An immigrant’s thoughts on why Yeoh and Quan’s Oscar wins prove that diversity grows industries.
This article by Vu-Quan Nguyen-Masse, Vero’s VP of Culture, was featured on CampaignAsia.
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 continued celebration not just for the highly deserving performances of the actors in question, 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 colored stone.
First is the global perspective. Around the world, immigrants and children of refugees like myself – my parents are both Vietnamese who fled and settled in France – have finally found representation in the form of Ke Huy Quan. Until the K-Pop wave hit Western shores, we had grown up with few role models who looked like ourselves or had names like ours.
This is the first time in my life that the name Quan has made an impression in the Western world. Until yesterday, I had been the odd one in a class full of names of legendary rulers: Alexanders, Louises, Charleses. Names are the most important pieces of this win, in my opinion. I have given my children both Western names and 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 denied myself the reasonable suspicion of being discriminated against, but I’ve thrived much more effortlessly since I’ve 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. Sociologists are proving that degrees only are not enough — with equal track records, an exotic name will lose you a great job opportunity.
Meanwhile, the world at large tends to respect people who have been seen. At long last, we Asians on the global cultural stage are now seen, and more importantly, recognized. Names like Quan may become less exotic in the decades to come.
However, we should also be wary of the coming times. In cosmopolitan spaces such as the communications industry, tokenism is sometimes still at play, and long-term change will require consistent and diligent effort. This was great, Academy Awards! But it’s not enough yet.
From an APAC communication industry perspective, 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, questions of gender balance issues, 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 at solving 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 ethnic minorities have the same chances as others?
Plenty more challenges abound, if I ask my peers. At my agency, 70% of those we employ identify as women, but we are conscious that female-specific barriers still exist and hinder their growth. As such, we’ve launched an in-depth survey – designed by a woman specializing in gender and discrimination research – to help us address them with tailored, focused policies and programs.
Interestingly, early insights indicate that what women in our organization have on the top of their minds is recognition. They want to be winning, and they want to be seen, like Michelle and Ke Huy.
Finally, there’s the intimate perspective of those of us coming into a workplace or an industry where we look or feel out of place. 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 had to figure everything out ourselves.
I’ve learnt as a third-culture kid that we can always learn about fitting in – aka code switching, as recounted wittily by Phuc Tran in his novel Sigh, Gone – 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 stand out. Doing so gives us strength to move forward and participate in the challenging game of growth and recognition. Maybe this time it will to be a little fairer.