Minor Feelings

AAPI Heritage Month, diverging realities, and archetypes of leadership

Today’s post will be brief, but that brevity is in line with an intention I’ve been trying to embody lately — “done is better than perfect”. As a forcing function, I’ve allotted myself 45 minutes to write this piece, so please excuse sentences (like this one!) that don’t seem to read well and/or if this issue of the newsletter inadvertently turns into a stream of consciousness :)

May is AAPI Heritage Month, but I would be remiss to not acknowledge that progress is never linear. The past few weeks have reminded me that we’re constantly taking two steps forward and one step back.

First off, it’s been heartbreaking to see the grief and anger my South Asian friends and coworkers have been experiencing as their loved ones in India cope with one of the world’s worst Covid surges. At the same time, about a third of Americans have already been vaccinated against Covid. While the silver lining (albeit a very thin one) is that I’ve seen the Pan-Asian community rally together to raise thousands of dollars for critical supplies, the ongoing crisis is a sobering reminder that we still live in a world where the distribution of opportunity and access to necessities at the base of Maslow’s pyramid is still incredibly unequal. I can’t help but feel helpless as these widely diverging realities unfold in front of us.

Meanwhile, in the US, violence against the AAPI community is showing no signs of slowing down. A recently published study shows that there have been 6.6k incident reports to Stop AAPI Hate from March 2020 to March 2021, with incidents in California comprising 40% of the total. In the past week alone, two elderly Asian women were stabbed on Market Street, and an Asian man was attacked in front of a grocery store while pushing his toddler in a stroller. What’s worse is that these incidents happened in broad daylight — needless to say, it’s been beyond frustrating to deal with a justice system that is unable to curb rampant hate crime and exhausting to see snippets of violence against AAPIs on replay on Instagram stories. Yet few major news outlets are covering these headlines, so we’re stuck in a Catch-22 of being unable to raise awareness about the broken systems we face without needing to reliving the trauma associated with those systems every time we swipe on social media.

Amidst everything going on, I haven’t been able to take a step back and celebrate the fact that Jay, Ankita, and I will be releasing Season 2 of Across The Lines next Tuesday. It’s been a labor of love, and I can’t wait to share the incredible conversations we’ve been lucky to have with some amazing people. I’ve been ruminating on this quote, which came from one of our surprise Season 2 guests, quite a bit these past few days —

“I look forward to the day we were allowed to have mediocrity in the Asian community in leadership … it's kind of a two-fold effect where you have to be successful because you need to prove to your community that it's possible. But also there are people who want to doubt you on purpose and you have to prove them wrong as well.”

This quote has been top of mind for me because of Justin Zhu’s recent removal as CEO of Iterable, even after he had scaled his company to an impressive $2B valuation. I’m not going to go into the nitty-gritty of the story (this Bloomberg article offers a glimpse into what happened), but I’d be hard-pressed to say that there wasn’t an undercurrent here of misguided pattern-matching at best and racial bias at worst. Sure there’s a fine line between madness and genius, but why is eclecticism more readily categorized as “madness” when an eclectic founder doesn’t fit the archetype of a “Silicon Valley entrepreneur”? Why did it take years for investors to remove Adam Neumann and Travis Kalanick, similar “mad genius” founders, from CEO positions? As our Across The Lines guest mentioned in the quote above, it’s undeniable that there’s a very narrow margin of error for people who aren’t frequently represented in institutions of power.

The final stop on this train of thought is a quote from Kathy Hong Park’s Minor Feelings. I read it last year at the beginning of Covid, and it remains one of my favorite books ever. It’s worth a read for Park’s beautiful prose in and of itself.

“This country insists that our racial identity is beside the point, that it has nothing to do with being bullied, or passed over for promotion, or cut off every time we talk … my existence is not enough, never enough, so I become compulsive in my efforts to do better, be better, blindly following this country’s gospel of self-interest, proving my individual worth by expanding my net worth, until I vanish.”

As we can see from Justin’s story, no degree of economic success can make us immune to very real injustices and biases — yet society constantly tries to convince us that the ramifications of these injustices and biases, or in other words, “minor feelings”, are trivial and negligible because of the relative “success” of our community. It’s futile to try and out-work and out-earn our way to the top of this system, which is merely an illusion after all. The only antidote is having the courage to challenge and question the systems we exist in by pushing up against and expanding the boundaries of what’s possible. No more minor feelings.

To end on an optimistic note, amidst everything going on, it’s been heartening to see AAPI leaders grow into their identities in recent months and finally begin to share their truths. I’m excited to be playing a small part in this paradigm shift through Across The Lines and can’t wait to share our second season of stories with the world.