In mid-March, Nielsen’s (No. 20 on DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity) vice president of strategic community alliances Mariko Carpenter was walking her dog around her block in New York City. It was the first time she went out during the pandemic wearing a face mask. Suddenly, she heard a man begin yelling at her from across the street. His exact words were a blur, Carpenter said, but his message was clear: “Go back to China.”
Carpenter, who is of Japanese ancestry, has lived in New York for almost her whole life and is raising two daughters there. She was shocked by the encounter, and after discussions with her family, friends and various groups at Nielsen, decided to write an op-ed about her experience. “It’s Time for Facts, Not Fear: Asian-Americans Are Doing Their Part” outlines the reality of many Asian Americans as it related to the coronavirus crisis: They’re often on the frontlines fighting it.
Carpenter spoke with DiversityInc’s Olivia Riggio about her experience, her op-ed, and the metrics Nielsen is sharing about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Olivia Riggio: First, start by explaining your role as the VP of strategic community alliances and how that ties into the discussion we’re having about anti-Asian xenophobia.
Mariko Carpenter: In my role as the VP of Strategic Community alliances, I’m basically the Asian community lead at Nielsen, which really means that I’m deeply connected with issues that affect our community. So, I’m in constant contact with community organizations and community leaders, and really so that I can make sure Nielsen is engage and leaning in and helping where we can. It’s really important as a measurement company that we have the connection and that we have the pulse of what is happening in all of the communities that make up this country.
OR: In your op-ed, you talked about the experience you had while you were walking a dog when a man began yelling at you to “go back to China.” Frighteningly, you’re far from the only one who has experienced this sort of harassment. What goes through your head when you think of this reality?
MC: It’s been really very personal to me, I have to say — As a parent with two daughters who were raised in this country, on all accounts they are American, and as a New Yorker. I’ve lived here almost all my life, and first and foremost, it really saddened me, more than anything to see this kind of discrimination, especially in a time when we are all, globally, as a humanity, suffering and fighting this pandemic … And unfortunately, it isn’t isolated to what I experienced. And by all accounts, from what I’ve been hearing, my experience might be one of the tamer instances, and it’s really bad. It’s happening across the country, and it’s really forced Asian American community leaders to really respond and respond in a forceful way, because it’s one of those things that I think the bigger fear is that as the situation becomes more desperate, it could even become even more severe when it comes to some of these acts.
It is something that’s happening … across the country, and really even stories of children being bullied and spoken to online as they’re playing games. It’s really a terrible situation.
OR: You also talked about discussing the issue with your family, friends and Asian American Employee Resource Group, and Asian American External Advisory Council at Nielsen. You mention wondering what the “proper” response is in addressing this racism. Is there such a thing as a proper response? What are some ways people said they responded?
MC: I think no doubt everyone in our community agrees that there is absolutely no room for racism, period — to any community at any time. I think what is really interesting in hearing the discussion is that how we respond as a community and as a collective voice has been a little varied because we’re in the midst of a war against this pandemic. If you think about Asian Americans, like all Americans, among us are people who are suffering — losing family members, losing their jobs, their businesses — and their perspectives on this issue at this moment will differ from, let’s say Asian Americans that are on the front lines and risking their own lives to help others, without any sort of discrimination.
So, I don’t think that there’s any right or wrong way to respond because it’s deeply personal. I do think about if you are trying to find means to feed your family, this shouldn’t be the top of their priorities, combatting racism, but at the same time, I think about these healthcare workers, how sad they must feel to hear about this kind of discrimination when they’re risking their own lives. And the people who they’re caring for, they’re caring for regardless of who they are.
So, I think it really speaks to how deeply personal it is and just how one responds in the moment. I have to say for me personally, I was more in shock than anything, just because this was my block. This was no different than any other day, and then to have that — and it was much more vulgar than “Go back to China” — It was almost like instinctual that I just picked up my dog and I ran … There were moments when I thought back at that moment and what I could’ve done differently and how I could’ve handled it the next time, but at the end of the day, for me it was just protection … I think it is about ignorance and not understanding who we are, which is why I was compelled to write this piece.
OR: You talk about data being important in combatting ignorance. Have you seen enough of this type of data in mainstream media coverage about how Asian Americans are actually on the frontlines of helping us during the pandemic?
MC: I think that is one of the things that as a community, we’ve been really trying to ensure that the media covers, when they’re doing personal perspectives that they do include Asian Americans in those pieces, so that they can hear from an Asian American nurse, so that they can hear from an Asian American working at a foodbank, or an Asian American foodbank in general who are servicing these elders who are isolated … So, of course, I wish there was more of that, but I do feel like the media is getting a little bit more sensitive and more aware that in their storytelling, they need to make sure that they tell the stories that are diverse … because we live in a country where what we see in the media is what people perceive the reality to be.
I am starting to see it, and we are recognizing networks and broadcasts that are doing a good job at being more inclusive in their coverage.
OR: It’s not a secret that our country has a long history of “othering” Asians. It’s almost as if people are using the situation with the virus as an excuse to be racist. What are your thoughts on the historical context of “othering” the Asian American community?
MC: It is one of those things that we do actually cover very much and we went deep into the report that’s coming out … The representation of Asian Americans in media really shows that history, because for so long, we were the foreigner, we were the strange one, the weirdo, the outcast, or the marshal artist. And so, that has always been the perception of Asian Americans, but I’d like to think that is changing as we grow and also as our Asian American community changes with more U.S.-born Asian Americans who are making up a big percentage of our community. Unlike just being a community of immigrants, now you have all of these young Asian Americans who were brought up in the U.S., who understand the workings of the government, who understand our rights, who understand what it is to fight for equity. And so, I’d like to think that there are a lot of signs and data that signal that we are trying to get out of that and that we are becoming more part of the U.S. mainstream … and being included.
And of course, I think that there’s a lot of more room to go, but I think by sheer size of our population growing, our influence, our digital influence, our digital voice, all of that is helping us to create our own narratives and define ourselves as an Asian American community.
OR: As Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month approaches, what do you hope for in terms of visibility and celebration of Asian Americans during this time when many of them are being put down?
MC: I am sad that AAPI is falling during this crisis, but what I think that this shelter in place has done is given us a moment of pause and to reflect, especially because we’re fighting this invisible virus that because we are thinking about humanity, and with that, I think we want to celebrate that sentiment of understanding and getting to know one another better. And really, it goes hand-in-hand with what we do at Nielsen. At Nielsen, we really measure people, and when it comes to communities of color, a lot of that means setting our sights on what’s happening and what’s impacting our communities today. Just as the impact of the disparity and the stats from this pandemic among African American and Hispanic communities, is another. All of that, we provide our clients and through our reports … a full picture of these communities, but also, it’s really a combination of data and insights: our preferences and our markets, but also what drives those behaviors. A deep understanding of who we are as people so that brands can really be authentic in their communication and approach.
And so, for the heritage month, we will be releasing our Asian American report which will do just that: We celebrate our evolving community. And really, it’s about looking into the future because we are an influential group … And really at the end of the day, 90% of the population growth in this country is going to come from communities of color.
OR: Is there anything else you’d like to add about what Nielsen’s data shows and how it helps combat racism during this time?
MC: I think the report speaks to our influence — the Asian American influence — and speaks to our integration with the mainstream. And what we hope is by showing people that we are influencing the economy, we are influencing culture, that we’re not foreigners. We are very much a part of the fabric of this country.