Challenging the Asian American "Monolith": Authentic AAPI Representation in Social Impact Spaces

A company will not achieve equitable representation based solely on what it perceives with the naked eye. Racial checkboxes accomplish little when it comes to holistic diversity efforts. 


What counts is diversity in life experiences and perspectives, which cannot be quantified through a simple form, says Ivy Teng Lei, Head of Growth at Exygy


We have a ton of work to do, she says. It starts by investing in and bringing more perspectives to the table for actual decision-making that impacts the inside and outside of a workplace. Today’s organizations need to prioritize their employees’ “whole selves,” which includes not only their unique backgrounds but also what they care about outside of work—their passions, values, and how they give back.


In the following interview, Lei shares her story as a Chinese American woman who lived in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant for over 22 years. She hopes that by opening ourselves up to more perspectives and knowledge across communities, we can achieve better representation for the AAPI community and establish an American Dream beyond white supremacy. 


This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.




From an equity standpoint, how have some of your personal challenges surfaced professionally?


We can’t divide the two. A lot of people are still struggling with: How do I bring the true part of myself to work, and allow that to show up in a professional setting? 


The scheme of the model minority myth is that certain groups of people, according to white people, are more able to assimilate to American society and therefore outperform. So, we don't have a racism issue. 


It's the same concept and motivation that allows corporations to point to an “overrepresentation” of Asian Americans and say, ‘We're not racist; we have non-white people.’


First of all, that should never be your barometer. We should seek diversity in life experience, not in checkboxes. We should seek diversity in perspective and knowledge, not just what you can see with your eyes. 


So when we're thinking about the ability to understand the bigger controlling factors of the model minority myth and the idea that Asian Americans are often lumped into one category, we're really dismissing the unique, colorful, and important distinctions and values that we all can bring, ranging from folks from Southeast Asia all the way to China, the Middle East, and all the islands that surround the entire region.



What does representation in the workforce look like, and how far do we have to go to close the gap?


Wow, we have a long way to go. I think the lack of representation is when we see artificial intelligence and algorithms doing harm to marginalized communities, because marginalized communities are not currently represented in the engineering space or in the technology and design space. When organizations such as Amazon are creating software around hiring using existing successful candidates to create that same algorithm, they are further perpetuating the racism and the white supremacy that exists in the original pool of candidates. The AI tool was scrapped in 2018 due to hiring bias. The ability to look at that and say, ‘Wow that really didn't work. Stop that project. We have a long way to go.’ 


I'm very fortunate to be able to shine light on this, but certainly I am beyond privileged compared to some of the folks who are literally keeping our economy alive, who will not have access to stimulus packages during a pandemic, who may not even be given the platform. So, part of the ‘long way to go’ has to do with how we invest money and time to bring those communities to the table in a way that doesn't take more from them, but that invests in their opinions to be part of bigger decisions that govern our community. Because whether we like it or not, when technologies are created, they affect all of us.



Let's drill down to the employee level. How can organizations engage employees for representation, beyond one broad, sweeping monolith?


First, I'm definitely not an HR expert or DEI expert, but I can speak from my experience. I wish more organizations celebrated employees who serve on boards in their free time, who spend their time volunteering in a way that is unique to their expertise and a company's resources. How might we bring our company’s expertise and resources to marginalized communities who need so desperately but do not have funding or resources to actually gain access?


Personally, I am taking unpaid time volunteering to help an organization like ImmSchools, who are helping undocumented students thrive in the public K to 12 system. Exygy is an example of an organization that celebrates that. I was hosting a fundraiser and we were using my company's platform to further encourage people to donate and participate.


It's little gestures like that that really help me feel like I can bring my whole self to work.


I don't have a magic or silver bullet, but it means challenging the norm and breaking your current system apart—really balancing DEI initiatives by bringing it to your employees, rather than nesting it necessarily under HR. Checks and balances need to be powerful in order for your company to become more and more antiracist.



Any last parting words or thoughts, with a lens towards leaders or employees in this community?


Please do not put the burden of raising issues like this on your employees, because it is not our job to open our trauma and wounds to educate managers. Refrain from saying things like, ‘Why didn't you say anything? Why didn't you bring it up?’ It is about understanding why the employees didn’t, in fact, feel comfortable bringing it up with you. It's a reflection and a learning point for yourself and for the company. What would it take to create a safe space so that you are able to have these conversations?


America is an experiment, a multiracial country, and there are no other countries like us. In order for us to be the thriving American Dream—if you work hard, things will happen—it means everybody has equal access and truly everybody will have the same opportunity, using the same amount of effort with the same level of barriers.


So please, if there's one thing to take away, it is: Create safe spaces.



You recently wrote a piece, ‘Dear America: Asian Americans Are Not Your Model Minority.’ What was the goal of that piece, and how can we be inspired towards action?


I wrote that letter in rage and tears. The first thing I wanted to do was honor Corky Lee, a former friend and mentor of mine who recently passed due to COVID-19 complications. In the letter, the first image you see is of Asian Americans locking arms. In the background is a banner that says, ‘Police brutality is oppression.’ You'll see that our Black community was behind us. This was in the 1970s and ‘80s. 


For so long, Asian Americans have been part of American history, and in fact there's evidence that Asian Americans were here in the 1500s, before white people came. The country is built on the backs of both the Chinese transcontinental railroad workers as well as slaves. We're still seeing ripple effects of that.


That letter is my attempt to remind folks that Asian American advocacy isn't new, hate crime isn't new. It is awakened and over and over again. I didn't have an Asian American studies in my college, but I think if we educate and remind folks of our stories over and over again, groups who are oppressed as a result of white supremacy will realize we fit in this journey for a long time and we need to do it together. It is no longer us against them; it's us against white supremacy.



Would you share a bit more about your personal journey and story?


Today I'm actually representing on behalf of my mom and dad, a delivery worker as well as a garment factory worker and a representative of a young girl who came to United States at seven and lived in the United States for 22+ years undocumented. 


I'm really hoping that the takeaway for a lot of folks who are here today is you don't need a degree in DEI. You don’t need a career’s worth of trainings. If you have a story to tell, I hope by me telling you a bit about my own story, you're also inspired to do something about your own.


When it comes to the major decisions in my life, I always think back to the day I was sitting in the classroom with all of my high school classmates and we were going through beautiful pamphlets of college applications and scholarship opportunities. I always flipped right through to ‘Eligibility’ and saw that big, bold first bullet point: ‘US citizenship required’ or ‘permanent residency.’ I think that was the first moment I realized the barriers I have being undocumented in the United States. 


Fast forward to the last presidential administration, what that was like to have to go through headlines after headlines where the leader of our country is directly attacking my community and me. 


As a former DACA recipient, I’m really thinking through what it means to advocate for folks like myself in the workspace. It helped me make a decision that instead of climbing the corporate ladder in private sector organizations, what does it mean to contribute more effectively? So that we are disrupting the norms of white supremacy in corporate America and turning it around to serve the folks who are part of the company and who the company is meant to serve.


That's a little bit about my story. Part of what has given me the voice and the courage to talk more publicly is that staying quiet just doesn't go anywhere. You put your head down and fit to the norms of the model minority myth, by following the rules, it actually doesn't get you anywhere. In fact, you're playing by the expectations of white supremacy. 



Walk us through growing up as an undocumented immigrant and what that meant for you and your family.


It meant growing up and living 10 minutes away from 9/11 on the day it happened, and not having any access to services and assistance to put my parents back to employment, to have close to nothing on the dinner table during those years, and to have been diagnosed with a lung disorder because of the debris and the air that I was breathing for years after 9/11. 


It meant that when I was sexually harassed on the streets of New York, my first reaction was not to call the police, because the fear of deportation was much larger than having to swallow the trauma of harassment and danger.


It also meant having a dual life between who I showed up as in my nine-to-five and who I became as an activist, telling my story and really sharing with folks: This is the face of someone who is undocumented, and this is the tactic that has been used to divide marginalized communities, so we are powerless against this bigger system.



What was your ‘a-ha moment’ when you began to stop internalizing the pressure? How did you live your life differently afterwards?


My biggest a-ha moment is probably the transition from private sector to Exygy, my journey to finding an organization that puts expertise and resources into improving lives. At first, I was still under this impression that if I put my head down, worked hard, and did the things I'm expected to do, I will climb this corporate ladder, and one day I can use my power and privilege and write checks to not-for-profits.


But the a-ha moment was this is going to take forever, if it ever happens.


One of the things that really resonated with me, with Strive as well, is that there are tools, technology, frameworks, efforts, and investments that currently exist to improve lives—folks who are actively looking for ways to to better manage, better support, and create safe spaces for their employees. At Exygy, we're taking technology from Silicon Valley that allows us to be addicted to our phones and buy things we don't need, but really motivating folks to think about equitable access to social services.


That a-ha moment motivated me to make a career pivot and really think that my nine-to-five should not be separated from what I spent my nighttimes thinking about, and truly bringing my whole self to work.




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