“Yes, he knows English,” a paralegal I worked with at a small law firm answered resentfully. At least once a week, a client would ask the paralegal if I knew English once they learned “Richard Nguyen” was their assigned attorney.
Unbeknownst to these clients, the paralegal was also Vietnamese American. They assumed he was white. They only knew him by his Anglo first name, and he spoke English without an accent in their phone conversations.
At first, the paralegal and I laughed off questions about my proficiency in English as random ignorance. This was California, the Bay Area no less. We’re very diverse and supposed to be progressive. But it soon became apparent that clients’ concerns about English proficiency were widespread.
Yet none of the paralegals were asked how well versed the white attorneys were in English. We all knew I was being scrutinized differently for being Asian.
In law school, my writing and speaking skills merited me a spot on the highly selective moot court board. While earning a master’s degree, I was hired to be a graduate student instructor for a graduate writing course at the University of Michigan.
None of my abilities and accomplishments mattered when numerous clients learned my last name.
The most jarring incident happened when my supervising attorney was busy, and I volunteered to explain to her client what the next steps in his case were. Apparently, I was so helpful that her client thanked me and wanted to apologize.
“For what?” I asked.
“When I saw your name as my lawyer, I told the firm I wanted a different lawyer.”
I was stunned. No one had told me of the original assignment.
“I had a bad experience with an Asian lawyer,” he explained. “And I didn’t want another Asian lawyer. Nothing personal.”
But being removed for being Asian felt personal.
When I returned to the office, I told my co-workers what happened. The paralegals were upset for me.
The supervising attorney was quiet, so I asked her for her opinion. She said she had faced similar treatment as a female attorney and that she just learned to move on. Her response ended the office discussion.
Later that day I vented to a good friend, who was a more experienced attorney. He dismissed the client as dumb and then proceed to tell me about the discrimination he faced as a white attorney. He advised me to brush off the incident.
This incident happened almost 10 years ago. I rarely tell this story. Yet it lingers within me. I didn’t realize the subconscious impact it had on me until the current rise in hate against Asian Americans made me analyze my own life experiences.
The responses from my then-supervisor and my friend—intentional or not—reinforced the idea that I should not complain about workplace racism.
I believe they were trying to help me in their own way. But telling me about discrimination they dealt with did not feel like empathy or solidarity. It felt dismissive of my experience, especially since they encouraged me to move on so quickly.
If my supervisor and my friend did not seem to think that the blatant racism I experienced was a big deal, why should I expect anyone else to care? It seemed like I just had to accept this type of discrimination happens.
My experience is not a unique Asian American experience. A recent national survey by civil rights organization LAAUNCH found that approximately 80% of Asian Americans say they face discrimination and do not feel respected in America.
Why should I or anyone in America accept racism? We shouldn’t.
When a racist act occurs, we have to be brave enough to call it out and report it—whether we are the victims or just bystanders. Inaction allows racism to continue unchecked.
If someone shares their experiences as the target of racism, listen and offer support. Give them the time and space to process the pain, confusion and frustration.
If you are an employer, stand up for your employees, instead of accommodating the racist preferences of customers.
When customers express racist views about your staff, you can use it as a teachable moment. Educate them about the qualifications of your staff or what is inappropriate behavior, especially if customers speak out of ignorance and not malice.
You can also refuse service to racists who demean your employees. You set your company’s culture.
Regardless of one’s employment status, everyone plays a role in creating a more inclusive and respectful society. Remember to lead by example.
Final request: Please do not assume that people with non-Anglo names are not proficient in English.
Richard Nguyen, Esq. is the son of Vietnamese American refugees and currently serves as board president of the Campbell Union School District. His views are his own.