When I was hired as a Resident Assistant in NYU, I would crack the joke saying that one of the reasons that I was hired as one of the 150ish new RAs out of 600+ hopeful applicants (besides the obvious one of me being qualified for the job) is because I’m an International Asian Female Christian™.
After all, I was the only International Asian Female Christian™ on my staff (and there was only one other RA I met in all of NYU that was ‘like me’). It was a 50%ish female team, but literally, there were no other Christians, or internationals, or Asians.
Here’s the biggest pitfall of being the only person of ‘my kind’ – you become a token and representative of ‘your kind.’
This is definitely a reality in almost all my NYU classes. As usually the only Asian person in the room (like how many Asian parents would be okay with their paying for their kid’s school where they can create their own major, let alone a major mixing theatre, education, identity and food) , I was always a differing opinion because of my faith, or my racial appearance, or my non-Americanness, or my gender, or all of the above.
Instead of worrying about how different I am, I used diversity to my advantage because I am secure in who I am and all the identities I hold, and I knew how important it is to have my voice in those classes, work places and spaces where I was the only one.
If I weren’t there, other people in my class would not have heard my thoughts, interpretations and life experiences that added to the richness of their education. How often do Americans get to workshop a script written in various Malaysian dialects about a mother-daughter relationship in 1960s Malaysia? How often do atheist/non-religious artists get to hear a little bit of hope and feel the peace that comes with my faith and physical presence in the room?
It’s so important to bring all of who you are to your work because your identities and histories have created a unique experience that is yours.
If you don’t embrace all of who you are, the world becomes a little less diverse and a lot more boring.
What I mean by ‘the unique experience is yours’ is the reason Crazy Rich Asians meant so much to me: as someone from South East Asia, it meant the world to me to see my world of food, accents and cultural expectations represented so beautifully on the big screen.
CRA is not entirely my upbringing, and it should NOT be the token story of Asian stories written in English – but it is one Asian story. And seeing glimpses of my story in Kevin Kwan’s story reminded me that I’m not alone in my Asian experiences.
After all, if I ever wanted stories that reflected all of me and my social identities as truthfully as possible, then I would have to tell those stories (one of the reasons why I started this blog!).
So how does all of the above about diverse representation relate to the workplace?
Though I was the only International Asian Female Christian™ RA in my team of 16, my supervisors could have gone with someone else. What I’m trying to say is:
Diversity is not just about inclusion – it’s about how to create beneficial opportunities for everyone involved, from the ‘diverse’ individual to the entire team.
An illustration of my main point is: One of my professional highlights is the moment when a world-class make-up artist, Jonathan Wu, approached me in the middle of set to tell me that in his 20 years of professional work, this was one of the most diverse sets he’s been on, and the set with the most Asian faces.
His comment proves that a group of 30+ different human beings were collaborating closely towards a common goal (diversity at work), and that he wasn’t another Asian dude to add to ‘diverse’ set photos – he wasn’t another diversity token, because no one on that set is.
I didn’t have the power to chose my team when I was an RA. But if I had a say in the hiring process for my RA team, I’d have picked more international students and fewer straight white dudes. I don’t mind being the only one, but there’s only so much a single person can do and represent.
So when I finally had the power to choose the people in the room during my time in Rebel Motion as COO and as a Producer, I chose diversity.
My sets were varied in gender and appearances because I hired people on work ethic and creative fit first, then considered whether this set was the opportunity to allow them to grow in merit or whether this set required someone more ‘experienced’ (generally: a straight white male).
I encouraged the only man in the Rebel Motion core team to speak up because I understand how hard it is to be one of my kind in a room of the majority.
Jonathan’s feedback was not the only positive comment I received about my leadership ethos regarding diversity – clients were happy with my casting choices, BTS photographers commented on how no one looked the same on my set, freelancers told me about the new crew member friend they made that was nothing like them.
As someone who is considered ‘diverse’ to fulfill some mandated quota, I’ve thought a lot about how to make diversity less superficial.
So here are my 3 tips on how to ‘diversity’ in the workplace, from the film set to the corporate meetings.
Reflect on your intentions for diversity
Are you doing the diversity thing because it’s cool, trendy and the ‘right thing to do’ in 2019? Or are you striving for diversity because it is sustainable for a globalising world?
Is diversity important to you because it is a short-term gain for the company’s image, or because you genuinely believe that systemic change is possible through your individual decision to hire someone different?
This may feel like a superfluous exercise, but how you think of diversity will affect how you implement diversity.
For example: if you’ve got only short-term gains in mind, you could hire a female executive but no female juniors, which in essence is still not diverse because someday it’ll be harder to hire a female executive again when there weren’t many female offered the experience needed at the junior level!
Hire people that don’t look like you (or anyone else on the team)
This does not mean an all-one-social-identity workplace, because an all-women or all-LGBTQ or all-Asian workplace does not guarantee a safe space for all, including those outside of the workplace, like clients or partners.
When you hire with diversity at the forefront, you not only place merit at the top because you’re valuing ALL of the person, from their professional to their life experiences, you also think with the whole company’s best interests in mind.
Would this new hire add something new to the current team, or would they just blend in impeccably with the status quo?
Create an environment where mistakes are okay
People aren’t perfect. There’s a huge difference between asking whether Malaysia’s an island or why am I still Malaysian if I lived in China, and between saying colonialism was great for Malaysia with the following explanation saying that colonialism is permissible because the reason was that Che Guavara was an okay dictator (real story).
It’s okay to have an awkward conversation. It’s more than okay to say sorry. It’s okay to forgive an uneducated comment, for some people were not taught the right language, mannerism or mindset to deal with difference (but never ever excuse intentional and outright bigotry and prejudice). We’re all learning together.
One of my dreams is that diversity is no longer a corporate goal and institutional aspiration, but a part of culture and lifestyle.
But until then, it’s a worthy goal to create a culture that values and executes diversity like it’s a part of life, because everyone wins when where we work looks like the world we live in.