On Wednesday CBS anchor Julie Chen revealed that early in her career, she got plastic surgery to look less “Asian” after her boss told her, point blank, “You will never be on this anchor desk because you’re Chinese.” More shocking to me than the brave revelation itself was the furious hue and cry. Really, folks? This surprises you?
While blatant comments from bosses like these may be fewer and farther between these days, there’s still tremendous pressure on men and women with any sort of “outsider” status to conform, no matter the cost, for the sake of professional success. As a Chinese-American woman practicing law in various corporate settings for 15 years now, I learned early on that it was incredibly important to perfect the art of passing—that is, to downplay or, better yet, rid myself entirely of certain “minority group” traits in an effort to blend seamlessly into mainstream corporate culture (a phenomenon that NYU Law professor Kenji Yoshino writes about beautifully in his book Covering).
This need to “pass” came as a surprise to me, though it shouldn’t have. Law school should have tipped me off. My first week at law-student orientation, a woman in my first-year section asked without irony or malice, after I’d already mentioned that I’d been born in California and raised in Fairfax County, Virginia, whether I planned “to practice law in my home country after graduation.”
“Yes,” I replied evenly. “I plan to practice in New York.”
She shot me a “well, I never!” look, and that was my first object lesson: like it or not, I was viewed as the Other. I needed to work harder to be thought of as one of us, because if I didn’t, the default was that I would be considered one of them.
Out of law school, the phenomenon continued. At a recruiting lunch at a midtown expense-account steakhouse, I observed the quick but meaningful glance exchanged between two hiring partners when one summer associate, a minority woman from a Southeastern law school, turned down the restaurant’s famed béarnaise sauce and instead asked our waiter for a bottle of A1. You could almost hear the needle being torn off the record in that storied gilded, high-ceilinged room, the moments that followed were so painfully awkward.
All of us Minority Darlings in corporate America observe so many moments like that one that it’s bound to produce a chilling effect. As a summer associate at a white-shoe Washington, D.C., law firm, a group of us were invited to go sailing at the yacht club of one of the partners and were advised to bring along a sweatshirt for the evening breeze. I knew exactly what I was messaging when I carefully chose a Tanglewood pullover (a gift) instead of my comfy sweatshirt from Wei Hwa Chinese School, where I’d spent most Sunday afternoons from age 11 through 18.
I do not mean to say that life as a young woman of color at a large corporate law firm felt like just one Big Marathon of Blatant Racist and Sexist Slights. The experience is, of course, far more nuanced and subtle than that, and often more insidious and harder to battle for its very sublety. We can often feel so comfortable, lulled into such a sense of complacency, that on those inevitable occasions when something does happen that suddenly throws our Otherness into sharp relief, it’s all the more jarring.
Once, as a young lawyer at a Manhattan firm, a big chatty group of colleagues and I were taking the subway somewhere—to a Mets game, or maybe Chelsea Piers. We were on the crowded car, having a great time. This was a group that went out often after work, when we’d laugh and booze it up, trade dirty jokes and partner gossip. At one stop, the doors opened, and a middle-aged Chinese woman, without waiting for the commuters to get off, aggressively pushed her way on. Spotting an empty seat next to one of the lawyers from my firm, she elbowed her way past more commuters and plopped down next to my colleague. She was carrying those crinkly orange plastic shopping bags they give you in Chinatown, and there was an unusual odor coming from them. I noticed the lawyer from my firm scoot a few inches away from this woman, and briefly smirk at two of our colleagues, who smiled back. My stomach tensed.
Sure enough, the woman addressed me. “Xiao jie,” she said, loudly. Excuse me, miss.
All of my colleagues turned to look at me. At first I pretended I hadn’t heard. Then the woman reached out and actually tugged at my hand. “Xiao jie. Ni zhidaozhe me dao Fulton jie ma?”
My colleagues turned back to look at me, as if at a tennis match.
Before I knew what I was doing, I shook my head. “Sorry,” I said, with a polite smile and apologetic shrug, “but I don’t speak Chinese.”
Of course, I do speak Chinese (courtesy of Wei Hwa Chinese School), and I probably could have directed this woman to the Fulton stop, but I could not bring myself to do so in front of all those curious eyes.
At the time, I was a very young attorney. I didn’t yet feel that my position at the firm was so secure that I could afford to be associated with this woman any more than I already was. I was passing, and she was not.
Which makes me wonder whether, in order to advance my career, my 25-year-old self might have made the same decision that a young Julie Chen did.
Of course, this was well over a decade ago, and the corporate landscape has shifted. Now, whenever HR directors and chief diversity officers are lucky enough to find an attractive, articulate minority woman in their midst—who’s neither too strident nor too soft-spoken, who speaks English without accent or attitude, who makes friends easily and photographs well—they actually want to flag this, instead of hide it. These days that same boss might have asked Julie Chen to be photographed for the station’s glossy recruiting brochure. Being singled out for looking different is bad enough, but now there’s the added burden of unsolicited responsibility, of having constituents when you haven’t run for office.
I’ve sat around enough conference tables over the years to recognize the quick, apprehensive glance darted in my direction whenever someone unwittingly mentions the “chink in someone’s armor” or the need to “build a Chinese wall.” (By the way, in my book, these are OK. I know they are actual figures of speech.) I know I’m relied on, fairly or unfairly, to be the arbiter on such matters around that conference table. I sometimes feel that my minority colleagues and I should go into these boardrooms carrying handheld placards, one side red and the other green, that we could raise to alert co-workers when treading into shaky territory. STOP, Bob! That’s racist! Or GO, Sharon! That comment is A-OK!
This corporate double standard about race and difference—let’s recognize it when it’s convenient, but for the most part, downplay it, please— remains a primary challenge for all of us Minority Darlings in the workplace.
Another reason Julie Chen’s revelation hit home for me is even more personal: I recently became a first-time mother. When I’m strolling my infant son around, he gets his fair share of kind compliments from passers-by, but the most common one is this: “And he’s got such big eyes!” This is always uttered in the most benevolent and flattering of tones, as if this is the highest compliment anyone could ever pay him, and it comes, by the way, from both Asians and non-Asians alike. I’m not offended by the remark, necessarily, but it fascinates me that people deliver it as if it is such obvious and objective high praise. And it has made me reflect on the professional pressures that Julie Chen faced, that I myself and many of my minority colleagues still experience, and it makes me wonder what obstacles and challenges the future may hold for my own 10-month-old son, he with such big eyes.
Helen Wan is associate general counsel at Time Inc. and the author of the new novel The Partner Track, about a young woman of color navigating the old boys’ network at a prestigious white-shoe law firm, to be released by St. Martin’s Press on September 17.