As a child, I was always getting in trouble for talking back to my parents. When scolded, I would respond with, “I’m not talking back, I’m explaining myself!”
This pained me because I knew that if I wasn’t able to speak freely, I wasn’t being true to myself, and it would turn into mental, emotional, and even physical upset.
As I grew older, I allowed society to keep those words and emotions buried, as not to rock the boat or be put in a position where I’d be needing to take back my words.
Throughout the last year, cancel culture has become pervasive, as the true colours of business leaders, corporations, and even our friends and family have come to light. Along with that might have also come the realization that our values and how we live them are not in line with their actions.
I myself have sent several emails, DMs and commented on social media, calling out what I felt was wrong , with some newly gained confidence from seeing my community do the same thing.
Maybe you unfollowed social accounts, cancelled subscriptions, or protested against those you felt didn’t meet your standards of accountability. Or, maybe you didn’t do anything about it at all.
At its very core, cancel culture is meant to be accountability culture. What if we reframed the approach from ‘cancelling’ to holding individuals and companies to a higher level of accountability? What if instead of cutting off or shutting down individuals and companies, we engaged in meaningful dialogue with clear calls to action for constant improvement?
See also: Cultural appropriation: moving beyond public apologies
Creating a culture of accountability
Calling for accountability of large corporations can happen on both the individual level and as a collective.
Former Chinese Canadian journalist turned actor Olivia Cheng turned to Twitter when she saw that her bank published a report on financial market crises, citing the “Asian Flu”.
This is @cibc doc I’m so put off by. To be clear, it references Avian / H5N1 flu of late 90’s not COVID when it says “Asian Flu”. But considering @WHO guidelines, anti-Asian racism bill, recent hate crimes— normalizing this in corporate communications is incredibly upsetting pic.twitter.com/iJsiwg3cWd— Olivia Cheng #BlackLivesMatter (@ThatOliviaCheng) October 31, 2020
What happened next took Cheng by surprise. The bank contacted her directly.
In this meeting, Cheng recalls “no one made excuses, and changes were made to policy and protocol along with the term in the newsletter itself which now reads Financial crisis of 1997 instead of Asian Flu. There’s even a written apology in my inbox.”
In one tweet, one voice drove organizational change.
In sharing her story with me, she said something that really gutted me: “I’m not used to actually feeling heard, let alone accomplishing anything.”
Far too many people feel like this everyday of their lives. Less so due to lack of words, but more the lack of social safety and a platform to voice beliefs and concerns. Layer that with the pressure of the model minority myth and respectability politics, how much is left unsaid?
In November, I was doing a late night scroll on LinkedIn (because what else do you do during quarantine?) when I came across an industry association patting itself on the back for reaching gender parity of its (wait for it…) all white-presenting board.
I too could not help but post a comment in response, calling out this association for its lack of visible BIPOC representation.
Similarly to Olivia Cheng’s network, others started piling on the comments here too and eventually we pushed the organization to make a public commitment to addressing their poor board recruitment and selection processes.
Examples like Olivia’s and my own make me hopeful that individuals and communities of supporters can drive change, but I sometimes fear that organizations will take action only if actively called into the public spotlight.
Even more worrisome is that those without the resources, confidence, network, or safety of being able to do this will never have their voices heard.
See also: Dear Corporations: It’s time to actually be anti-racist with actions
Calls to action
I spoke with some of our Cold Tea Collective team members about how to introduce systemic change within an organization, along with calls to action for various groups of people. Here’s what we came up with:
To industry associations: Take a long and hard look at who is representing or making decisions for your association – is that representative of your membership? The industry itself? The people who work in it? Or is it representative of the sponsorship dollars you receive?
To people who sit on boards or in leadership positions at their companies: If you’ve sat on multiple boards in your industry before, ask yourself if it’s time to pass on the torch and champion a diverse candidate for that opportunity instead. Before saying yes to an opportunity, ask who else is being considered for the position – are there other BIPOC people being asked to participate? Beyond BIPOC representation, consider how you can expand your dimensions of diversity as well.
To white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied and neuro-normative people who speak English fluently: Why not use your privilege to help empower others? Sharing your privilege and using that to amplify or support others doesn’t mean you have any less of it – there is always more room at the table.
To employers: Use data and don’t assume you know what your employees want if those making decisions don’t truly represent them. Consider what changes you can make across the organization to create equitable opportunities for your diverse workforce.
Don’t create diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) committees without funding, executive support and infrastructure. Ensure you’re not asking for unpaid and undue mental and emotional labour of your employees and make it their responsibility to be the sole champions for diversity, equity and inclusion.
Further to that, don’t make your DEI committees and the under-represented individuals on them educate you on what true diversity and inclusion is and how it should come about in your organization.
Organizations should do their research and solidify short and long-term plans, with specific goals and non-negotiables of diversity and inclusion within your organization.
To make it even more real for your organization, create specific benchmarks, regularly report progress, and make adjustments to the strategies that will be used to achieve these goals along the way.
Business and people leaders need to take an active role and invest in diversity, or risk losing out on great team members and business success.
To the BIPOC and other diverse communities: Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and put your name in the hat for these opportunities – or if you feel like it’s not safe for you to do so or you need some support, find a champion or ally who can help.
More and more I am seeing job postings and corporate announcements pop up for roles such as ‘Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer’. It’s encouraging to see these roles filled with more individuals who are not just white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied or neuro-normative.
Too often though, the onus of making an organization equitable, diverse, and inclusive falls on an individual or a small handful of people.
Diversity and inclusion needs to be a company-wide, strategic, and systemic responsibility of an entire organization.
From here, we can create systemic change – that is, change that impacts thought, behaviour, and dialogue across different people and functions within that system.
The Canadian Government recently published the 50-30 Challenge inviting corporations and nonprofits to commit to accelerating diversity on corporate boards and in senior management.
The ‘50’ is referring to 50% gender diversity, while also encouraging 30% (what they call “significant representation” of under-represented groups by their definition including “including racialized persons, people living with disabilities (including invisible and episodic disabilities) and members of the LGBTQ2 community. The program and participants recognize that First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples as founding peoples of Canada are under-represented in positions of economic influence and leadership.”
At time of publication of this article, 649 organizations across Canada have committed to this challenge.
Although the 50-30 challenge offers a framework and outlines the benefits of having a diversity of people in these roles, I’d like to challenge this challenge: to be more aggressive and progressive in its goals.
At minimum, 50% gender parity seems to table stakes by 2021. And 30% is not ‘significant representation’ in my opinion, simply because it’s not what I see reflected in the real world.
And for some, seeing American Vice-President Kamala Harris be sworn in as the first female, Black and South Asian official at the highest level of government is their first exposure to a person of colour in a leadership role.
We need to continue to challenge what we see and demand better from corporations, government and other institutions of power if we want to see systemic change.
See also: What it means to be a settler of colour on unceded Indigenous lands
Evolving the culture of accountability to diversity and inclusion
Diversity and inclusion is not some mysterious or magical thing – it can be clearly measured and improved.
Everyone can do better when it comes to equity, diversity and inclusivity. There’s no company doing it perfectly.
To continue to push for improvement, both corporations and consumers alike need to recognize that what works well one day might not work a year down the road, and that’s a good thing because it’s a sign that things are changing – evolving.
As consumers, we can continue to push for systemic change by constantly evolving our standards of what is acceptable and exceptional and demanding that from corporations.
Looking back now, I’m glad I was a stubborn little kid (sorry not sorry, mom and dad), because it has become the core of who I am and what drives me everyday in the work we do as a team with Cold Tea Collective.
Whether you’re a well-seasoned and outspoken advocate or still finding your voice, you have the power to create change.
Help us uplift Asian diaspora voices
Support Cold Tea Collective with a monthly contribution to help ensure stories for and by the next generation of the Asian diaspora are here to stay.