In the wake of the horrific spike in anti-Asian racism and violence this year, there has been a compelling and sobering response across the nation. For the first time, Asian Americans and their allies are finding a unified public voice, and here in the technology sector, which employs a high percentage of Asian professionals, we can help amplify it. Our industry’s global reach and focus on innovative ideas give us a platform — and responsibility – to advance the dialog.

The uptick in brutal violence from San Francisco to Atlanta to New York shocks us all. Yet anti-Asian racism, often codified into laws, has a long history in the US, and the silence surrounding it can be deafening. Absent from the news headlines, the issue is left to flourish in our classrooms, stores, streets and workplaces — shared everyday spaces where speaking against or even about racism rarely happens.

While there has been some articulation of our community’s experiences from time to time, these experiences are often not well understood outside the community. We’ve reached an inflection point in the past year where we have a greater platform to illustrate our community’s contributions to the country’s social fabric. 

Tokenism: The Kneejerk Reaction

Flashing back nearly a decade ago, I flew to Atlanta for negotiations with a client, a nationally recognized, billion-dollar company. Its negotiation team from commercial and legal, both in-house and outside counsel, was all white.

On the second day of our meeting, the outside counsel arrived with a changed team: It had swapped out one of its members for a first-year associate who, like me, was Korean. He was from the firm’s trademark and patents litigation practice. Mind you, as a commercial contracting attorney, my area of law has as little in common with his practice as neurosurgery has with dermatology.

Though he was a blatant token, I said nothing. Through several weeks of negotiations, the poor guy sat there as though he were a stenographer, taking copious notes that were of no use to anyone and learning about an area of law that would never intersect with his legal practice.

That experience became a learning moment for me. It was a window into how some clients and opposing counsels viewed me. While they likely saw last-minute roster changes as supportive, the reality was — and is — that such obvious efforts are rarely backed by genuine commitment to a diverse workforce. Tokenism is the kind of ham-handed response to complex social problems that subverts real advances. Change requires genuine understanding and dialog.

Increased Racism in the Wake of COVID-19

That takeaway is even more relevant in 2021 than it was a decade ago. The COVID-fueled anti-Asian rhetoric in the last year has led to a dramatic rise in discrimination and harassment. A report by Stop AAPI Hate revealed that the advocacy organization received reports of 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents in 2020; this year, it recorded 2,800 reports in the month of March alone.

As the Asian and Asian American community speaks up through protests and organizing, the conversations are just beginning. The tech sector and its workplace have the unique potential to advance the dialog. Our industry’s global nature makes us fertile ground for the cross-pollination of ideas that enable us to learn from each other.

The exchange of ideas is also happening all around us as globalization accelerates the flow of information and culture. As a Korean American, I need look no further than the impact of K-wave, where Korean music and movies and their inflections of Korean American and American culture, influence  American culture to see globalization at work.

How to Make a Difference

Let’s apply that same globalization and affinity for ideas to the open conversations that are needed to understand the roots of anti-Asian sentiment and combat the racism that results from it.

By being vocal and speaking out about what’s wrong, we can send the message that the environment is changing. It’s time to start having the hard conversations that have been put off for too long. Here’s how we can begin to lend support:

  • Be an ally. Only 32% of Asian adults report that someone had expressed support for them and their racial or ethnic group since the COVID-19 outbreak. Be proactive and call out injustice.
  • Acknowledge that implicit bias will not disappear in a day. Commit to becoming part of an ongoing process.

The strongest voices are those that are rooted in understanding. Let’s push back against racism and begin to create the change that’s at the heart of our industry.

Young Lee

Young Lee

Young Lee is the Chief Counsel, Strategic Transactions in Cognizant’s legal department. He graduated from Dartmouth College and Cornell Law School. Born... Read more