Sometimes, the noise is good and needs to be amplified. We should be loud about this. Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan winning Oscars, respectively as Best Actress and Best Actor in a supporting role is a massive moment, as everyone has been saying already, but allow me to add a voice to the concert.
Because our names matter.
This moment deserves celebration because there’s already some backlash. The same day Asians all over the world saw themselves on the front of the stage, the Wall Street Journal let rampant racism and discrimination express itself in its columns against “wokeness” and the pressure for diversity.
There are three levels on which this day will be marked with a coloured stone.
First comes the global perspective. Around the world, immigrants or children of refugees like myself – my parents are both Vietnamese who fled and settled in France, have finally found representation. Until K-Pop waves hit Western shores, we had grown up with little to no role models who would look like us or be named like us.
This is the first time in my life that the name Quan makes an impression, as it did not refer to any mythology before. Until yesterday, I had been the odd one in a class list made of names of legends: Alexanders the Greats, Kings Louises and other Charleses. Names are the most important pieces of this win, in my opinion. I have given my children Western names primarily as well as Vietnamese names. I have my own reason for those choices, though I can’t help but wonder. Why do my Asian peers have to give themselves Western nicknames when it’s rare that someone named Christopher would find a Vietnamese name to do business here, although it's a mouthful for any Vietnamese native speaker.
For a long time back in France, I had been denying myself the reasonable suspicion of being discriminated against. Still, the story now proves that I’ve thrived much more effortlessly since I moved to a region where I fit in visually. Culture and management experts now know it; we tend to hire people who look like us. The world at large tends to respect people who have been seen. Sociologists are proving that degrees only are not enough. At an equal track record, an exotic name will lose you a great job opportunity. At long last, we Asians on the global cultural stage are now seen and more importantly recognized. Names like Quan may become less exotic for decades to come.
However, we should be wary of the upcoming times. In cosmopolitan spaces such as our very own industry, tokenism is sometimes still at play, and long-term change will require consistent and diligent efforts. This was great, Academy Awards! But it’s not enough yet.
From an APAC perspective and within our communication industry, the moment requires us to take the cue and double down on diversity efforts while paying attention to the specific context of our markets. In each country, the questions of gender balance issues, the status of ethnic minorities, social ostracism, sexual discrimination and abuse, combined with social pressures to keep things silent, demand that we invest and innovate in the DEI area.
Frameworks and solutions that have proven efficient to solve such issues in the UK for instance may not be relevant to the social and professional mechanics at play in Asian workplaces. What can we do to help broaden the access points to careers in our industry? How do we navigate legal frameworks that make it difficult to address toxic behaviors at work? How do we overcome the dependence on imported leadership (which I would count myself as!)? Do people from an ethnic minority have the same chances as others?
Those may be unique challenges to our region, and plenty more abound if I asked my peers. At my agency, we employ 70% of people who identify as women, but we are conscious that female-specific barriers still exist and hinder their growth. In consequence, we’ve launched an in-depth survey – designed by a woman specializing in gender and discrimination research, to make sure we could address them with tailored, focused policies and programs.
Interestingly, early insights indicate that what women in our organization have on the top of their mind is recognition. They want to be winning, and they want to be seen, like Michelle and Ke Huy.
Finally, there’s an intimate perspective for any of us coming into a workplace or an industry that may not look or feel like ourselves. Sometimes we may feel like our accent will give our history away, other times we will meet a foreign stakeholder who’s difficult to navigate. Such is the nature of our intercultural business. Before minority opinion leaders started breaking through and became able to publish their stories, we would have to figure things out ourselves.
I’ve learned as a third-culture kid that we can always learn about fitting in – aka code-switching (as recounted wittingly by Phuc Tran in his novel Sigh, Gone for example), but on days like this when the odd name or odd face out gets the spotlight, it’s a great time for us to stand proud and fit out. Then, it gives us the strength to move forward and participate to the challenging game of growth and recognition. Maybe this time, it’s going to be a little fairer.
Vu-Quan Nguyen-Masse is the APAC VP of Culture at Vero.