I remember, back when I worked in a newsroom, standing in the office kitchen making tea one morning, and a man I had never seen before approached me and thanked me for the coffee I had apparently shared with him.
Confused, I walked back to my desk, opened my computer and sent a message to a colleague, another Asian American woman: “Did you make some guy coffee this morning?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Why?”
“He just thanked me for it,” I replied, rolling my eyes.
This wasn’t the first time we had been confused for each other, and it wouldn’t be the last. For the record: Our only similarities were that we are both half Asian (she’s Korean, I’m Chinese) and at the time we both had short hair and nose rings.
Eventually, it became a long-running joke because it happened so often. A few months prior to the incident, we (and coincidentally, so did a number of other female-identifying Asian journalists at a different Portland news organization) bought “Wrong Asian” pins to commemorate those moments.
Though we swallowed our frustrations, the situation was and continues to be a symptom of a greater problem, and is all but commonplace for people of color at news organizations across the country. In May 2019, Washington Post reporter Michelle Ye Hee Lee wrote an excellent story detailing her own experiences with being confused for other Asian reporters and what that behavior tells us about our place in newsrooms: that we’re an interchangeable, indistinguishable other.
Journalism is not a diverse profession. Look up the masthead on any newspaper in the country and you’ll find the majority of those working there are white males. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, newsrooms are more likely to be white and male than U.S. workers overall. And while more women are graduating from journalism programs (more than two-thirds of graduates), they’re still not being hired in respective numbers. For Black, Indigenous and other people of color, those odds are even worse.
A lack of diversity in newsrooms doesn’t just signify a lack of balanced demographics. Not having reporters and editors who look or represent any different from each other results in a homogenous telling of the news, one that often misrepresents, or worse, wholly omits entire populations. It’s what’s led to a general distrust and disenfranchisement in the media by some cultural groups who feel at this point, they’d rather not be included at all.
The idea that we are an interchangeable, indistinguishable other has been festering since Asian Americans first migrated to the United States. It’s warped legislation, civil liberties, access to capital, access to jobs and livable wages, land ownership, equity, equality and basic human rights. The powder keg we’re facing today with the meteoric rise of anti-Asian violence has been filling for generations, but combusted after the 2016 election, when our society’s perpetual racism was laid bare by a president who wielded that discrimination as a rallying cry.
I remember being afraid for my 88-year-old grandmother for the first time in my life after November 2016, and what someone might do in the zeal of their government-approved hatred. That fear has only grown as COVID-19 has spread, as misinformation about the origins of the virus quickly morphed into racist terms like “kung flu” and “China flu,” and as systemic xenophobia of Chinese-owned businesses mutated into physical violence against elders in our communities.
And through all of that, the lack of diversity in media in Oregon — and the coverage that follows, or rather doesn’t — continues on. How many of the stories written about the pandemic in Oregon over the past year — and the surge of racism, discrimination and violence Asian American communities have been the target of — center Asian American voices or authors? Or for that matter, bother to mention or include us at all?
Before I was laid off from The Oregonian in 2018, I was the only full-time food writer of color staffed at any publication in the state of Oregon. Even in Portland, a city nationally recognized for its food scene, much of it cooked, created or inspired by BIPOC, all but one BIPOC writer now works in a freelance or staff capacity covering it, hired just last year.
Part of the reason I left journalism was because of the racism and the microaggressions I experienced almost daily. I was tired of having my white bosses hold me to different standards than my white colleagues; confuse me for people I looked nothing like; perpetuate racist stereotypes I later needed to call attention to and fix; and undervalue my skill set so they could justify paying me less.
I used to wonder if I would ever be worthy of the opportunities that were simply handed to my white male colleagues until I recognized that a system founded on White Supremacy never would. Many of us will continue being that interchangeable, indistinguishable other until legacy media recognizes others or not, they need us far more than we need them.