Since the start of the pandemic, there has been an increase in anti-Chinese sentiment in the US, which quickly spread to other Asian ethnic groups. Some attribute it to former US president Donald Trump’s repeated attempts to blame China for the coronavirus outbreak. In the UK, the Asian community was targeted with acts of verbal and physical abuse during the first wave of Covid-19.
About 7.2% of the working age population of the UK is Asian or of Asian background, according to the Office of National Statistics, and about 10% of staff working for the NHS are. This includes those from India, Pakistan, China and other countries. About 65% of Asians between the age of 16 and 64 were in employment in 2019. The evidence indicates that the number of hate crimes has increased during the pandemic.
We spoke to four employees from Asian backgrounds about their experience of living in the UK at this time. Some names have been changed to protect the identities of the interviewees and their colleagues.
Ciara lives in the northeast of England with her family and her career is thriving, though she has experienced discrimination at work previously. Originally from Taiwan, the 48-year-old settled there after getting married. She started to work for a local company the following year. After four years working part-time in administration, her career took off and she landed the role of team leader. Over the years, Ciara worked for three different managers and had respectful relationships with each of them. Everything changed after a new manager arrived.
The new manager was inexperienced and was openly hostile towards Ciara. “She sometimes corrected my accent, while calling it ‘funny’… and she used to shout at me in front of everybody, laughing at my accent, making me very small in front of the team of 15,” Ciara said, her voice breaking a little as she recalled those times.
Ciara attempted to rationalise the situation. “I think it was because of jealousy. I had been in the job for a long time and I knew everything while she knew very little [about the work],” she said.
At first, she thought the comments were just clumsy attempts at humour. But as time went on, Ciara had recurring nightmares about the shouting. Her growing frustration led her to report her manager’s behaviour to HR, which in conjunction with the manager decided to put a performance improvement plan (PIP) in place.This is a formal document listing performance issues along with goals that an employee needs to achieve in order to regain good standing at a company. This is often taken by employees as an indication that the company would like them to leave. So Ciara felt her career was at risk.
Ciara completed two months of the plan, but was asked to step down as a team manager, but with the same salary. Within weeks, a replacement had been found.
At the same time, one of Ciara’s old managers, who was now working for a new company, heard about the situation and reached out to her. After nearly two years of mental anguish, Ciara decided to leave.
“That was just a bad period of my life. I am still so angry at her when I think about it, but I am glad that I ran away,” she said. Ciara is now happier and healthier. She has a better salary and is part of a respectful team. She does not regret the way she handled the situation and, even though she did not sue, she believes that can be a good option for some people.
Thanh, a Vietnamese market researcher who lives in the southeast of England, says she wishes there were fewer assumptions about people of colour in some roles in the UK. An economic immigrant, the 29-year-old has worked her way up over the years. She would like to see more respect shown to those working in salons.
Thanh arrived in the UK when she was 17 to study at the University of Westminster. The tuition fee alone was £16,000, so she had to take on a number of jobs to get by. She worked at a fast food outlet, did night shifts at supermarkets and translated papers from English to Vietnamese. “I barely had time for leisure or to make friends,” she said. Thanh also did some shifts at a salon.
On one of those days, Thanh remembers engaging in chit chat with a regular customer at the salon. They discussed news and current affairs. As Thanh was finishing her service, the customer said: “It is actually nice to talk to someone intelligent for a change.”
This remark shook Thanh. She understood it to mean that this woman considered those who had provided her manicures over the years as “unintelligent” people. Was it because they looked like immigrants? Thanh didn’t respond to the remark but she was angry and told the rest of the team what had happened. The team was furious and decided to block the customer. Thanh never saw her in the salon again.
While Thanh appreciates the collective solidarity shown at that salon, she knows this does not happen at all workplaces. She did not become confident in her own judgment overnight either.
In her early days as a university student, it upset her when some people disregarded her ethnic origins and name, and referred to her as “the Chinese girl”. Although she was hurt, she said nothing. “I knew no one and I just kept quiet and accepted it. I was only 17 years old,” she said.
Having lived in the UK for a decade, Thanh says that keeping your mouth shut does not get you anywhere. Even so, she does not believe in embarrassing others who offend her. “If you need the money then it is best to suck it up, but if you have the means then it is always best to let the person know that you do not appreciate his or her remark at a quiet time rather than exposing the person in public,” she said.
Olivia, who is British with Bangladeshi heritage, is working to become a lawyer. Growing up, the 25-year-old encountered many people who wondered how a girl with abundant black hair spoke with such a neutral British accent. Although she became used to ignorant assumptions, she was still shaken by one encounter she had at work.
Olivia was an intern at the time on a team that also included two black women, two white women and two white male managers. One woman enjoyed talking about her faith and activities loudly with her co-workers. Pam was just a few months into the job when the woman said she was hosting a Bible study on “other holy books” over the weekend. She started asking people of different faiths in the office about their beliefs.
One worker was cornered in the kitchen before escaping back to their seat. Another senior colleague gave brief answers and showed no interest in continuing the conversation. Eventually, Olivia’s turn came.
Olivia’s family name is a common Muslim last name. Although she grew up in a Muslim household, she is agnostic and seldom discusses her faith other than with those to whom she is close. “I know a lot about my faith, but I also do not wish to be the spokesperson for it,” she said.
Her colleague asked Olivia a question about Islam that she found provactive, intrusive and completely inappropriate for a workplace. Rather than fob her off, Olivia quickly gathered her thoughts and decided to engage in conversation. It lasted for an uncomfortable 20 minutes. “She was on a mission, pressuring us to defend our faith,” Olivia said. The two managers remained silent throughout. “I realised at this moment just how difficult it is to be working in a predominantly white male environment,” she said, adding that she understands that many people make assumptions based simply on her name or appearance.
“It was as if you were asking a person of color what to do [to make the society more just] when you should do the research yourself,” she said of the encounter.
“I wish my managers had spoken up to end this unprofessional and uncomfortable situation,” she added. Olivia was not happy at how her colleagues and managers behaved in this situation, but she is pleased she didn’t avoid the conversation. “I would encourage people to speak up, at least to defend your own feelings if not for greater justice,” she said.
Huy works at BNP Paribas’s London office as a corporate investment banker. The 30-year-old finds his daily street encounters more disturbing than those in his working environment. Huy, who is from Vietnam, studied at ESSEC business school in France. He was already aware of the predominantly white male world of banking. Nevertheless, he did not feel marginalised there because he speaks French fluently. He did, however, observe that many students from Chinese or Indian backgrounds seemed to feel out of place and to find it difficult to mingle.
Huy moved to London after graduation seven years ago. His colleagues are respectful and professional in his workplace, though there are not many people of colour in his sector. Racial discrimination has been a topic of discussion in the banking industry for many years and there is a growing awareness of how it can damage a firm’s performance. “Especially in the banking sector, people are very careful because of issues [around racial discrimination] in the past,” he added. For instance, each year speakers and compliance officers visit BNP Paribas to reinforce the importance of ethical behaviour in the workplace. On the other hand, the discrimination he has experienced outside of work is much more troubling.
“London is a place where blooming diversity is the normal street view, but outside of London I can immediately feel the differences in the way people watch me,” said Huy, who has had several unpleasant exchanges with football fans and drunks on the streets. Huy says that he experiences less discrimination in the UK than he did in Paris, but there have been many instances of casual racism, such as when people attempt to pull a face to look “Asian” and say “ni hao” assuming all “East-Asian looking” people are Chinese.
Huy’s professional story is a positive one for people of colour who wish to work in a niche sector such as corporate investment banking in London. He is well aware, however, that he is fortunate at work even as he continues to come up against racial discrimination on a daily basis elsewhere.
*These names have been changed to protect anonymity
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