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

This post originally appeared on Medium. Co-authored with Ellen Pao.

Asians 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.)

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 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.

We 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.

Source: Washington Center for Equitable Growth

Source: Washington Center for Equitable Growth

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.

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