asian american leaders

We Can’t Keep Our Heads Down


Three AAPIs reflect on the challenges they’ve faced as leaders in their field.

From feeling like they have to downplay their “Asianness” to the need to increase representation in the media, three AAPI leaders shared their personal and professional challenges, along with advice they have for other leaders, in a conversation with FiveStone President Won Kim:

Vivian Long is the executive director for the Long Family Foundation, an intergenerational, private nonprofit organization that funds religious, educational, cultural, and research endeavors. She also serves on the board of directors for China Institute, NAACFAsian Americans Advancing Justice — Los Angeles.

Richard Lee is the director of advancement for the Asian American Christian Collaborative, an organization committed to collaboration across ethnocultural contexts, political and socioeconomic lines, and theological traditions. He also serves as the global officer of public engagement for International Justice Mission, a global organization that protects people in poverty from violence.

Lim Win is a creative director at Facebook/Instagram and also an advocate for REPRESNTASN, a group fighting for more Asian representation in media.

Note: The issues surrounding the AAPI community are complex. The views expressed below are solely those of the individual, not any organization they work for or represent.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

FiveStone President Won Kim: Do you have a personal or professional story that captures the reality of the challenges the AAPI community faces?

Vivian Long: One of the most challenging dynamics of the AAPI community is the diversity and disparity that exists amongst our population. The model minority myth has long perpetuated the notion that all AAPIs are successful and have transcended many of the “typical issues” that people of color face. However, when data is disaggregated, a very different picture is revealed. A March 2021 report by the National Partnership for Women & Families showed that while the wage gap between Chinese and Indian women and white, non-Hispanic men is small or nonexistent, most other AAPI women are paid significantly less.

For every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, Korean women are paid 86 cents, Filipina women are paid 83 cents, Vietnamese women, 63 cents, Cambodian women, 60 cents, and Burmese women 49 cents. The model minority myth unnecessarily pits us against other communities of color by invoking the very moniker “model.” But it also perpetuates an inaccurate narrative and overgeneralization of our varied community and exacerbates attempts to develop widespread interventions and implement blanket solutions for a community that spans 50 ethnicities and hundreds of dialects.

We are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States; it’s critical that leaders with decision-making power — whether that’s in corporations, politics, or nonprofits — have a robust understanding of the complexities, assets, and needs of the AAPI community, and serve the population accordingly.

Richard Lee: A few years ago, a good (white) friend of mine told me that he had always “seen me as white.” What was meant as a compliment by him was a wake-up call for me. I had been successful in my pursuit of acceptance and assimilation into white spaces in work, school, and society. I was “seen as white.” However, at the same time, I felt like the cost was my having to deny my Asianness and downplay my ethnic heritage in order to achieve that success.

I think many AAPIs face a similar journey of acceptance and assimilation in their work, school, and society. Sadly, the reality in far too many workplaces is that AAPIs are accepted insofar as they keep up with being “seen as white.”

Lim Win: One of the challenges the AAPI community faces right now is the surge of violent attacks towards Asian Americans driven by the racist reaction from the Covid-19 pandemic. A significant amount of hatred was fueled by people in a position of political power and influence in the media who used hateful and divisive rhetoric towards Asians.

Working as a creative director for brands and agencies for many years, I’ve personally noticed a huge lack of AAPI representation in the media. So why is this relevant? Simple. I believe the rise of Asian hate is another consequence of Asians not being seen. It is impossible for Asians to defend themselves from hateful speech if they’re absent from the picture.

How has the increase in anti-Asian violence and conversations around it impacted you in both a professional and personal way?

Long: I have been simultaneously challenged by and grateful for the surge in coverage of AAPI issues. In many ways, it’s been validating to see the media shine a spotlight on many of the topics that our community leaders have been addressing for years — sometimes decades. While many people are surprised about this surge of anti-Asian rhetoric and violence, it’s long and quietly been lurking below the surface.

The PBS Asian Americans documentary is a powerful series that tells the story of how many great “American successes” came at the expense of the discrimination and mistreatment of AAPIs. I think many of us — myself included — would’ve liked to believe that AAPIs have “overcome” that part of our history. However, this moment has reminded me that we are still very much seen as perpetual foreigners, and there is a danger that still exists for simply being Asian American.

So while I now feel a heightened sense of risk in doing errands and simple everyday tasks, I also feel a weariness in accepting the inheritance of a shared generational experience of racism. But in recognizing how this fear and fatigue is a relatively new experience for me, I also humbly acknowledge how many other people of color have been living in this fear for far longer than I, and for outcomes far more devastating. So while cross-racial solidarity has been a pursuit for the AAPI work that our foundation supports, I have deeper empathy for the heaviness and burden that often comes with being a person of color and a renewed commitment to the work of ongoing allyship.

Lee: The rise of anti-Asian violence in this country has been a wake-up call for Asian Americans to realize that our acceptance in society is held together by a very thin thread. So long as AAPIs are not seen as threatening, then we are accepted. But then a microscopic virus makes its way here and all of a sudden, we are seen as a threat.

I’ve always believed that AAPI people were only one North Korean attack away from being ostracized in society. But it turns out that it wasn’t a bomb that exposed the underlying hatred towards AAPIs, it was a virus. We must call for solidarity amongst AAPI, Black, Brown, and white brothers and sisters to fight for the rights of all people who are oppressed and afflicted.

Win: Personally, my wife was racially targeted and accosted while riding the subway in NYC. My sixth grade son takes the same transit system to school every day. So the rise of unprovoked attacks on Asian Americans hits very close to home.

Professionally, I ask myself if there’s anything I can do to help fight against this. I do believe the Stop Asian Hate movement is powerful and necessary. But I want to take a step back a little further. I wonder if there is a link between Asians being underrepresented in film, advertising, and the public eye. So I’ve started a project to help change that with a very simple premise: a challenge to the advertising and film industry to write more Asians into scripts and casting specs.

Writing Asians into scripts is something that I began doing a couple of years ago and to be honest, I felt a little nervous writing them in. But the reality is, if I won’t do it, who will? So I wrote them in, and kept writing them in… until it felt normal. And that’s the intention, to normalize Asians into the public eye.

What is one piece of advice, suggestion, or encouragement you would give to AAPIs reading this article?

Long: Allow yourself to process the complexity of emotions that might be emerging as a result of this surge in coverage about anti-Asian violence, and acknowledge that this is part of a lifelong journey in discovering, exploring, and reconciling your identity as an AAPI.

Start to learn more about the current issues that the AAPI community is facing and find a leader that is addressing an issue that is important to you. Ask that leader how you might be able to help, whether that’s through contributing expertise, volunteering, donating, and then make a sustainable commitment to that partnership. Many AAPIs serving nonprofit organizations and AAPI run small businesses are seeing a surge in support in response to this moment, but it’s even more critical that they have the resources they need in the years to come.

Lee: There is an unspoken Asian ethic that says “keep your head down and don’t make trouble.” And in some ways, that ethic makes a lot of sense for first generation immigrants. When you don’t speak the language and when you don’t know the culture, I think many immigrants would prefer to take a trip to the market or eat a meal at a restaurant without making any trouble. That allows them to navigate as an unseen and invisible member of society.

But as more generations have been born and raised in this country, I think it’s important for us to begin to take up space in our society around us. We should not just “keep our head down,” instead we should lift our head up and see the places around us where we can advocate for the needs of other AAPIs. We can no longer linger in the shadows of the majority white culture’s qualified acceptance of us. Also, we can no longer linger in the shadow of Black people who are fighting and dying in the streets as they fight for the rights of all people of color. We must lift up our heads and, as the late John Lewis once said, get in some “good trouble.”

Win: There is a stereotypical belief that Asians are passive and my encouragement to any AAPI reading this is that you can break that belief. Asians might have become easily overlooked because culturally, Asians have done a good job at assimilating. But Asians have a voice, so use it to speak up with friends or take action with other AAPI colleagues. Most likely, you are not alone with your thoughts so feel free to band together or join an existing AAPI group.

What is one piece of advice, suggestion, or encouragement you would give to non-AAPI reading this article?

Long: So many stories of Asian violence report that no one came to the victim’s aid. If you are in a position to safely intervene, not just for an act of aggression against an AAPI, but against anyone, PLEASE do so. (And if you’d like to learn more about bystander training, there are some great resources here.) In some of these cases, you could save someone’s life. Additionally, I would encourage non-AAPIs to check on their AAPI friends, give them the space to share about their experiences as AAPIs, and humbly listen.

For those who are interested in more action-oriented suggestions, educating yourself and your family members on the history of AAPIs and other communities of color is a great start.

Lee: Listen. Many of my AAPI friends and colleagues feel “invisible-ized” in society because Asians don’t fit into the clean Black and white racial narrative in America. We don’t exactly fit into one side of that narrative. Many AAPIs have chosen the privileged life of white suburbia. And yet, we are still people of color who face racism and prejudice repeatedly. And because we don’t fit into the racial narrative in America, we are often forgotten in the minds of the media and the masses. But our lived experiences are unique. And they don’t fit neatly. Which is all the more reason for non-AAPI people to listen to our stories. Enter into our lived experiences and learn from us.

Win: It goes back to Asian representation. In the same way there is a lack of Asian representation in the media, there is a similar dilemma within companies. Asians seldom hold high positions that are seen more publicly at a leadership level. I’ve worked at many companies with Asian colleagues and I’ve rarely (if ever) met one at a C-suite level. I’ve been noticing a corporate theme of diversity and inclusion happening especially at executive levels but, sadly, I feel Asians are left out of that conversation.

Hopefully, people are gaining more insight and learning something just through this interview. I’d encourage people to read more on this topic as it will help build more understanding. Also, an AAPI candidate at the C-suite level doesn’t hurt either.