Existing while Asian – a note from our CEO
I love who I am, but I am not "Asian."
By Jennifer Tsay, Cofounder & CEO
Tue, Mar 23 2021
To clarify: my background is Taiwanese-American - in history, language, and culture. Now don't misunderstand me: I fully acknowledge and accept that I am "Asian" by virtue of the reality that that's how others SEE me.
So while I understand and accept the label as a neutral descriptor, I resent it because it is never used as just a neutral descriptor.
Of course, like many other Asian kids, I also experienced the customary part of my childhood where I wished to be not Asian (and specifically, to be white), but it wasn't that I wished away any of the culture, the cuisine, the family values, or anything else that really defines the culture - I just wanted to be free of the visual signifiers that seemed to give other non-Asian folks the permission to see me simply and two-dimensionally as an Asian girl with whatever associations they felt they had the right to project on me.
Do you eat dog?
It must have been hard having a tiger mom.
Asians talk so funny.
Can you drive well?
Why does your food smell like that?
Do you have a hard time seeing out of your eyes?
Asians are so disgusting.
Sometimes people have said these comments to my face. Sometimes I hear them flippantly articulated in right-wing newscasts. Sometimes people - in conversation with others - say these things loudly enough, knowing that I can hear, in a tone that is unquestionably unkind. And then sometimes, people just stare, also unkindly, and that can be its own perverse form of judgment.
Do they by default think I have COVID? Do they think I'm okay with eating bats?
Today, I am the CEO and Co-Founder of Shoott, a fast-growing female-led startup that operates in 50+ cities with a small team of 15 full time and 8 part time resources. In 2020, despite the pandemic, we increased annual revenue to $4.4 million, a growth of 5.5x from 2019 and provide work to over 600 photographers across the U.S. We market and deliver our 5-star rated services without having to draw attention to the fact that both our CEO and our COO (as well as four other team members) are Asians of all different ethnicities. This means that the majority of the time, the Asians on our team can work remotely, in peace, without their Asian-ness being a thing; that this brings me relief also makes me, frankly, a little sad.
So given the steady uptick in violence against Asians over the past year, the murder of six Asian women has not shocked or surprised me in any way. Because though I may not be in love with the label, “Asian,” I’m keenly aware that I am not the one who has a problem with my looking-and-being Asian; it's other non-Asians that have used it as sufficient reason to say or do something unfriendly at best and violent at worst.
Does it matter that I employ a bunch of folks, many of whom are white? Does it matter that I try to learn and develop each of my team members as an individual, no matter their race or background or history? Does it matter that I provide a service for clients of all races and provide a platform that supports freelance photographers of all races across the country? Does that give me value? Will that stop a gunman who is hell bent on whatever-it-is he believes I deserve?
Or will he just see me as... Asian?
For all the folks shaking their heads and acknowledging the trauma of the Atlanta murders and wondering what can be done, consider - if you are not a BIPOC (or even if you are) - do you:
Mock Asian voices or accents?
Talk about Asians as “those people” and follow that up with something in a sneering or hushed “sorry not sorry” tone?
Assume that Asian women are all submissive or hypersexual?
Assume that Asian men are effeminate?
Talk loudly and slowly and most importantly - condescendingly - to Asian folks whose English may not be perfect?
Say something that someone calls offensive and follow that up with “it’s just a joke” or something similar?
Or if none of the above, do you stand by silently when friends and family do any of the above?
And when confronted because you have exhibited these behaviors, is your knee jerk reaction to listen to understand or is it to respond to defend your intentions?
Are you more focused on proving that you are not racist versus considering how you might be perpetuating racism?
Is it possible that how you are seen is more important to you than investigating and dealing with who you might be, deep down, so you can protect others from your darker impulses?
This is not to say how you are seen doesn’t matter; it does - just ask this Taiwanese-American woman. So if you hate being called a racist and being “cancelled,” surely you can understand how Asians hate being automatically labeled as disease-mongering bat-eating possible prostitutes.
After all, everyone, no matter how they appear on the outside, just wants to be given a chance - a chance to walk on the sidewalk without getting punched, to go grocery shopping without getting stabbed, to go to work without being senselessly gunned down.