The Majority Minority
Bloomberg Businessweek|August 09 - 16, 2021 (Double Issue)
In Silicon Valley, Asian American tech workers seem to have made it. Why doesn’t it feel that way?
Ellen Huet and Priya Anand

Silicon Valley executives sometimes seem to believe they are proprietors of a post-racial paradise. The industry’s corporate campuses abound with immigrants, its investors say they like to bet on underdogs, and its biggest companies preach the gospel of workplace inclusivity. “Diversity is a foundational value for us,” Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Alphabet Inc., said last year. “We probably have more resources invested in diversity now than at any point in our history as a company.”

The demographics of Alphabet and its peers, of course, tell a different story: Big tech companies employ few Black or Hispanic workers and almost none in technical or executive roles. On the other hand, there’s some basis to see Silicon Valley as a beacon of progress in the representation of Asian Americans, who account for a quarter of the population in the Bay Area. Alphabet, DoorDash, and Zoom all have Asian American CEOs. Pichai, who’s originally from southern India, leads a company where more than 40% of the U.S. workforce is Asian. At Facebook Inc., the figure is even higher, and Asian employees slightly outnumber White ones.

And yet, even here—among workers who seem to have found significant success in the tech industry—the story is more complicated, and discouraging. Many Asian Americans in tech, especially women, face subtle yet ever-present discrimination. It takes many forms: sexualized comments, assumptions based on stereotypes (“You must be great at programming!”), or performance reviews that seem to be more about identity than actual performance. The racism starts at the earliest stages of their careers and builds as they break into middle management. It can be hard to escape even for those who become executives.

Making things more maddening for those who experience it is that anti-Asian racism is barely acknowledged. The message from tech companies is “we’re post-race,” says Eric Bahn, a partner at the venture capital firm Hustle Fund. But Bahn, who was born in Michigan to parents from South Korea, says that’s an incomplete story. “It looks awesome in the beginning,” he says. “But then there’s a wall you hit. It’s a bait and switch.”

Part of what makes it tricky for Asian Americans to put their finger on racism in tech is the identity itself feels hard to pin down (page 55). Some Asian American families have been in Silicon Valley for generations—even before the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigrants and wasn’t repealed until 1943. Many more rode a wave of immigration after quotas were lifted in 1965. Others followed the creation of the H-1B program in 1990, which set aside visas for tech workers.

The differences in how various groups arrived in the U.S., and their education levels, partly explain why income inequality is greater among Asian Americans than any other racial or ethnic group, and why more than 30% of Asian Americans voted for the reelection of former President Donald Trump last November, even after he referred to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” and “Kung flu.” The Bay Area is home to Asian billionaires, as well as Asian residents who collect recyclables on the street. And in the tech industry, the economic opportunities for Asian workers can vary greatly— particularly among immigrants who can be trapped in low- mobility, lower-wage jobs while on H-1B visas.

Over the course of several months of reporting on this issue, and drawing on more than a decade of experience as Asian American reporters covering Silicon Valley, we heard some common themes from Asian American tech workers. What follows is a taxonomy of their experience, from the brand-new interns to those lucky enough to have made it to the Silicon Valley C-suite. It shows how far Asian Americans are from achieving full equality, and perhaps why equality for even less privileged groups has proved so elusive.

1. “LUCKY TO BE ASIAN”

Philippa Chen was first drawn to the tech industry in college. Originally from Southeast Asia, she’d come to the U.S. to attend a liberal arts school in Massachusetts. She’d never been particularly interested in computers, but a lot of her friends were taking computer science classes, so she signed up. She loved it, jumping into caffeine-flooded, sleep-deprived hackathons where she tried to build apps from scratch.

Tech companies would often send people to these events to mentor students, and Chen, a pseudonym, was invariably impressed. In Silicon Valley, entry-level employees earned six-figure salaries and got to work in T-shirts. “There was this whole spirit of creativity,” she says. “I just need my laptop and an internet connection. I can build whatever I want.”

At first, working in the tech industry felt like a dream for Chen. She’s now employed by Facebook and spoke to Bloomberg Businessweek on the condition of anonymity because she was worried about potential retaliation. During her first internship, at Apple Inc., she began attending industry meetups and almost immediately heard racist comments. “You’re so lucky to be Asian,” a man at a meetup told her. “White men here will love to date you.”

Chen heard this offhand remark so often and from so many different people that she can’t remember who said it first. The offenders were often White, but sometimes they were Asian, too, which made the scenario all the more disappointing. “I wanted to make friends,” she says. “Stuff like this would come up for no reason.” At a subsequent job at a startup, a co-worker told her she was given opportunities to succeed only because “someone in leadership has an Asian fetish.” In a one-on-one meeting, a colleague complained that her accent was difficult to understand—even though she doesn’t have a discernible accent and is often mistaken for a Canadian. She didn’t speak up in meetings for weeks.

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