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. For the Asian community, we hope that means we will start to celebrate both our connections and dependencies on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities, and each unique ethnicity and the differences in experiences among them. As foundational civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

Co-Founder and CEO of Project Include. Author of Reset. Angel investor.