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A Look Into The Social Contracts That Are Signed In Corporate Culture

Written by Gon Kim
Illustration by Thaila Khampo
January 2020

Growing up, I do not think I displayed many of the stereotypical traits associated with Asian males in Western society. I am only passably good at video games, my ping-pong skills are laughable, and my mental calculation is a handicap. I first became aware of the concept of the model minority as a teenager. Of course, I already knew the common stereotype that Asians were good at school and were hard-working. But beyond that, I got the sense that Asians were expected to meet the heralded standard of being the most well-integrated minority group in Western society. As a confused teenager, I wondered how I should act to pass as a « good » person of colour. If I ate with my hands, instead of a fork, would people judge me? If I spoke more eloquently and used sophisticated vocabulary, would people notice my ethnic accent less? If I did not conform to what was expected of me or adhere to whatever it meant to be part of this « model minority », I suspected that, to certain people, I would be nothing more than a «chink», a perpetual foreigner. Decidedly, that would not be me. I decided that in order to thrive in this society, I had to adopt a particular set of behaviours: a set that was expected of people like me.

In this regard, I believe that I have, for better or for worse, successfully done this. Generally speaking, I have no problem integrating myself into a new social group. I am not a social butterfly, by any means, but what I mean is that I am usually considered friendly, approachable, and have learned to adapt my behaviour to others depending on the social context. However, one environment in which I have more difficulty in this regard is the corporate workspace. More specifically, I am referring to the stereotypical consulting firm that provides its employees with a comfortable and spacious office, often located in the city’s downtown district—the type of workplace you would associate with yuppie culture. In my experience, integration in this kind of environment comes with additional challenges for a person of colour. Indeed, what they do not tell you when they hire you is that you are signing a tacit social contract. 

I have come to understand that in the terms of this social contract, the said person has to to turn the other cheek and not make any noise, or no commotion when confronted with racism in the workplace in order for a person of colour to be fully accepted and provided with the opportunity to thrive in a majority white corporate institution. Otherwise, he or she is outed as “unprofessional” and a “distraction” by management. In exchange for this silence, the minority employee secures a well-paying job, and sometimes, the social prestige of working at an esteemed office.The company, on the other hand, benefits from being able to parade its token minority at recruitment events. Maybe you’ll have your face featured in one of the company’s promotional material, for example. With time, I quickly became exasperated with this superficial display of diversity in my workplace.

“If I ate with my hands, instead of a fork, would people judge me? If I spoke more eloquently and used sophisticated vocabulary, would people notice my ethnic accent less?” 

I remember once confronting a fellow co-worker who was at a slightly lower rank in the workplace hierarchy over a culturally insensitive remark that she made. The setting was a usual work meeting, a group of 10 people. My colleague tried to make light of an incident that happened the day before, during which my direct superior incorrectly called me by another Asian worker’s name. Trying to create a humorous resolution to the previous day’s situation, she called me by that very name, once again, in front of my colleagues. What she did not realize was that it is a far too common experience for Asian men growing up in Western society to be alienated and belittled by these kinds of comments. Although I understand that she did not mean to hurt me, the effect was felt immediately. I met her in my office to address the matter privately and explained my discomfort with her comment. Now, I had always enjoyed a positive relationship with the colleague in question. I had gotten to know her during my studies and we entered the workplace in question at the same time. We often took the time to converse beyond the usual superficial office formalities of “good mornings” and “see you tomorrow”. Despite this, I noticed an abrupt shift in our relationship after I decided to address this incident. She started to avoid interacting with me, and with time, I have come to understand that from that point forward, she perceived me as a threat to her reputation. After all, discriminatory behaviour was something that could be reported to human resources, which would compromise her employment at the company. She worried that I could accuse her of racism. It made me upset that she may have interpreted our meeting as a veiled threat when my intention was only to establish respectful boundaries. That is the day I learned that standing up for myself meant that I risked distancing myself from my peers. Drawing the line resulted in further isolation within the corporate workspace, and this time, not at the hands of management, but by my co-worker’s natural instinct for professional self-preservation.

One could think that the model minority stereotype—the hard-working, non-complaining, self-sufficient image of Asian workers—would protect us from exclusion. This is, by all means, false. The celebration of diversity in the workplace and showcase of Asian faces in marketing ads often appears to me to be a facade that functions to obscure the lack of inclusion at work, leaving many people of colour feeling isolated. This paradox may be the result of the general unawareness of the distinction between diversity—which is more about numbers—and genuine inclusion, which is more about the quality of race relations.

If you ask a person belonging to a marginalized group what type of behaviour they turn a blind eye to, few of them will have taken the time to acknowledge what they submit themselves to in order to maintain social status and to ensure career progression. Few will tell you how many times they persistently get confused for another Asian person in the workplace. Few will tell you about the reaction of shock and the not-so-subtle expression of repressed prejudice towards an Asian man revealing that he is dating a non-Asian person. Few will tell you how they are automatically made the butt of racial jokes at the self-declared mercy of a person who is getting married to another Asian person. Understandably, a company knows that John Doe will do the same job as an Asian employee, but will be less likely to embarrass the company by denouncing a top manager who declares himself incapable of racism simply because he adopted a child born in China. 

 “That is the day I learned that standing up for myself meant that I risked distancing myself from my peers.”

I’ve also seen some people consciously live up to the model minority stereotype, to their social advantage. These people understand that it is necessary to, of course, work at their utmost ability and integrate themselves into the corporate workplace. But also, more importantly, to avoid being the social justice warrior at the office who exposes just how discriminatory other employees may be.

I recall a former co-worker born in China who, when asked by a manager if she had books on China that she could lend him so that he could learn more about Chinese culture, went out of her way to buy him this book under the guise that it was one that she owned all along. Out of this mundane interaction, my former co-worker, who was very much aware of the aforementioned social contract, succumbed to the pressure it created and went the extra mile to satisfy what she thought were her manager’s expectations of her. When she half-embarrassingly told me about this story and rationalized her action as an opportunity for her to “learn more about my culture” by buying the book, my initial reaction was of shock and disgust. I understood that, at the moment, she felt uncomfortable with being honest and admitting to her manager that she did not own any books on Chinese culture, risking depicting herself as uncultured, or perhaps not in touch with her native culture. I can see how she could have been afraid of being painted in a negative light in the eyes of a figure of authority. However, her reaction seemed unnecessary to me, considering how the manager probably would not have thought anything of it. Actually, I felt no ill towards the manager who, from what I know, asked his question out of genuine interest in Chinese culture. Still, I could not help but feel angry at how one could act in such a subservient way in order to meet the expectations of a superior. I cannot help but wonder how much a community has to sacrifice, myself included, in order to achieve this higher level of socioeconomic success and to try to make others comfortable.

Some employees blow right past incidents like these, whether they have lived through them personally or have been witnesses. Still today, my level of tolerance for these kinds of situations has not risen. Fundamentally, I think the problem is that no one teaches us how to react appropriately in these situations. What do you do when someone you considered a friend starts avoiding you after they have identified you as someone who could accuse them of being a racist? How do you confront a colleague you believe contributes to the perpetuation of harmful expectations for other people of colour, without offending them?

We should stay true to ourselves. We should speak up for each other. We should prioritize our own integrity in our professional careers. Asserting ourselves should not be an obstacle to maintaining harmonious relationships and thriving professionally. Ultimately, I try to remind myself that the end goal should not be to meet the standard of the model minority stereotype but to become our own role models in society. I tell myself, yes, corporate culture needs to improve, but we, as Asian-Canadians, also need to learn how to do better for ourselves.

The author of this article chose to use a pseudonym to remain anonymous for personal reasons.

Thaïla Khampo is a Montreal-based illustrator. Hes likes patterns, mystery, beautiful stories, naive art, caustic humour, simplicity, and images that tell a narrative.





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