BenchSci celebrated Asian Heritage Month or Asian American Pacific Islander Month this year with access to Jon Osaki’s award-winning film Not Your Model Minority and a Q&A with the director himself. Jon's initial interest in film grew from his desire to share stories of the Japanese community and the Japanese Community Youth Council, where he has served as an executive director since 1996. Over the past few years, he's had several films screened at film festivals and community events across the United States.

We had the pleasure of hosting a discussion with Jon about his thoughts on the social and cultural systems behind anti-Asian hate in North America and the ways we can work together to overcome it. These are just a few takeaways from the conversation with the BenchSci team which we found really had an impact.

Many people still don’t know the history of Asian immigrants in North America or the Model Minority Myth

“I’m always particularly concerned about the lack of awareness that many have about our experience both in the United States and in Canada and around the world. About what it means to be an Asian immigrant back in the late 1880s until the present day,” said Jon. The film was produced with the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum which focuses on race, voting rights, and how we support economic empowerment and progress for all communities of color. With it, Jon aims to “have really honest conversations about how Asian Americans have not only been scapegoated but have been used and drawn into very divisive narratives that divide communities of color and to really unpack that.” Particularly, Jon wanted to demonstrate how the myth was built over time in large part by policy and was often contrasted against the Black Freedom movement to further divide communities of color by pitting Asian Americans against Black Americans, and what impact that has had today.

We have to be mindful not to treat groups as a monolith 

The term “Asian” is commonly used as a monolith for one community that actually encompasses 48 different countries and many cultures. “I know that there are very legitimate reasons for creating these categories of racial groups but in my experience, they are very challenging for many reasons,” says Jon. “I’m speaking to my own personal experience but whether it's in the United States or Canada, many people do not distinguish between Asian groups. To take that a step further many people do not distinguish between Asian Americans or Canadians and Asians from Asian countries. That creates many problems and many ways in which we have so easily become the targets of hate in this country.”

This is also something that makes us human, and that we all need to be careful of to prevent further division yet it's so easy to do. “It's in so many ways kind of part of human nature to associate characteristics with entire groups of people. That's where I think as a society, we really get ourselves in trouble and where we have to be mindful of the differences. The act of one person has nothing to do with an entire racial group. We really have to challenge ourselves to separate that.”

No industry is immune to the Model Minority Myth

According to MarketWatch, many Silicon Valley leaders believe tech is ‘post race’ given that 57% of workers are classified as Asian. However, Asian-Americans are also the least likely racial group to be promoted, according to a workforce analysis by the Harvard Business Review. This is where the Model Minority Myth plays a part said, Jon. “There is this perception that Asians are hardworking. They don't complain. They will go above and beyond. That's led to this pervasive thinking amongst many that they don't have to be acknowledged. They don't have to be promoted because they will work hard regardless.” 

This stereotype has a harmful effect not just on the ability of Asian workers to move up but it is a double-edged sword that gives the perception that most are upwardly mobile to begin with. Jon shared an example from his other role as the executive director of a non-profit organization for children and youth in San Francisco. The group discovered nearly half of the families on welfare were Asian but when they presented the data to policymakers they had a difficult time believing it. “It was very common where the reaction that we got was to almost dismiss it and explain it away. It was so tied to the fact that it was so ingrained in their heads that Asians do not have needs. That they're all upward mobile and well off financially.”

We need to keep having difficult conversations 

This was a difficult conversation to have. I know I was nervous and a lot of our team members were nervous too. Someone from the audience asked how we can make these conversations easier and be interested in someone’s racial history without committing a microaggression. I really appreciated Jon’s response: “I don't want to imply that you can jump into issues around race and the experiences of others in a way that is completely safe or completely without discomfort because you can't. They are very challenging… Sometimes these conversations about race can cause further harm. They can cause people to feel more isolated and more antagonistic feelings are brought up.” His advice was to work with professionals and have dedicated resources within your organization to host culturally sensitive conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion like we did for this event. But most importantly, to keep having conversations: “This is really a lifetime journey, right? You don't ever get to the point where you can say ‘I got it. I'm good. I don't need to learn anything more.’ This is something that really is a lifelong pursuit.”

We need to lift each other up

With the rise of anti-Asian hate throughout the pandemic, we asked Jon about how he copes with the heartbreaking news of more violence and ways we can all work to eliminate hate. Jon sees this as an opportunity to build relationships, particularly with other communities. “I'm a huge believer that the way in which to address systemic racism, that we are going to make the most progress by working with each other, right. Not just advocating for ourselves and our communities, but by lifting each other up.” Finding ways to work together and stop messages of hate we see in different segments of our community and learning about the historical difficulties facing other communities is a way for us all to move forward. 

I’m very thankful that Jon was able to share his time and his thoughts with us and to be a part of a company that is committed to having conversations about race and other systems of oppression in the workplace. We are far from perfect but these conversations are a continuous reminder that inclusion is all of our responsibility. It’s up to each of us as individuals to celebrate our differences as well as acknowledge and understand the way that those differences have served as barriers.

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Written By:
Christopher Guest

Culture DEI