A Sociologist Explains Why Asian Americans Sense Limits at Work
Demonstrators hold signs during an AAPI Rally Against Hate in New York. (Photographer: Amir Hamja/Bloomberg)

A Sociologist Explains Why Asian Americans Sense Limits at Work

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Margaret Chin still gets the creeps when she thinks about the man who walked up behind her in the New York subway and whispered, “Go home.” She already was home. Chin was born in the city, grew up in a low-income housing project in Manhattan, studied hard, got into Harvard, earned a doctorate at Columbia, and is now a sociology professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York. But in the eyes of some people, she says, she will be “forever foreign.”

The misperception that Asian Americans are irreconcilably different—forever foreign—is what ties together those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, such as the women who were slain at Atlanta-area massage parlors this week, and those near the top, such as Chin.

For a book she published last year, Stuck: Why Asian Americans Don’t Reach the Top of the Corporate Ladder, Chin interviewed 103 second-generation Asian Americans who graduated from prestigious colleges between 1980 and 2008. All were either born in the U.S. or came to the country before age 13, so they were acculturated and spoke perfect English. Yet many encountered what they called a “bamboo ceiling” at work. They feel they’ve been crowded into fields that require technical expertise and have little chance of breaking into the C-suite.

That’s borne out by the numbers. Among her sources, Chin cites two Bloomberg stories, “Asian Americans Climb the Corporate Ladder, But Only So High” (2017) and “America’s C-Suites Keep Getting Whiter (and More Male, Too)” (2018).

The perception that Asian Americans are good at what they do may be threatening to some when it’s combined with the perception that they’re foreign and therefore less trustworthy, Chin says. “If a person is not trustworthy and a foe, especially if competent, that person may be very dangerous,” she writes in Stuck. That’s kind of a big problem for Asian Americans. For them to become less Asian would be impossible—and the notion is offensive—and to become less competent would be idiotic.

The real solution, of course, is for the rest of society to get over its harmful stereotyping—othering, as it’s called. “The stereotypes about our communities are not ones that we leave at home when we enter the workplace,” says Jennifer Wang, deputy director for programs at the National Asian Pacific Women’s Forum. What about the racial sensitivity training that companies require of employees annually? “Our community’s experiences have told us that is not enough,” Wang says.

According to Chin, “forever foreign” was coined by the sociologist Mia Tuan in her 1999 book Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites? The Asian Ethnic Experience Today. The damage done by the impression of forever foreignness was plain to see in Atlanta. It’s a quieter but no less real problem in corporate America.

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