A challenge to our industry from an invisible minority

The AAPI community’s existence cannot be conditional or dismissed.

I write this open letter today with hopes of igniting open conversation and action for the Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. I challenge the marketing and advertising industry to bring visibility to our existence in the work that we do. I’ve outlined here seven key challenges and actions we can start today to fight the invisibility. Before I jump into the key challenges, I wanted to provide the cultural context and nuance behind the Asian or Asian-American experience. 

In the past year, there has been a disturbing rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, with an increase of 1900% in the US alone. It wasn’t until last week that the conversations and acknowledgment of the hatred against the Asian community expanded more broadly after a racially motivated attack in Atlanta left 8 dead. But xenophobia and anti-Asian racism has long existed and plagued the AAPI community for generations 

The recent attacks have ignited conversations in the AAPI community about the many racist and xenophobic moments we’ve experienced, our feelings of being ‘other’ in both society and work, and has resurfaced painful generational trauma. 

We are at a breaking point. Enough is enough. We are tired of proving that we belong here. We are tired of being underrepresented in mainstream media and politics, misrepresented in culture and misunderstood in the workplace. 

Complex Identity and the Challenge of Apathy 

Personally, the recent rise of attacks ignited a deep feeling of anger, and filled my heart with sorrow that I find hard to put into words. As a brand and data strategist, I’ve been digging deeper to understand why it took such a violent event to capture national attention and what is driving this perpetual problem of apathy for the Asian-American experience. I’ve been surprised and speechless to see so many of my non-AAPI friends, dear allies, media outlets, brands and companies be silent and slow to respond.  

Being an Asian-American consumer is both a contradictory and nuanced experience. We are not a monolith by any means, but we are treated as such in marketing and advertising. I see this effect even in how we approach DE&I programming across the industry or the way we are referred to as a pan-Asian segment. The truth is, as an industry, we have not invested enough to understand the nuances of Asian-Americans as consumers in the marketplace and professionals in the workplace. 

Battling Convenience and Invisibility in Marketing

Asian-Americans are only made to feel visible and remembered when companies can profit off of them in singular points of time. We’ll see campaigns during very specific times in the year (AAPIHM in May, Lunar New Year, Singles Day, Diwali, Ramadan, etc.), but soon after relegated to being invisible. Investing in the right data can help us understand the deeper nuances between, for example, an Indian consumer and an Indian-American consumer. 

It’s important for us to be mindful of the long-standing struggles and achievements of AAPI in the US. Largely impacted by the model minority myth, the Asian-American community has been painted as too successful, too assimilated to be impacted by racism or xenophobia. A great example: people are often shocked to hear that the AAPI community has the highest income disparity among any other group. 

AAPI consumers are not always in research plans or strategy work. Stories and experiences often aren’t brought in at the beginning of the process when decisions are being made. Instead, Asian-Americans are too often a tokenized afterthought, getting pulled in when more diverse faces are needed in production or an industry panel. 

Rewriting a History of Underrepresentation

It’s no surprise that the foundations on which Asian-Americans have survived in America has set the stage for today. The history and data of the AAPI community has been poorly documented, underreported, underrepresented, and it has led us to the dangerous position the community finds itself in today - forgotten and invisible in data and research. 

The lack of education and understanding are the biggest contributing factors of why apathy, confusion and ignorance exist today. This all feeds into an industry reluctant to stand in solidarity with Asian-Americans.  

Like many others in the AAPI community, I know that I will no longer stay silent. I will no longer ‘assimilate’ and ‘integrate’ into societal expectations and succumb to the Model Minority myth. I have no interest in keeping my head down and just getting the work done. I am committed to challenging existing norms, our current way of working, and creating new standards of inclusivity.  

I write this to you, as an industry, to join me in this collective challenge.  

7 challenges to spark change today:

1. I challenge the Asian and AAPI community in our industry to empower and advocate for one another. We need to use our collective voices to elevate our work and stop letting others define our experiences. We need to create safe spaces for us to have these conversations without negative repercussions. Our generational silence and reluctance to speak up (from our historical oppression, immigrant experiences & cultural experience) has completely erased us in conversations, in culture and in media. Our own silence is deafening. We are making progress now and we need to continue this new change in standing together!

2. I challenge our industry to start asking for the right data and make room for budgets investing in the right data around AAPI community. Invest in the budgets, drive the conversation and include us from the beginning. This isn’t a responsibility only for multicultural agencies.

3. I challenge everyone in our industry to include AAPI community voices and stories in the beginning of our strategic and creative process, not just casted at the end to check the box. This also begins with creating small space conversations within your departments or teams to bring together rich conversations. Don’t just wait for DE&I events.

4. I challenge our industry to elevate, promote, mentor and advocate for more Asians or Asian-Americans in senior executive leadership outside of DE&I positions and leadership roles in Asia (for ex. An Indian managing director in the India office.) 

5. I challenge our industry to invest in Asian-American talent and see them as leaders not just the people who will get the work done. As leaders, ask your self how you can create safe spaces for us to speak up. Challenge your own views of ‘model minority’. Work on retention programs (knowing they may look different than other programs), move us to leadership positions. 

6. I challenge our industry to do the work, spend time and money on organizations supporting the AAPI community.  

7. I challenge our industry to start the conversation now, put investment into a concerted effort to elevate and invest in underrepresented voices in our research. 

All of us hold the responsibility and power to create a more inclusive world. We owe the next generation a true sense of belonging and permanence. Let’s never forget that, as an industry, we have the power to drive culture, shift thinking, address unconscious bias, challenge traditional approaches to research, and create inclusive thinking that drives better business for all. 

The Asian-American population is projected to be the largest immigrant group in the United States by 2055. I hope by then AAPI existence in society, culture, and leadership will not only be accepted, but invested in and visible. 

Clara Luo is a group director, strategy & insights and BAV strategic studio lead at VMLY&R

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