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May 17, 2022

Allyship at Work: How to Advocate for AAPI Employees

7 minute read

Workplace Wellbeing

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Ariel Landrum avatar

Ariel Landrum

7-minute read

The Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community is a fast-growing population of 23 million Americans, roughly including 50 ethnic groups with origins in more than 40 countries speaking over 100 languages.

We are a vital part of the American cultural mosaic, encircling an expansive range of diversity—and yet, since the start of the pandemic, there has been a dramatic increase in racism, discrimination, and violent attacks against us. 

There were nearly 1,500 reported anti-Asian attacks in the first month following the U.S. COVID-19 outbreak, and 30% of Asian Americans reported experiencing racial slurs or racist jokes since the pandemic began. 

Additionally, more than a year has passed since a gunman killed eight women, six of whom were Asian, at three different massage spas in Atlanta, Georgia.

Since 2020, AAPI employees have found themselves fearing for their lives and the lives of those in their communities. Now more than ever, we need a greater level of support from our colleagues, employers, family, and friends. 

This means seeing us individually, trusting our experience, and exploring our unique challenges. Here are ways you can do this based on my experience as part of the AAPI community and as a licensed mental health provider for Spring Health. 

Living with the “outsider” lens 

One of the overarching struggles AAPI people experience is being perpetually seen as outsiders, which creates feelings of disconnection, misunderstanding, and loneliness. 

It’s common for us to be asked “where we are from,” even if our family has lived in North America for generations. Many AAPIs are given the back-handed compliment that they “speak well,” or know a lot about American culture. 

All of these microaggressions imply that we are outsiders. Being seen through the lens of “forever foreign” increases incidents of microaggressions and induces internalized shame around our culture. 

We see this the most when non-AAPI members discuss our food. What we find delicious, appetizing, and enticing, others often describe as strange, gross, smelly, slimy, or downright vile.

Employers can increase our sense of belonging by offering food from East Asian, Southeast Asian, South Asian, Pacific Islander, and Hawaiian cultures when meals are ordered throughout the year—not just during AAPI Heritage Month. This creates a safer and more affirming work environment. 

Another way to increase inclusion is actively providing opportunities for the entire organization to learn and celebrate AAPI cultural practices and traditions.

Understanding the model minority myth

The model minority myth is a stereotype that implies AAPIs are inherently better at adjusting to changes, more hardworking, and academically gifted than other minorities. Those outside the community may hear this and believe it is a positive stereotype—but it causes much harm. 

Due to this myth, the AAPI community’s pain and struggles are often ignored. Conversely, our successes are often not celebrated, and reduced instead, increasing the bias that we didn’t work hard for our achievements. 

The model minority myth perpetuates the othering of community members within the society they call home, and operates as a racial wedge that divides AAPIs from communities of color. Community members that have internalized the myth may even feel additional pressure to succeed.

Leaders can actively work toward preventing this stereotype by understanding its impact, and taking these two steps: 

  • Provide open-door policies for all employees to share their frustration when projects are unsuccessful
  • Review how praise is given with your team, to ensure everyone is acknowledged for their contributions 

How AAPIs view mental health

Though a rise in Anti-Asian hate crimes has led to a surge of concern over the community’s mental health, feelings of fear, anger, helplessness, and isolation aren’t new to us.  

But getting mental health help isn’t always straightforward for our community. AAPI individuals are less likely to access mental health services than any other racial group, because of the cultural bias against receiving mental health and a lack of culturally relevant treatment approaches. 

Additionally, because of the model minority myth, community members feel a sense of shame and guilt if they experience mental, emotional, academic, or economic turmoil. This often leads to putting off seeking assistance in fear of tainting the “positive image” of our community.

To increase access to mental health services for the AAPI community, partner with providers who are a part of the community. Here are a few ways to do this: 

  • Partner with local cultural community mental wellness spaces—such as acupuncturists or yoga studios run by those in the South Asian community—to provide employee discounts 
  • Offer a benefit like Spring Health, which has a diverse provider network
  • Provide webinars and workshops led by AAPI facilitators 
  • Create healing circles or support networks to connect AAPI employees at all levels of your company

The harm created by the “bamboo ceiling”

Within the workplace, the most harm done by the model minority myth is the creation of the “bamboo ceiling”. This refers to the limitations and discrimination Asian Americans face in the workforce. 

Bosses may not promote AAPI employees, assuming they’re content where they are or already have fulfilling lives with no financial struggle—thinking they don’t need a promotion. 

Project leads may assign more work to AAPI team members, assuming they enjoy it and don’t need or want the recognition they deserve for working harder than their team members. 

It’s critical for company leaders to look out for the signs of internal bias and ensure they aren’t limiting opportunities for growth and development. Companies can develop mentorship programs that connect AAPI leadership to AAPI employees, providing them a direct line toward networking and advancement. 

Eliminating workplace discrimination

Workplace discrimination, oppression, and disadvantages continue to exist for all marginalized communities. And unfortunately, many of those being harmed are left with the burden of coming up with a solution to stop the discrimination. 

Too many times, marginalized people, especially those in the AAPI community, have heard HR respond with, “What would you like me to do?” 

To those who aren’t disadvantaged, this question appears harmless. It’s viewed as  an “opportunity” to take the floor, take control, and take charge of the outcome of their situation. 

Yet it puts the sole emotional and mental labor on the employee, with no parameters, guidance, or support. This is a common experience AAPIs have in the workplace, which often leads to not seeking help or even reporting harassment.

Take ownership of supportive solutions

People leaders must take ownership and active responsibility for coming up with solutions to aid their employees against discrimination and harrasmessent. 

Here are three ways you can start doing this today:

  • Take and provide courses and workshops on oppression and bias to continually increase organizational understanding
  • Practice active listening and create a safe space for employees to share their struggles without judgment 
  • Approach conversations with openness, willing to learn and collaborative to find solutions to fully address the situation

Intentionally create a culture that values DEIB

Taking a proactive stance on preventing discrimination also means creating an environment of diversity, equity, inclusivity, and belonging.

Learning and honoring AAPI cultural holidays and practices can develop understanding and appreciation. Creating sessions and webinars where employees can share their families’ traditions and cultural practices will advance their voices. 

Most importantly, regularly communicate to the entire organization that any kind of discrimination will not be tolerated.

Become a true ally

Allyship is the authentic relationship that develops when an individual outside a marginalized group advocates against discriminatory behavior. This can occur on an individual, organizational, and systemic level. 

Allyship is not a single action—it is ongoing, and involves action, behavior change, and service. This has to happen on all levels, including the individual level, to be effective.

No one gets allyship right the first time. As we grow and learn to better understand what a marginalized community experiences, the more we will get right and wrong. Openness to learning is how allyship works, not expecting perfection.

Here are a few ways to become a true ally:

  • Listen, believe, and acknowledge the experiences of your coworkers
  • Recognize that not everyone in the AAPI community has the same experience
  • Avoid assumptions
  • Check in and stay connected with your AAPI coworkers
  • Use inclusive language
  • Continue to support AAPI-owned businesses and organizations
  • Attend AAPI cultural events and festivals
  • Actively address and learn the biases you have around the community

Supporting the AAPI community 

All of your AAPI employees are diverse in their experiences, understanding, and integration of their identity and culture. Those who are diaspora have a vastly different experience of their heritage than those who live in the countries of their culture.

Creating a supportive workplace means actively acknowledging our struggles, doing the work to develop solutions that can reduce workplace discrimination, and intentionally offering direct routes for advancement. Leadership at all levels must take the extra effort to challenge their own biases of our community.

I encourage you to become an ally and put all of the steps I’ve shared into practice at your organization—starting today.

Read this blog next to learn more about how to create a culture of belonging that benefits both the business and your employees.

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About the Author

Ariel Landrum avatar

Ariel Landrum

Ariel Landrum is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Art Therapist. She is a proud Cebuano Filipino American currently practicing teletherapy out of California. Ariel is a self-identified "geek therapist" who uses her client's passions and fandoms to create connections, strengthen identification, and support their individuality. She specializes in working with military members and their families, the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, and survivors of sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse.