A New Perspective for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Photo by  Saketh Garuda  on  Unsplash

By Kim Tran, Ph.D

In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, ReadySet interviewed Nu Xiong, a Diversity & Inclusion Associate at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Below, Xiong talks about the empowerment of a common identity, why it’s important to bring nuance to conversations about race, and what diversity means for Southeast Asian Americans in tech.

ReadySet: Compared to other communities of color, the figures for Asian American wealth disparity seem fairly positive. On a whole Asian Americans, out earn white men. For example, studies show that for every dollar a white man earns, a South Asian woman in America makes $1.21. However, taking these figures at face value is deceptive. Earning power for Southeast Asian women (those from Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and West Malaysia) differs significantly from their counterparts. Vietnamese women earn just $0.64 for every dollar a white man makes—the exact same pay gap facing Black women. Hmong women in America make even less, $0.57 for every dollar a white man makes. Keeping these figures in mind, how do you think Southeast Asians are positioned uniquely in the tech industry?

Nu Xiong: When tech companies release reports on the diversity of their employees, it’s true that Asian Americans are usually represented at higher levels—Asian Americans on average account for anywhere between 20-40% of the employee makeup. But if you were to disaggregate the data and look at representation of Asian Americans by ethnicity, you’ll likely find that the majority identify as East Asians and South Asian, and only a small percentage as Southeast Asian or Pacific Islander. One of the challenges in tech is that this type of data isn’t often collected by organizations, which makes it difficult to know exactly what percentage Southeast Asians account for in representation. As a Hmong American, I can count on one hand how many other Southeast Asians I know working in tech. So from that perspective, Southeast Asians in this industry are the exception in representation, not the norm.

RS: We know that for Southeast Asian Americans, research categories like “Asian” don’t do service to the economic, political and cultural asymmetries we experience. However, we’re also exceptionally aware that continuing research on the bamboo ceiling, bias in hiring and recruitment and limited cultural awareness is a vital part of the equation. What kinds of initiatives and actions are you at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative taking when it comes to engaging the limitations of Under Represented Minorities (URM) in creating equity at a systemic level?

NX: Understanding that the URM definition has limitations, we actively work to build an inclusive, comprehensive approach to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) that creates opportunities for people of all backgrounds and perspectives to find a place in our work even if they don’t identify within the URM definition. For example, we help support multiple employee resource groups for folks to find community around shared experiences that go beyond the URM identity (e.g. employees who identify as women, LGBTQIA+, veterans, etc.). In addition, we regularly host workshops, trainings, and roundtable discussions that highlight the intersectional identities and perspectives of those who experience societal marginalization.

On a general note, I think one of the most important things that we can do as a DEI team & program is to educate the organization on what we mean when we say things like “equity” and “systemic change.” The URM framework/challenge exists because organizations have not created systems and programs with an equity lens. Though we’ve just begun on our journey at CZI, what makes me hopeful is that we’re asking ourselves in our organization's early development what it means and looks like to embed values of diversity, equity, and inclusion into our systems, processes, and culture as we continue to scale. I believe this is the foundational work required to being able to engage the limitations of URM in creating equity at a systemic level in the long term.

RS: I’m fairly new to the tech industry and quite honestly, I was incredibly excited when I met you and learned a little bit about who you are and your identity because I often don’t feel like I belong in this space. What do you think organizations should know about building an inclusive environment for folks who identify as Southeast Asian?

Those of us who are in tech need support, too. Like many other predominantly white spaces, there is a cultural and social learning curve to the tech industry for people of color and underrepresented minorities. White, upper-class culture is entrenched in the language, style of dress, food, (yes, even down to our office snacks!) practices, and other norms we see in tech. Those who don’t come from this background—and especially those who identify as low-income and first generation—must not only figure out how to do their jobs well, but also overcome the social challenges of integrating into an entirely different work culture and way of doing things.

Choosing a career in tech means that we don’t get to be around people like us. There’s not a lot of space in tech dedicated specifically for Southeast Asians to connect with each other and find community & belonging. We should change that. Even in Asian American circles in tech, I sometimes struggle to connect with certain celebrations or norms that might resonate more with East Asians, for example. My identity and life experience is inextricably tied to my family and community’s recent refugee journey and our socioeconomic status, rather than my racial or cultural identity alone, and that’s one of the unique parts about being Southeast Asian.

Finally, what are some things that you wish people knew about Southeast Asians in tech that often go overlooked?

Simply put, there aren’t many of us here in the tech sector. Asian Americans are often lumped together and demographic data is rarely disaggregated, making many of the challenges that are unique to our community invisible to our colleagues and companies—including the fact that we are underrepresented in this industry. I wish organizations and people would make a stronger effort to learn more about the culture and history of Southeast Asian communities.

Willie Jackson