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7 Things NOT to Say to Asian-Americans

By Stacy Straczynski

7 Things NOT to Say to Asian-Americans

Confronting subconscious biases and stereotypes about race is a frequent occurrence for many professionals in the workplace—in particular, those from traditionally underrepresented groups. While many comments and questions are raised merely out of curiosity or ignorance, it doesn’t lessen the offense.

“Stereotypes make people feel like they don’t belong, like they’re an outsider looking in,” according to Linda Akutagawa, a Japanese-American and CEO and President of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP). “It’s not necessarily the phrases or comments said, but the insinuations and how things were said.”
What can your organization do to improve cultural competence?

According to Jennifer “Jae” Pi’ilani Requiro, a Filipino-American and National Manager of Diversity and Inclusion for Toyota Financial Services, everyone has a choice of how he or she addresses negative comments. “In a case where there is a personal relationship and a certain degree of trust, I encourage people to have a private conversation to explain the negative impact,” she says.

Educating employees and exposing them to diversity is “critical to addressing comments born of ignorance,” says Dr. Rohini Anand, Senior Vice President and Global Chief Diversity Officer of Sodexo, who is Indian-American. “These impact how Asians are represented in the workplace.”

7 Things NOT to Say to Asian-Americans

1. “You speak English well. Where did you learn it?”
Typically meant as a compliment, this is one comment that really “pushes my buttons,” says Anand. “Just because a person has an accent—and possible appearance—that’s different than the mainstream” results in the assumption that a person can’t communicate.

2. “You need to improve your communication skills.”
Akutagawa does note that with globalization, there are increasing numbers of professionals who speak English with accents. And this can become an issue during performance reviews: Many times, Asian employees are simply told they need to improve their communication skills but are not given any elaboration on what that means.

“No one wants to come straight out and address the accent,” Akutagawa says. “It’s a two-way street: The manager has to think about what they’re doing to listen fully and be present in conversations.”

3. “Asians are not discriminated against. All of my doctors are Asian, and the Asian kids in school are the ones getting top honors. It’s the white kids who are at a disadvantage.”

Even positive stereotypes are damaging: The myth that all Asians want a career in medicine, math and science is limiting. Additionally, you should never assume that an Asian employee is the IT person.

4. “Asians are good workers but seldom want to become leaders.”
There’s a strong stereotype that while Asians are good individual performers, they are not leadership material—and that’s OK with them, according to Akutagawa. As a result, she says, there is an unconscious bias that prevents Asians from being considered for more senior-level positions.

For example, Requiro recalls an anecdote someone shared with her: “After voicing her opinion in a meeting, my colleague’s male manager said to her, ‘You’re not like my Asian wife. You speak up.’ It is hard to forget a story like that.”

Anand says the issue lies in a lack of cultural competence. Many Asian-Americans with strong non-Western cultural roots might have a quiet leadership style, more behind-the-scenes than what is considered mainstream. The solution? Draw attention to a variety of successful leaders and management styles.

5. “Can you recommend a good [Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, sushi, etc.] restaurant?” Or “Chinese food is cat meat.”
Don’t ask for dining recommendations out of context or assume an Asian has this information on hand.

6. “Where are you from?” “No, where are you really from?”

Aside from the fact that the question already implies that an Asian is an outsider, repeating it is even more offensive. Akutagawa says, “I get the question only every so often, but it’s frequent enough to remind me that stereotypes are there.”
“How often do you go home?” also should be avoided. Requiro says her typical response is: “I am from the Monterey Bay Area. I can drive there in about five hours,” even though she knows this isn’t what the person meant.

7. “Asians are overrepresented at senior and C-suite levels.”
Despite a variety of data, including DiversityInc Top 50 data, that consistently prove otherwise, this is a comment Akutagawa heard a speaker say at a recent conference. “It was so blissfully thrown out. My thought was, ‘We have a few high-profile CEOs and all of a sudden we’re overrepresented?’ Maybe when people see the one, they feel like they’re being overrun.”

The actual numbers show that Asians, much like other underrepresented groups, are lacking representation in upper management: DiversityInc Top 50 CEOs are 8 percent Asian, and Fortune 500 CEOs are only 1.8 percent Asian.

5 Ways to Prevent Asian Stereotypes

Don’t perpetuate stereotypes—even positive ones.

Make opportunities available outside the stereotypical career track.

Assign cross-cultural mentors and offer stretch assignments.

Elevate the mission of resource groups beyond sharing cultural practices and celebrating Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.

Draw attention to successful Asian leaders and role models.

More Things Not to Say

Any derogatory term

“You don’t act very Asian.”

“What’s your name again?

“You all look alike.”

“What kind of Asian are you?”

“Are you a bad driver?”

“Can you speak your language?”

“Were you a fan of Jeremy Lin?”

“Why do you only hang out with Asians?”

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26 Comments

  • I don’t understand why people would say any of these things… it’s difficult for me to understand stereotyping. People are people. Maybe it’s a generational thing? I often notice it is older people who tend to not like Asians the most. It seems rather inhumane to me… as if they are sociopaths that don’t understand basic human kindness and compassion. Unfounded hate is a illness that corrodes the heart.

  • Yohan Anthony

    I’m an Asian American, my parents are from Sri Lanka, but I have no problem with people asking where I am from, I’d rather them ask me than assume I’m African, Arab, Hispanic, or Indian, as many people have. And I don’t mind if people ask if I “speak my language”…most people who ask the aforementioned questions I’m ok with aren’t trying to be racist, they’re just curious and I understand that, I’m curious about other people’s ancestry. I think one should have some pride in their heritage, whether they be Irish, Cherokee, Japanese, Sinhala, etc. because it helps build some self-esteem, as long as you don’t use your pride of your heritage to put down others.

  • Raj Patel

    Ha! Number 1 is why I’m here. I was a bit annoyed when this girl casually asked me “How do you speak English so well?” and then promptly asked if I was born here. I responded that I was and she brushed it aside saying “never mind” as if it were not offensive at all.

  • I find this very strange. I do not find any of the above offensive. I enjoy very open conversation and the more I stay opened, the more I see a common thread that binds all of us.
    I graduated from one of the premier institutions the IIT, 29 years ago. Been with some of the brilliant minds and they cut across religion, region and community. We all made fun of each other, enjoyed the diversity ( a mini India ) out of respect and insight and not from politically correct view. In all these I learnt, how to understand what people say without taking offensive of how it is said. I know at the core of my heart, people across the world are social animals and want to be connected at a human level.
    I am afraid as we lose open honest communication in exchange for politically correct speech, we are nourishing a true Balkanized nation, with concealed predisposed views than develop honest deeper understanding of fellow humans.
    Ganes

  • Why is asking for someone’s name again offensive?

    • I was also puzzled by the prohibition against asking someone to repeat their name. I’ve sometimes had to ask white Americans to repeat their common white-bread name if I’m in a noisy environment where it is hard to hear. I just don’t see how it’s offensive to ask a name repeated by anyone if you just didn’t catch it the first time. (This is also coming from someone who has an unusual name and is always asked to repeat her name. I’d rather repeat my name and have people get it right.)

    • In your eyes it may not be offensive, but when people ask me how to pronounce my name in Korean, I simply state, the same way its pronounced in English. Also having people constantly asking me what my “real” name is, is really offensive, considering the fact that they see my as “different” and asian so I must have a different “asian” name. But I really don’t, yet theyalways seem to ask me: “what asian are you?” ” why are your eyes so big, aren’t they supposed to be small and asian?” Or “can you speak asian to me?” And even “did you move here from Asia and that’s why you say you’re from Wisconsin? ” . It drives me nuts but I just state that I’m Korean and then walk away.

  • I find most of these questions odd, and usually I just assume that the person asking the question is a bit dim (unable to phrase a questions accurately), or is unconsciously egocentric. When I think they’re trolling, I just troll back.

    Them: Where are you really from?
    Me: I was born in Australia
    Them: I mean, originally where are from?
    Me: My mum’s womb.

  • It’s, indeed, interesting that even so-called “positive” stereotypes are regarded here as offensive. After all, there’s practically no reaction when WASP’s are regarded as “polite” or volunteers are considered “helpful”

  • I share Yohan Anthony’s and Ganesh’s opinions that most of the questions we’re asked come from the questioner’s genuine desire to know more about us and our heritage. My mother was Caucasian and my father was a very dark skinned Asian. Not only did they have a biracial marriage, but they reversed the traditional roles of “white man” and “native woman.” Believe me, I know what it’s like to grow up in a racially bigoted environment! I know what it’s like to go to a school friend’s house, have the parents see me, and then be told my friend can’t play with me anymore. My parents showed me how to keep an open mind and learn to distinguish prejudiced statements from genuine questions where a person simply wanted to learn more about us.

    I believe it was the great author, Pearl Buck, who first called kids like us “rainbow children.” When there are enough of us nobody will be just white, yellow, or dark skinned anymore. We should never tolerate hateful or belittling speech to us, about us, or about anyone else. We then have the duty to speak up and make it clear that we will never tolerate such speech. Even more important, we have the privilege, the obligation, to answer sincere – even when awkwardly asked- questions and share our knowledge. If we aren’t willing to be the teachers, how can we expect others to just “know” what’s all right to say and what is offensive?

  • Francesco

    There are some decent points here but others sound immature, entitled, and oversensitive. If you have an accent, then naturally folks will realize English is your second language. Take a compliment without the chip on your shoulder. I lived in Asia for a decade. I cannot tell you how many times locals complimented me on my language skills. Daily. Was I offended? Of course not. Also, I was frequently asked to recommend good American restaurants in my ethnicity, just as I am asked back in the States. It feels flattering to help.

    Frequently, I was told all white people look alike, look like hairy apes, smell funny, are dishonest, and far worse. I was also excluded fairly often because I was a foreigner–and charged more, denied employment, and cheated because I was a foreigner, too. This is serious and doesn’t really happen in America. Did I ever feel entitled to others pretending we were all exactly the same? No. And frankly, I enjoyed being different from the majority.

    It is because America is so unusually tolerant and welcoming of all nationalities that these 1st and 2nd generation folks get all worked up over what often are trivialities or even compliments.

    And by the way, I have been asked plenty of times in America where my forebears came from. For me, it’s something I am proud of.

    • Asians are still a small minority in North America because it takes longer to migrate from Asia to North America since they are very far compared to migrating from Asia to Australia and New Zealand since Australia and New Zealand are closer to Asia than North America.

      But anyway, in Atlanta where I live, Asian stereotypes are the worst. Even as far as their jobs go. Everyone always assumes Asians are either doctors, nurses, dentists, engineers, Asian food restaurant owners, pharmacists, nail salon workers, dry cleaning workers, and massage parlor workers and that’s it. And as an artist, people think I should have any of these jobs even when I can’t do them and quit being an artist because it isn’t an Asian job.

    • Doesn’t happen to who in America? Why do you think the anti-discrimination laws exist here?To try to equalize an otherwise unequal playing field…

    • I absolutely agree and can relate with you on many points. Some of these questions are so oblivious, though, that it would create the pushed-out feeling you describe experiencing during your time in Asia. (I lived there too, Japan, and got the same treatment often). It was not a big deal but it was exhausting, so we should not do it. I do think people could tone down the rhetoric, though, as I have found some blogs of very angry folks who are just extremely hateful toward Whites. I met a Japanese person who said she understood “the terrorists’ point of view” regarding Western men, and it saddens me to see that kind of anger.

    • Great stuff and counterpoint. I really don’t know why many asians get offended so easily. My chinese wife tells me I smell and am too hairy, fat, etc. If I give her any similar assessment she would be upset for a month. Many asians I have met act pretty entitled, which perhaps adds to being easily offended. But there are un-tolerant peeople all over the world.

      Congrats on being adventurous with your career!

      • Luke Visconti

        I’m feeling sorry for your wife right now. Why would you post something like this? Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • The classic “if I’m not offended by statements made about my racial group, then you shouldn’t be either” sentiment. White people have been the historically dominant group in America. That’s why their statements towards other racial groups are disproportionately more hurtful. That’s why “making fun of” white people isn’t the same as making fun of other racial groups.

        Just because there are un-tolerant people all over the world doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work towards making our own home a better place. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

  • Heritage questions are totally cool in my book. After all, it’s okay for me to ask a blonde kid where in Europe their family is from. It’s only annoying when people try to be politically correct. Pro tip, folks: nationality is how much the front of your passport reminds you of apple pie and cheerleaders. Ethnicity is how long you can be outside without sunscreen. It’s not nitpicking, it’s patriotism.

    Sidebar rant: “why do you only hang out with Asians?” is a completely legit question. Unless you are physically incapable of interacting with people outside your race, there’s no reason for all your friends to be of a race that makes up <5% of the population. Ethnic cliques are no better for diversity than country clubs and Brooks Brothers catalogs.

    • And I have to agree that in an environment where people of all nationalities and backgrounds are supposed to be celebrated, it is suspect when all of anyone’s friends come from the same nationality or race as they themselves wouldn’t be accepted or allowed into that environment if other people had a mindset like this.

  • Hello.
    It depends on where you are.mi have spent a lot of time in Hawaii and California and yes there are Asian stereotypes but every ethnic groups as stereotypes. I am not Asian but all my friends except one is Asian and since there Asian Community is huge here the stereotypes are not seen as much as some place where there is not a large Asian community base.

  • Largely driven by media.

    Many people are sick of hearing about racism that racial prejudice doesn’t exist or they choose to ignore it. It’s the attitude of: Why is it even still up for discussion? Equality (be it gender, race or whatever), like democracy is not an end state but a process to which the bar should always be set higher. It concerns everyone because we all have race and ethnicity on our minds whether we like it or not, even when we don’t realise, that is, what we are thinking about. Of course, many people state they don’t think much about race, but that’s just the problem, because every single one of us has a tendency to naturally follow mental scripts/beliefs.

    What is considered racist today is as clear as mud, but it’s a fact that Asian Americans are poorly represented in media. These weak representations based on cheap stereotypes for entertainment is not only damaging towards the individuality of Asian Americans, but to Asian American children. Not to mention the self-fulfilling prophecy that many Asians would be vulnerable (e.g. In school, a child who is automatically thought to excel at math will not receive the right attention etc)

    Hollywood in particular offer weak representations based on cheap stereotypes for entertainment. Portrayal of AM’s are one-dimensional and one-way traffic compared to for example African Americans who are better represented by Hollywood and AM’s have a long way to go before we reach that point.

    Of course, in an ideal world, it shouldn’t matter, but the fact is that most people (intelligent or not) obtain most mental scripts or beliefs unconsciously/consciously from media. While AM’s are desexualised the females are hyper sexualised and you can witness this in western society from occupation to relationships. AM actors mostly play villains are cruel, weak, unromantic, foreigners, math genius, not athletic and wouldn’t be able to get a joke if it came with the manual.

    Hollywood directors have no excuse but to represent all races fairly/equally and no way is it down to a lack of talent and bankable leading Asian actors. Attractive talented AM actors are consistently typecast.

    We must try to see everyone as an individual, be open-minded, and not succumb to implicit bias and cheap stereotypes perpetuated by media which translates into the real world. We all need to call out stereotypes and narrow-mindedness in order to challenge the status quo.

  • Them: Where are you really from?
    Me: Okay okay. I’ve just flown in from Mars
    Them: Look of confusion. Eventually the penny drops. Hopefully they walked away a bit more open-minded.

    It is definitely not okay to pose this question in most context because it assumes Asians are perpetual foreigners, which surprisingly you see often in media. The question is at times posed with a sense of superiority and malice behind it. Asians Americans are born in America. For the majority American is all they know and how annoying would it be for people to constantly ask you where are you really from?

  • The what’s your name again first of all why is that bad some people will forget. And if your name is complex of course they need to ask you again what is it better for then to call you lady.

  • In order to sound more respectful if I am curious about someone’s ethnic heritage/cultural/ancestry, I don’t say “Where are you from?” or God forbid “Where are you really from?” I say instead “Where is your family from?” or even straight out “What ethnic heritage/cultural/ancestry do you/your family identify with?” Also, most of the people I know, if they were offended by me asking, would say something like “I was kind of offended by the way you phrased that question.”

    Also, I have a friend who gets asked to repeat and spell her name on a daily basis, because it’s an ethnic/not common name. She says that she doesn’t care, because she sees it as someone else’s commitment to making sure they don’t butcher her name.
    For the record, her name is spelled like this: Ohy-Ku

  • I am Caucasian, and I once said “I hate Barack Obama.”, and before I could elaborate, one of the African American kids in my class shouted, “That’s racist!”
    That little anecdote was shared so you can see how an comment intended to be innocuous can ignite racial tensions.

    *For the record, I was asked to give an example of free speech. I must admit, it was not wise in that I failed to say that this is what I was demonstrating, and that instead I just blurted it out. Also for the record, Barack Obama is in fact perfectly O.K. in my book.*

    • I believe, as Americans, we all need to embrace more diversity into our individual lives. Its that diversity that makes us American. As a young child I immigrated from Taiwan in the early 70s at the end of the Vietnam War. I certainly encountered some very overt discrimination and attacks from kids and even teachers. As a way of survival, my parents told me to assimilate as much as I can into American society. When I was growing up, I came to identify with “White” America. I’m married to a white man and most of my friends are white. A few years ago, at a party, I said I thought George Bush was an idiot. I was promptly told by a white friend to go back to China where I came from. I didn’t know until then what she thought of me. (Now I do use this term “white” to generalize all Americans with European decent). Recently I stopped using the term “African American” because a black friend told me that she doesn’t identify with Africa. That made sense. Afterall, we don’t call white americans “European Americans” I would like to see the day we stop identifying a person based on their race. I think that day is coming sooner than we know. So, my New Year’s resolution is to expand my color wheel of friends.

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