by Milan Nguyen,
M.S. in Social Work
I grew up in a small town 40 minutes outside of Indianapolis. My family was one of three Asian families in the entire city. For the majority of my life, I felt like a misfit in my community, and I continued relentlessly searching for a sense of belonging in the places I travelled and lived after I left my rural town. Ever since I was a little girl, I worked hard to blend in with the culture I was surrounded by and compromised my heritage for acceptance. While I was very successful at blending in seamlessly, I always felt a deep sense of personal loss and confusion. My racial identity felt complex, and I was never sure how much of what I was emulating was truly part of me or something I felt I needed to enact to feel safe in the public spaces I occupied.
When I began graduate school, I felt very thankful for the opportunity to join diversity groups that allowed me to explore my racial identity. Over time, I became more comfortable with returning to my heritage and learning things about my family and history I chose to ignore for external outcomes that I perceived to be more important than my own authenticity and internal experience. I became close to many of my fellow graduate students who were also members of minority groups and finding this support has helped me navigate mainstream culture as my most authentic self. I am now better able to recognize how to deal with barriers that I face as a woman of color and find my own voice to advocate for myself and others.
Recently, I have been doing clinical work in my field and ran across racial challenges in the professional sphere. While many of my colleagues, bosses, and teachers were supportive of my work, they do not appear to think clients might perceive me negatively because I am a minority, and due to lack of relatability, have been reluctant to validate my feelings and experience as a woman of color. I have struggled with people reacting negatively to my presentation and race, yet dismissed when I brought these situations to light with upper management. No matter how much I am able to blend, I still have to make sure that others are not uncomfortable because of my presence.
So how do I show up at my job, do good work, and navigate implicit biases against my race?
I chose to be honest with my feelings and racial identity, and continue to speak up when I face racial discrimination. I found support in my peers who listened to me and validated what I was going through. And most importantly, I began to realize that I did not need to convince others as much as I needed to be true to myself without tying my internal experience to an outcome. It is still a difficult journey of self-discovery and awareness but I am becoming more confident in facing racial barriers with courage and advocating for racial justice in the workplace.
Resources for students interested in learning more about gender and racial discrimination in the workplace:
- Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Nell Scovell and Sheryl Sandberg provides perspective on women and leadership. While it still takes a dominant cultural stance, it does give its audience great tools and resources to navigate gender in the workplace.
- Forbes has an article on the “bamboo ceiling” that affects Asian women’s advancement in their careers. This article provides insight to the experience of many working Asian women, like myself who are struggling to find their voice as professionals.
- Spotify has a podcast that talks about the struggle of women of color in professional roles, along with triumphs, empowerment, and how to find authenticity while moving forward. Worth a listen!