Social prejudice is cunning. It sprawls an invisible structure that governs how people interact. And it perpetuates despite people’s best intentions to eradicate it.
What’s soul-destroying is when such a social hierarchy sustains itself inside the most progressive organizations. It can fester in liberal colleges and socially conscious corporations, where affirmative action is celebrated, and quotas are imposed. And just because the graduating class or the leadership team resembles the United Nations doesn’t mean we have achieved equality. We may not have contributed to social mobility. At worst, we’ve merely redrawn the racial boundary, so it’s preserved.
I’m not complaining. I’ve long been aware of my fortuitous experience as a Hong Kong native. Having lived in the US and then later Europe, I suspect something has shielded me from the brutish discrimination and constant assault that a racial minority must endure. It’s all too easy and tempting to attribute my own outcomes to my personal choices. But to ignore the sinister subtilty of social reinforcement is to overestimate one’s resilience and grit.
I didn’t quite understand all these until recently—until I read Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, until I reflected upon So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo, until I sat down with The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld. They describe the reality of people whose experience I would never come to encounter. They provided me with the context to understand my own favorable outcomes. They helped me understand that I’ve only happened to be at the right spot at the right time and that I’ve played along with the existing scripts. So even the most discriminatory system does tolerate and even celebrate a few outsiders.
In other words, despite my own differences, I had also been complicit in an unjust world and, in fact, benefit from it, when on the surface, it looks like the system could have hurt me.
I teach corporate innovation. So, racial justice is a field far from my professional realm. But because every innovative company preaches the virtue of diversity, I’ve studied enough evidence that demonstrates diversity of thoughts can boost corporate performance. But being an Asian working in Switzerland and having studied in Boston, there are reflections I want to discuss with you, my readers. So, this is not the usual newsletter. This is a conversation that I need from you. I need your help to help make sense of the world, our world. And hopefully change it for the better.
1. How does a minority group harbor grit to overcome everyday barriers?
I didn’t grow up as an American Chinese, weighed down by the stereotypes as a quiet Asian who can’t speak well and who is only good for becoming a dentist or an accountant.
Instead, having grown up in Hong Kong, I could imagine myself knowing more about the British etiquette and the British society than the average Anglo-Saxon descendants living in America. Then, the rise of China and the sophistication of Japan and Singapore have eliminated any of my self-doubt that the colonial masters from London were somehow smarter than people who look like me.
This is what Amy Chua calls a “superiority complex” in The Triple Package. You need to talk yourself up to be confident because you feel vulnerable when facing the dominant group in mainstream society.
Of course, you don’t carry your complex around all day long. It surfaces only during difficult situations. It acts as psychological armor, protecting you from being crushed. It shields you from defeatism. That’s what resilience is about. That’s grit.
That’s what backed me up when a flight attendant ignored my request for a drink, or when a waiter forgot my main course, or when someone murmured behind my back at the bus stop. When I face a potential slight or suspect micro-aggressions, I had my own narrative to dismiss the situation: Okay, this isn’t Asia, these guys don’t even know what they are talking about.
What it does is provide oneself with a different framing—not feeling victimized, not feeling dejected.
Like all belief systems, I must point out that self-regard has nothing to do with actual knowledge. More than a third of Americans can’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. Only a quarter can name all three branches of the U.S. government. And this is the most powerful democracy on Earth. Equally, regarding Asian culture, I was taught since childhood that it’s older, richer, and deeper than Western culture. But I myself am just as confused as to what exactly constitutes Asian culture. Oftentimes, it’s not clear to me.
The point is you don’t need to know clearly or react outwardly in order to heal. My inner dialogues are moments that confer the confidence to re-anchor myself. I can lay claim—despite it being untrue—that my Asian upbringing is superior to the contemporary American culture. And no one can take that away from me. It’s a narrative that works as an auto-dripping system of an antidote that wards off the constant blows of racism. And I can repeat that many times over as long as this social hierarchy still exists, as long as having blond hair and blue eyes, being raised Christian, and being born male and Nordic still garner prestige.
What I’ve shared is my own experience. What’s your counter-narrative against the prejudice of the mainstream dominant group? That prejudice can be rooted not in skin color but also in gender or in religion or the way people dress, eat, or speak. What’s your counter-narrative? And if you haven’t felt the need for any reframing throughout your life, well, maybe you truly belong to the dominant group of our time.
2. Why do foreigners often navigate a prejudiced society with more ease than the locally born minority?
Here is what I think explains my personal lack of suspicion against white Americans. I’ve been dating a WASC (white Anglo-Saxon Catholic) for more than ten years. My inner strength comes from the fact that I wasn’t born in the US—that my jet-black hair, cake-flat face, and yellow-toned skin have never condemned me to a particular group. In Hong Kong, where I grew up, my looks don’t put me into a group seen as stifled, repressed, and conformist.
Then, I was never bullied at school. I was surprised to learn that attacks against Chinese children, both verbal and physical, in fact outnumber those against other minority groups—including blacks and Latinos. But then again, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Asian are seen as shorter, smaller, and scrawnier. And we are thought of getting good grades that teachers praise. None of these are always true, but they are bad news on the school playground. That’s where kids call out the nerds. Had I suffered bullying repeatedly in grade school, I could not imagine myself having the inner courage to hold up a conversation about innovation with a CEO who had been the quarterback at college. In that version of me, I would only be fit to be his underling.
My yellow skin becomes a burden only when I am indoctrinated to think so. Helplessness is learned. And that learned behavior is reinforced through social interaction. How does the cashier treat you today when you walk into a grocery store? How does the police gaze at you when you stroll on the street mindlessly?
That’s why the people who escape such tyrannical social reinforcement are not the rebellious. They are simply expats. A Nigerian-born playwright once said, “Africans are not black. They are Igbo and Yoruba, Ewe, Akan, Ndebele. They are not black. They are just themselves. They are humans on the land. That is how they see themselves, and that is who they are.” She went on to explain her experience living abroad. “They don’t become black until they go to America or come to the UK,” she said. “It is then that they become black.”
The grave consequence for all diversity initiatives is that they might not be helping those who are most in need.
3. How do the rainbow colors of an office or a campus masks deeper inequity?
The protective suit of superiority complex that a minority wears isn’t imagined out of a vacuum. It’s created in the context of the mainstream superiority of the dominant group. But taken to the extreme, it bears the same dynamics of racial bigotry.
That’s the biggest problem of inner respectability, regardless of where you’re located in the pecking order. Any perceived superiorities distance people from those they see as “real minorities.” The troubling fact remains this: A Carolina-born African American or a Texas-born Mexican may find themselves with fewer counter-narratives that bestow them a sense of self-confidence when facing adversity.
And for liberal universities, not recognizing this is hypocrisy.
In 2004, Harvard professor Lani Guinier and Henry Louis Gates Jr. pointed out a majority of Harvard’s black students—as many as two-thirds—were West Indian and African immigrants or their children. They said that only about a third of the students were from families in which all four grandparents were born in the US.
In the first-year class of 2011–2012 at Yale Law school, 18 students out of a total class of 205 were members of the Black Law Student Association. Of these 18 students, Amy Chua noted, only two were African American who are neither immigrants nor the children of immigrants. Similarly, 20 to 25 percent of the 120 black students attending Harvard Business School in the year of 2013 were Nigerians.
What happens on campus also maps out into the wider context of our society. Colin Powell, America’s first black secretary of state, is the son of two Jamaican immigrants. Clifford Alexander, the country’s first black secretary of the army, was also a Jamaican immigrant.
Giving immigrants and their children opportunities to thrive is what infuses the vibrant energy into a nation. We ought to do more. But when corporations are busy celebrating the diversity that they’ve had and top universities are taking in more black students, we’ve got to ask, which ones? Are they fighting the entrenched inequities the way they claim they are? Have these newly created opportunities skipped the population who had historically been the most disadvantaged? Are we merely creating another middle tier that pulls further away from the rest of the minority group?
I remember working as a summer intern at Goldman Sachs back in Hong Kong. One American managing director told me, “You look different. You don’t behave like your people.” I was young and wasn’t sure what he meant. But I was sure he wouldn’t say the same thing to people who look just like him. People of his class are all individuals. It’s me who resembles “the mass.”
It turns out the first step toward racial equity is to recognize the individuality in others. And to lump humanity into a mass because of some random physical attributes and calling them “the others” is the root of much societal ill.
Thanks for reading—and be well.
Thank you for sharing your story.
This is excellent, Prof Yu. There is so much to it, a real struggle for so many. Your insights are so powerful and I appreciate all you do to educate. This is indeed a topic we all need to prioritize!