The following exchange occurred between me and a fellow BIPOC woman earlier this week while discussing our careers:
Me: I stayed at my last place for far too long. I learned a lot but hit that ceiling way too quickly while I watched others get ahead of me. So frustrating
Her: The way women advanced in [AML] Investigations was relatively arbitrary
I’m the opposite once I see that wall I’m out – that’s why I moved to FinTech. You can get visibility here very easily b/c it’s so flat.
Me: I remember having some odd interviews where the interviewer stated flat out that he had an all-male team and was looking to add women. Which, great, but also kind of a weird thing to say in the interview?
Her: try inappropriate
“I am interviewing b/c I need to to check the box”
Awesome – sounds exactly like the place a woman would want to work!
Me: I’m fairly certain I was initially hired at my last place because I was Indian and they assumed I’d be able to communicate more easily with our analysts in India 🙄
But that was in 2008 and I really needed a job (the hedge fund where I was working at the time was going under)
Her: I think that’s fine like in AML Investigations they hire a lot of Russians b/c they are able to read documents and are more familiar with business structures. I know it’s not exactly the same but I don’t find that super offensive …
Me: I think all of Russia speaks Russian. There are like hundreds of languages in India and I don’t actually speak any of them
I mean, it’s fine, it all worked out. But it was a bit of a shock when I started there and I had to “break it to them” that I wasn’t going to be able to communicate better than anyone else who was already there.
Her: I wasn’t even thinking language so much as just like being Indian you’d communicate better with Indians.
Me: It wasn’t even mentioned in the interview process at all or in the job description
Her: I would assume all of the analysts spoke English.
Me: They seemed disappointed but I was able to find plenty of other work to do, so NBD in the end. Let’s just say it was the first of many “interesting” things that happened there
Her: I mean like had formal English language training in school.
It got you a foot in the door so not a terrible thing! 🙂
Me: Absolutely! Especially at that time, I took whatever I could get
This is someone with whom I have met and spoken several times, so she knows that I do not have a hint of an Indian accent nor do I speak of my deep ties to Indian culture (as they don’t exist). There is no reason to assume that I would be better equipped than any other American to commune with Indians in a professional setting. Sure, if you want to hear about an Indian expat Thanksgiving hosted by vegetarians attempting to cook turkey, or how the best Indian food can be found in temple cafeterias, I’m your slightly better equipped American.
At the company to which I was referring, on days we ordered Indian food, colleagues would call me and ask me to translate the menu, which (aside from the names of the dishes) was in English; when the food would arrive, they would shove the container in my face and ask me to confirm that was what they had ordered. I tried to be patient on the calls, but at that point I would get a little snarky and explain that:
- India has many different regional cuisines being a very large country THAT I AM NOT FROM
- The regional cuisine of my parents is not the same as the restaurant we ordered from and I have never eaten chicken tikka masala
- I am from New Jersey (NO, NOT EDISON)
This would not go over well as I was expected to be bland and accommodating. After all, this was pretty standard benign racism I had been experiencing my entire life. Why would I have a reaction to people making assumptions based on my name and the color of my skin when those assumptions are allegedly “positive”?
One of the most insidious consequences of the model minority myth is being penalized for straying outside the proscribed lane for Asians. We’re meant to be personality-less workhorses, good at math and science with no aptitude for leadership, and, perhaps most importantly, silent. Asian women are meant to be all of the above with the added bonus of submissively serving men.
When my old company fired my boss, they thought they were replacing him with someone they could easily control and not compensate. I work hard but I have a life and am anything but quiet. I had already asked for a promotion a few months earlier and heard nothing back — I was now expected to take over an entire department with all the associated increased workload, responsibility and liability without any additional compensation or recognition?
My boss dodged calls with me and HR to discuss; he would not approve the promotion and raise for another 6 months, roughly 9 months after I initially asked him, and a company announcement (too loud?) was never disseminated. A couple years later, fed up with with years of managerial abdication by this same very senior executive (VSE), I asked HR to assign me to a different manager. After close to a decade of VSE refusing to meet with me, this finally elicited a response: VSE instructed HR not to pay my bonus until I came to see him. VSE held my bonus hostage in an effort to force me to crawl into his office and agree to continue covering a role for which VSE alone was compensated despite his doing none of the work. I was not meek (“<no knock> Hey, HR tells me I need to see you about getting paid?”) but I did not feel I was in a position to refuse him.
This humiliating tactic in addition to the absence of any recognition of my contributions in my 10-year tenure (company announcements regarding promotion, new responsibilities, change in reporting — common occurrences for others) were reminders: I was to know my place and keep my mouth shut like a good little Asian. It didn’t take; I continued to advocate for myself and other underrepresented people. Two years later, asking to occupy just 1 of 4 vacant (pointing out, among other disparate treatment, that my male department head counterparts had their own offices) was the last straw and ultimately led to my departure.
Sure, I “got my foot in the door”…and immediately disappointed my hirers because they had expectations of me based on racial assumptions they made. Behaving counter to stereotype — wanting to discuss leadership and career development; requesting meetings; pointing out discrepancies in how various people were treated or rewarded; speaking up in meetings; not jumping at the “opportunity” to fetch coffee/water/lunch, answer phones, be the note-taker in meetings while the men spoke — was met with hostility and professional penalties.
Would I prefer to be stereotyped negatively instead? Of course not: I would prefer you wait until you get to know me to make informed assumptions about me. I recognize I live with a lot of privilege that B and I people do not, i.e., not routinely fearing essentially sanctioned violence inflicted upon me by the state or my neighbors thanks to qualified immunity (federal) and the castle doctrine (depending on the state).
I understand not being as concerned with Asian stereotyping especially given the recent horrific murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland. Had we been discussing racism in this context and I added, “People getting mowed down in the street and in their homes but let me tell you about how being Indian got me a job, isn’t that awful” I would have had the same reaction as my colleague. During the above exchange while I was in disbelief that she was casually OK with obvious racial assumptions, she was probably aghast that complaining about it. I don’t know how to bridge that because we’re both kind of right from our personal experiences. Can we not agree that while some racism is worse and more dangerous than others, all racism is bad?