May is Asian Heritage Month, an annual celebration of the rich diversity of the Asian community and their contributions to Canada’s economic and cultural success.

This year’s theme “Recognition, Resilience and Resolve” pays tribute to the strength and determination of the Asian community in continuing to overcome adversity throughout Canada’s history and in the present.

In the midst of the pandemic, the alarming rise in anti-Asian violence and attacks demonstrates the continuing challenges faced by this community as we struggle as a nation to eradicate all forms of racism and discrimination.

Raising awareness of these struggles and learning from the lived experiences of this community is an important part in overcoming anti-Asian hate.

Asian Heritage month serves to stimulate the action needed to amplify the voices of Asian-Canadians and push for more equity, diversity and inclusion across all sectors of society – including the workplace.

The HRPA spoke with Carissa Begonia, Business Coach and Diversity Consultant of Conscious Xchange, and Assad Mallick, CCP, GRP, CHRL, BComm, Vice President and Head of Total Rewards, Cineplex, to discuss the significance of Asian Heritage Month and what HR professionals can do to address anti-Asian racism in the workplace.

Q: What is the significance of Asian Heritage Month?

Carissa: Asian Heritage Month is the celebration of the many Asian and Pacific Islander cultures. In the U.S., it is currently known as APAHM, which stands for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month U.S.

May was designated as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month by President Bush in 1992. The month of May is significant because it commemorates the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States and the contribution of Chinese immigrant workers who helped build the transcontinental railroad. Today, many AAPIs celebrate our contribution to science, the arts, entertainment, business, sports, music, and so many other ways in which we have helped to create and shape American culture.

Assad: Asian Heritage Month is significant because it helps celebrate a rich and diverse group of individuals from Asia and the Asian subcontinent that have an important role in the evolution and progress of the human race in areas such as arts, sciences, healthcare, history, and culture, and so much more. If you think about it, the world would be a very different place, and humanity would not be as advanced, had it not been for the contributions of the Asian community. 

Some things we’ve contributed are the numeric system, plastic surgery, alcohol (and the uses of alcohol in health care and surgery), paper and printing, and compass and clocks.

In Canada, if you think back to the late 1800s, East Asians played a key role in the evolution of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which was truly remarkable considering it was Canada’s main means for travel, trade and export.

There are so many contributions made by the Asian community that are very much woven into the fabric of Canadian society.

Q: Data from Statistics Canada suggests that there’s been a rise in anti-Asian discrimination and xenophobia during the pandemic, including greater incidences of racism and harassment. What has living through the pandemic been like for you?

Carissa: I consider myself a very strong, outspoken, and independent woman.  There are so many reports of attacks on some of our most vulnerable in the Asian community – the elderly and women. To be frank, this pandemic has been paralyzing in that I’m legitimately scared to go to, say a grocery store at 2 PM on a Wednesday. And this is from someone who used to travel to wherever, whenever, by myself.

When I was the head of Diversity and Inclusion at Zappos, I started to dive deeper into my own cultural identity work. And as part of that work, I had to examine one of my first experiences of racism:

At nine years old I went to Disney World, and while I was swimming in the pool, a little White boy pointed at me and said, “I don’t want to swim in the pool with Chinese people.” I was so angry, but I internalized that.

So, in school, I wanted to eat the lunch everyone else was eating – so I wouldn’t feel embarrassed about bringing my own cultural food. Subconsciously, I started to push away my Filipino identity. And people would call me a “banana” – white on the inside but yellow on the outside, and I considered this praise, at the time, because of my perceived proximity to Whiteness.

But about a few years ago, I attended a DEI conference. One of the panelists was a Black woman who shared how she had to fight and work extra hard to prove she was a lead engineer on her team. After the conference, I told the women I was with – an all-white team except for me – that I really resonated with that panelist. Everyone just looked at me in disbelief with one person saying, “You couldn’t possibly relate to what that woman of colour shared.” I was their leader and still I felt othered again. I felt invisible. Here I am the only person of colour among my team and no-one seemed to understand what it took for me to get to my position.                                   

So, when I consider all of the racism I’ve faced, how much has been internalized, and all of the microaggressions I’ve dealt with, what’s happening in the news right now is very triggering. It’s impacted me both on a conscious and subconscious level.

Assad: I think the pandemic has had a profound impact for East Asians, with the rise in hate crimes and xenophobia. But I think what it’s shown is that as a society, racism and discrimination can be suppressed for a long time in lots of places, even as diverse as Canada, and then one event can trigger the ugly side of humanity.

This happened during the Second World War with the treatment of Japanese immigrants in Canada. For South Asians, Western Asians, and Central Asians, it happened after the September 11th terrorist attacks in the U.S. It’s at times like this, that humanity needs to come together with one voice against racism.

Here is a list of some of the major events and issues that have impacted the Asian community:

  • COVID-19 pandemic
  • The Gold Rush of 1858
  • Canadian Pacific Railway
  • The Chinese Immigration Act (1885) – Chinese Head Tax
  • Internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War
  • The Kogmatu Maru incident
  • Islamophobic hate crimes
  • Anti-Asian Riots in the 1900s


It’s been truly heartbreaking for me to see how East Asians have been treated during this difficult time. As a result, I’ve reached out to some of my colleagues and friends of the East Asian community to check in on them a bit more – which has helped to strengthen some of our bonds and provide me with more insight into how they’re feeling. From our discussions, I know, it’s been tough on them. But what’s been most shocking is how much tougher it’s been for some of their children. Some of their kids have never really been exposed to racism prior to the pandemic.

Q: Can you talk about the myth of the model minority, a stereotype often applied to people of Asian descent? Why is it a harmful concept, especially when we consider the pay disparity and other workplace challenges some Asian-Canadian communities face? 

Carissa: The model minority is this idea that Asians are hardworking, quiet, docile, and we’re more successful, especially compared to other minority groups. It was introduced during the Civil Rights Movement and used as this oppressive tool to create a wedge between the Black community and Asian community so that they wouldn’t be in solidarity with each other to fight against racism.

I know I definitely bought into the model minority myth. I saw myself as a failure if I didn’t go to a prestigious school. Or if I didn’t get the best grades or get the highest title in the business world, I wasn’t good enough.

What happened was that I ended up rejecting more creative pursuits, like singing, to pursue what I saw as careers that signaled success.

The model minority myth and it’s cousin, the bamboo ceiling, are insidious. When we consider who the successful leaders are in the business world or in the medical field, there are many that are of East Asian and South Asian descent. However, when we look closely at some of the stats that are referenced about the success of the Asian community it can be quite misleading. It seems like Asians are not struggling as a whole. It feeds into the model minority myth because when you disaggregate the data you see that Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders are not attending college, are not landing “white collar” professional jobs, and are not earning high income salaries at the same rates as the total U.S. or their East and South East Asian counterparts.

Assad: The challenge with this type of thinking is that it puts Asians into a box, and it really adds a lot of strain and pressure to many of them growing up. And when they’re particularly young, it really prevents a number of them from truly being themselves and exploring individual interests and other creative pursuits. Growing up, a lot of people assumed that I would be a whiz at math, and that I was going to be a doctor or an engineer because I am of Indian descent.

Q: Anti-Asian racism is not new yet more workplaces are seeking to address it in light of the recent acts of violence. What do you see as some missteps employers and HR leaders are taking in response to this rise in anti-Asian racism?

Carissa: I think employers have been a bit in panic mode about what to say publicly and do internally. They worry about the message they are putting out and how they will be perceived. Sometimes this fear delays them from responding to the needs of their employees or even prevents them from taking any action at all.

The most immediate actions really need to come from the heart. When some of the most violent news made public headlines such as the tragedy in Atlanta, Asians felt scared, angry, anxious, numb, defeated. Genuinely checking in on how Asian employees are doing is what a lot of my AAPI community have been needing and asking for. They want to be seen and acknowledged and heard. And not just in a one-off event, but as an ongoing effort to show care and support as the grieving and healing process is ongoing, especially as the violence continues.   

Assad: I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as missteps. I’d say many organizations came out for support of the Asian community over the last several months, but I believe there’s an opportunity to build more coalitions rather than just individuals or pockets of organizations addressing anti-Asian racism on their own. For me, the sum is greater than the individual and a more coordinated response between business leaders, organizations, governments, and other organized establishments and institutions, makes the issue easier to tackle.

Essentially, when individuals and organizations come together, we’re able to leverage different skill sets, expertise, experiences and training and offer more robust support to Asian employees and communities.

Q: How should HR leaders address anti-Asian discrimination? How can we all (employees included) support and show solidarity to employees and people of Asian descent? 

Carissa: HR leaders and employees need to move beyond just cultural celebrations.

Instead, more employers should consider holding care circles to allow AAPI identifying employees to get the emotional support they need. Additionally, hold workshops to talk about workplace dynamics unique to AAPIs. These should cover micro-aggressions and the bamboo ceiling as well as Asian-Canadian history, to contextualize the socio-political events that are happening today.

Then when we talk about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, are Asians included? Some people are not including Asians because again there’s the myth that Asians are fine.

Step two is to reassess your workplace dynamics. That goes back to what I touched on before which is to look at who’s in leadership positions. It’s also about helping everyone gain access to advanced roles through training, mentorships and sponsorships.

Step three is to ensure you humanize your employees. Oftentimes, I hear “don’t bring politics into the workplace” but everything is political. This idea that you can separate your professional and personal life is not real. We forget that your employee is a human that’s personally being affected by what they’re seeing on the news. Mental health in the workplace needs to be taken seriously.

Finally, I would advise HR leaders to focus on building psychological safety in the workplace and emotional intelligence skills. Figure out how your Asian employees are really doing and whether or not they feel empowered to speak up. To build empathy and understanding, both allies and AAPI-identifying folks need to do the work. What are those stories that we’ve internalized that drive what we do? What are those stigmas and beliefs?

HR leaders need to see psychological safety and emotional intelligence as foundational to all the other DEI work they do. 

Assad: I think as HR practitioners we need to provide targeted support. And this support must be ingrained in the DNA of the organization, so that it’s not reactive. We need to build muscle-memory around anti-Asian racism efforts. For example, there should already be a culture of inclusivity that celebrates all differences.

I think we also need to encourage more dialogue with individuals in the Asian community.

As mentioned before, partnerships and collaborations are important. It’s important that we create more unified messaging among all institutions (including private organizations, industry and government institutions) to help raise awareness on what the Asian community brings to the table and what they’ve done for Canadian society as a whole, and how they need to be supported right now.

**Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

HRPA Resources:

On-Demand Webinars: Equity, Diversity and Inclusion On-Demand Webinars
Key Insights on Diversity & Inclusion: A Joint HRPA and Diversio Report
Inclusive Hiring Best Practices
Standard Code of Conduct
Zero Tolerance Policy

Other Resources:

Anti-Racism Toolkit (PDF format)
Canadian Race Relations Foundation
Chinese of Cultural Centre of Greater Toronto
Government of Canada: Asian Heritage Month
Government of Canada: Events in Asian Canadian History
Faces of Racism
Fight COVID-19 racism
Here’s How You Can Support the Asian Community Right Now
History of Canada’s early Chinese Immigrants
Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre
Resources guide: responding to anti-Asian racism
The Canadian Encyclopedia
The Council of Agencies Serving South Asians
The Virtual Museum of Asian Cultural Heritage


 

Interviewee Bios:
Carissa Begonia
Carissa Begonia

Founder, CONSCIOUSXCHANGE

Carissa is a first generation Filipina-American daughter of immigrants. She is a leadership and business coach specializing in helping BIPOC leaders and entrepreneurs pursue meaningful careers, build their own values-driven businesses, and design a life of purpose. Carissa is the former head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) of Zappos and has over 15 years of experience working on both the operations and the human side of business at some of the country’s largest retailers including Macy’s, Saks 5th Avenue, and Ross Stores. As a DEI consultant, Carissa supports organizations in developing and operationalizing their equity strategy at a personal, interpersonal, and systemic level through emotional intelligence and with an anti-racist, anti-oppression lens. Carissa is the co-founder of Green Mango International, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization supporting educational opportunities for underserved school children in the Philippines and as well as the co-founder of AARISE – Asian American Racialized Identity and Social Empowerment for AAPIs, a program and community focused on justice and liberation for all centering Asian American activist history, AAPI experiences, emotional processing and somatic healing.

Assad Mallick
Assad Mallick

CCP, GRP, CHRL, BComm, Vice President and Head of Total Rewards, Cineplex

Assad received his Bachelors of Commerce from Ryerson University and is a recipient of the Certified Human Resource Leader (CHRL), Certified Compensation Professional (CCP) and Global Remuneration Professional (GRP) designations.

Assad has over 15 years of HR and Total Rewards experience working in a variety of large Canadian and global organizations. His focus has been in Compensation and Total Rewards over the last 13 years in progressively senior roles working in a variety of different areas specializing in sales compensation, broad-based compensation, executive compensation and Total Rewards. Assad has had broad exposure working with some diverse client groups. His experience spans a variety of industries including telecommunications, financial services and pharmaceutical retail. Assad currently is the Vice President of Total Rewards for Cineplex Entertainment.

In addition to this, Assad frequently is invited to speak at HR and Total Rewards conferences.

Assad is married and has two boys. He is an assistant coach for his boys baseball team and loves spending time with his family and travelling with them.

Carissa Begonia
Carissa Begonia

Founder, CONSCIOUSXCHANGE

Carissa is a first generation Filipina-American daughter of immigrants. She is a leadership and business coach specializing in helping BIPOC leaders and entrepreneurs pursue meaningful careers, build their own values-driven businesses, and design a life of purpose. Carissa is the former head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) of Zappos and has over 15 years of experience working on both the operations and the human side of business at some of the country’s largest retailers including Macy’s, Saks 5th Avenue, and Ross Stores. As a DEI consultant, Carissa supports organizations in developing and operationalizing their equity strategy at a personal, interpersonal, and systemic level through emotional intelligence and with an anti-racist, anti-oppression lens. Carissa is the co-founder of Green Mango International, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization supporting educational opportunities for underserved school children in the Philippines and as well as the co-founder of AARISE – Asian American Racialized Identity and Social Empowerment for AAPIs, a program and community focused on justice and liberation for all centering Asian American activist history, AAPI experiences, emotional processing and somatic healing.

Assad Mallick
Assad Mallick

CCP, GRP, CHRL, BComm, Vice President and Head of Total Rewards, Cineplex

Assad received his Bachelors of Commerce from Ryerson University and is a recipient of the Certified Human Resource Leader (CHRL), Certified Compensation Professional (CCP) and Global Remuneration Professional (GRP) designations.

Assad has over 15 years of HR and Total Rewards experience working in a variety of large Canadian and global organizations. His focus has been in Compensation and Total Rewards over the last 13 years in progressively senior roles working in a variety of different areas specializing in sales compensation, broad-based compensation, executive compensation and Total Rewards. Assad has had broad exposure working with some diverse client groups. His experience spans a variety of industries including telecommunications, financial services and pharmaceutical retail. Assad currently is the Vice President of Total Rewards for Cineplex Entertainment.

In addition to this, Assad frequently is invited to speak at HR and Total Rewards conferences.

Assad is married and has two boys. He is an assistant coach for his boys baseball team and loves spending time with his family and travelling with them.

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