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Agency Voices: Our Journeys

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Continuing the Long Journey to Becoming an Anti-Racist Agency

Despite last year’s progress toward uplifting and amplifying voices from the BIPOC* community, the past couple of months have brought, sadly, another issue to light—anti-Asian sentiment.

I’m an Asian American woman, and I’m afraid. In fact, 10 minutes before I sat down to write this blog, a man drove through a Stop Asian Hate protest in California while yelling racist profanities. This event coupled with attacks in Chinatowns across the country and murders of six Asian women in Atlanta have made me question my value—am I not worthy of safety? Belonging? Even joy? Why do some people hate me—even though they don’t know me?

As I delve into these questions, I know that racism and other marginalizations aren’t reserved for “bad people” or just passed down by generations. And I know these forms of hate aren’t found only in the smallest corners of our country. In fact, they’re woven into the very fabric of the United States—in our government, our economy, our language, our media, our products, and more.

Last year, after the murder of George Floyd, my employer, The Lacek Group, invited me to share my perspective on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as well as outline the commitments our company was taking to create a more equitable, inclusive culture—inside and outside of our agency. Since then, I’m proud to say we’ve made progress in our practices, our work, and our community. In addition to holding safe room discussions and requiring unconscious bias trainings during work hours, we’re awarding two $5,000 scholarships to BIPOC students and conducting pro bono work for local BIPOC-related nonprofits. In addition, we've created an Employee Resource Group, whose members are employees of color. This group meets regularly to hold open, honest conversations, to build and nurture community, and to share insights with leadership about improving the experiences of people of color.   

These are all positive occurrences. But our agency, our industry, and our country as a whole have far to go in terms of eradicating systemic racism. For the purposes of this blog, I’m focusing on anti-Asian racism.

Between March 19, 2020, and February 28, 2021, approximately 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents were reported, 503 of which occurred during the first two months of this year. As appalling as these numbers are, I can say with certainty that this is an underreporting. I’ve experienced some of these incidents myself and, instead of alerting authorities, I’ve lived with the shame. Yes, shame. As a Chinese American woman, I’ve often felt that the hurtful jokes, hate, and violence I’ve experienced have been my fault and my burden to carry. I’ve gaslit myself into thinking that any emotions I experienced in response to these horrific acts were overreactions. But as I’ve grown older and understood the societal and systemic roots of racism, I’ve learned that this isn’t my shame. And this isn’t my fault. In fact, this isn’t normal.

The truth? These sentiments and behaviors are deeply ingrained in history. Moreover, during times of hardship, like this pandemic, a cycle of oppression reignites. Throughout the history of the United States, Asian people have carried the weight of being viewed as perpetual foreigners. People v. Hall, for example, a case from 1854, examined the murder of a Chinese immigrant by a white man. The court eventually found the white man not guilty, ruling that people of Chinese descent (including three witnesses to the murder) couldn’t testify against white people in court; this testimony law lasted for nearly 20 years. Later, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (a law that stood 60-plus years) banned Chinese people from becoming U.S. citizens. And in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, creating internment camps to remove and incarcerate people deemed a threat. This three-year decree affected nearly 120,000 Asian people, many of whom were American citizens—my Chinese grandfather among them.

The anti-Asian sentiment is found today in modern media. For example, until last month when Dr. Seuss Enterprises stopped publishing six of its titles for their racist images, his children’s books “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” and “If I Ran the Zoo,” among them, included disturbing racist illustrations of Black and Asian people under the guise of entertainment. In one book, Seuss depicts native African inhabitants as animals. In another, Asian men carry a caged animal while a white, gun-wielding man stands atop the cage. Including these incredibly harmful, racist narratives and images leads to the normalization of racism, especially dangerous for impressionable children who may grow up accepting these ideologies. I’m heartbroken for Black and Asian children who, exposed to these stories, see people who look like them being treated as less than—or maybe even accepting these negative images as truth.

In TV shows and movies, Asian men are often presented as nerdy caricatures or menacing martial arts experts, while Asian women are frequently treated as either meek doormats or hypersexualized punchlines. One 2016 Family Guy episode shows roughly a dozen Asian women running away in their underwear from the home of a white character, who’s only relieved about their departure when he reminds himself and another white male character that they’ve been “tagged”—like dogs. Mean Girls, a 2004 comedy written by Tina Fey that became a pop culture sensation, includes just two Asian characters, both teenage girls, who don’t speak English and whose problematic storyline is their sexual relationships with an adult teacher. Another comedy “classic,” Austin Powers: Goldmember, features two teenage girls with sexually explicit “Japanese” names, all to make a “joke” by sexualizing underage Asian females and mocking the Japanese language. Throughout my life, I’ve often wished that I looked white so I could better relate to the TV and movie main characters whom I admired, rather than the minor, provocative or wimpy characters whose customs seemed to deride mine. But they very seldomly existed.

Enter the model minority myth, which paints Asian Americans as problem-free and successful. Not only has this myth contributed to the erasure of the Asian-American experience by invalidating hardships and overlooking mental health (because, after all, what do we have to be upset about when we’re supposedly accepted into American society?), but it’s also a weapon, pitting minority groups against one another in a society undergirded by white supremacy. 

That’s not to say that Asian Americans are completely off the hook when it comes to racism. Many Asian people have contributed to the violence and oppression of Black and Brown people, operating with the idea that assimilation into a white supremacy-driven culture means protection and will, ultimately, lead to the model minority myth. But, as we’ve learned throughout history and been reminded of recently, Asian Americans are still considered “others,” regardless of the extent to which we’re assimilated.

That’s been all the more evident since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when a familiar anti-Asian sentiment emerged once more: scapegoating. From the anti-Chinese racism that occurred during the bubonic plague in San Francisco at the turn of the last century to the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, who was killed in 1982 by two white autoworkers, who were angry about Japan’s growing auto industry, scapegoating is nothing new. However, this time, elected officials, including President Trump, perpetuated the idea, calling COVID-19 the “China virus” and “kung flu” and creating an us-versus-them narrative, which further contributed to exclusion, erasure, and violence toward Asian Americans.

According to a recent study that measured “implicit American bias,” racist terminology (such as the “Chinese virus”) increased 650% on Twitter and 800% on conservative media outlets. Over the past year, I began to understand the impact of this language and the wedge it drives between Asians and non-Asians. It doesn’t matter that I was born in the United States (as were my parents). Nor does it matter that some of my friends are Korean or Japanese or Filipino—we’re viewed the same: as less than. As poet and professor Cathy Park Hong writes, “We don’t have coronavirus. We are coronavirus.”

As I reflect on these many instances of anti-Asian racism and violence, it’s easy to feel devastated, even hopeless. If so little has changed by 2021, how can it ever truly change? Yet I’m grateful for one bright spot of this tremendously challenging past year: confrontation. While not always considered a good thing, this uncomfortable reflection on our history, our economy, our media, and our biases is necessary to create change, to build an inclusive future for all, and to ensure people of color can live their lives without fear of ostracization or violence.

In fact, my agency’s leaders welcomed confrontation. And as cheesy as it sounds, I feel empowered at my company. I’m very fortunate that The Lacek Group has provided safe rooms in which to share my thoughts, opportunities to interact with colleagues whose words and deeds offer kindness and support, and an invitation to write this deeply personal blog.

Moreover, because The Lacek Group has made room for these difficult conversations, provided financial support to nonprofits and underserved communities, and established committees to hold ourselves accountable to our DEI commitments, I wholeheartedly believe our agency is beginning to make a difference. And we’re only getting started.

Montanna Cervenka was a strategist at The Lacek Group, a Minneapolis-based, data-driven loyalty, experience and customer engagement agency that has been delivering personalization for its world-class clients for more than 30 years. The Lacek Group is an Ogilvy company.

* BIPOC is an acronym for Black, indigenous and people of color.

Photo: Rux Centea,