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"A Sad and Scary Time" for Asian Americans: Racism During COVID-19

Vivia Chen

May 25, 2020


I almost never cover panel discussions that dispense advice to lawyers on how to succeed, because they’re usually so predictable. (How many times do you need to be told the importance of having a sponsor, learning the client’s business and standing up straight?)

Somehow, though, I had a feeling this discussion would be different.

And boy was it.

Consisting of an all-star cast of Asian American general counsel at major companies—Don Liu of Target Corp., Amy Tu of Tyson Food Inc., Caroline Tsai of Western Union, Viet Dinh of Fox Corp., Michael Wu of Madewell Inc. and Thomas Kim of Thomson Reuters—most of the panelists on the Zoom conference sponsored by National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) were unusually frank, particularly about the current climate of racism.

As you probably know, Asians are getting battered during this pandemic. According to a new Ipsos survey conducted for the Center for Public Integrity, more than 30% of Americans have witnessed people of Asian descent getting blamed for the coronavirus pandemic. And just a few days ago, President Donald Trump, who’s habitually called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” added fuel to this issue when he told CBS News reporter Weijia Jiang to “ask China” when she confronted him on his response to a question about testing for the virus.

So how do these GCs take recent events on the Asian American community? Very personally.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Kim of Thomson Reuters. “As a media executive, we have to change the narrative for Asian Pacific Americans. We are the doctors and nurses on the front lines; we are the small business owners providing consumers with necessary items; we are the essential workers. But too often, the narrative is that we’re the ‘other.’ “

“It’s a scary and sad time,” said Tsai of Western Union. “I’m a proud American, but some people don’t see me as American.” That discrimination extends to her son, who, she said, was called “Ching Chong” by classmates. “As a mother, I was so worried, but he told me he used humor [to defuse the situation].”

Like Tsai, Wu of Madewell, seemed stunned that his child is now experiencing the same type of bigotry he had decades ago in America. “In eighth grade in Georgia, I was called every derogatory term, and now my child has been on the receiving end of that same discrimination.”

But of all the GCs at the discussion, Tu of Tyson was the most blunt: “I’m extremely disappointed in this country,” she said upfront. “People who work in our community—which are a lot of immigrants, including Asians—are being discriminated against. They can’t get served; they can’t get a haircut. They’re harassed.” And she minced no words about the reason: “It’s because of their race and what’s happened in the media. It shows a failure of leadership.”

(At this point, you might have noticed that several people on the panel complained about the media’s vilification of Asians and other minorities. It would have been interesting if Dinh of Fox News, which has consistently called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” had jumped in, but he steered clear. Dinh, however, did talk about how Fox safeguards its news staff: “We are purveyors of First Amendment activity.” He added, “The information we bring is essential to the well-being and orderly running of our society, and we make sure that our news correspondents are safe.”)

So what will make a difference in this current climate? Most seem to agree that Asian American GCs should not be silent. “Stand up, stand proud—but at a safe distance,” said Kim. “We have a voice,” added Tu. “And as general counsel, we can’t turn a blind eye.”

Target’s Liu proposed another solution: Enlist a wide network of supporters. During one of Target’s “listening sessions” that got quite emotional, recalled Liu, “one of the non-Asians said it should be us who steps in to make sure that our Asian American friends aren’t discriminated.”

They are all correct. Unfortunately, however, I think it’s going to take a while until the narrative of Asian Americans as the latest bogeyman changes.

Contact Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com

On Twitter: @lawcareerist


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Thanks for adding valuable information to the current climate that all people of color experience pretty much every day and I only see it from a distance... Am at least able to be grateful for Zoom in this world.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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