Ingrid Fung hadn’t anticipated that her post on LinkedIn would cause a stir. She’d written about escalating anti-Asian violence, reposting a graphic that said attacks on Asian Americans had risen dramatically in the past year. The message might have drawn racist comments on Twitter or Facebook, but this was the world’s biggest professional social network — one where people had to use their real names and list their employer. What was the worst they would say?
“This statistic is crap and from a questionable source,” wrote one user who took issue with the data collected by the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate. “...I would not be surprised if AAPI isn’t [Chinese Communist Party] backed.” Another user said she was propagating “CCP narratives.”
Fung, a venture capitalist, was shocked. “It felt like a violation,” she says. “You wouldn’t expect this to happen in a professional space.” She reported the first post to LinkedIn, only to be told it did not violate the company’s community policies.
(LinkedIn told The Verge that it had reversed its decision and took action on the post, noting that its “Community Policies make it clear what is and is not ok on LinkedIn.”)
“The model minority myth has wreaked havoc on our communities”
Fung’s experience is part of a growing wave of hate directed at Asian American and Canadian professionals. The trend reveals the extent to which anti-Asian racism has been normalized — in part because of the misleading idea that the Asian population is homogenous. “We have been very clear about the ways in which the model minority myth has wreaked havoc on our communities,” says Manjusha Kulkarni, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate. “It suggests that Asian American communities don’t have problems.”
Indeed, the income gap in the United States is greatest among Asians, according to the Pew Research Center. Between 1970 to 2016, economic gains made by low-income Asians lagged behind other poor communities. Yet, overall, Asians are still the highest-earning racial group in the US — a fact some LinkedIn users chose to cite when dismissing anti-Asian violence.
“Statistics show Asians are the most successful immigrant group in the USA,” wrote one. “I don’t buy that Asians are targeted more than any others.”
Kulkarni says the xenophobia is linked to language used by former President Donald Trump, who called COVID-19 the “kung-flu,” “China virus,” and “Wuhan virus” on multiple occasions. Stop AAPI Hate’s 2020 national report documented incidents of harassment and assault where attackers directly quoted Trump’s ideas. “A number of the people have weaponized Trump himself,” Kulkarni says. “These people get their direction from their former President.” The CCP conspiracy theories in Fung’s replies support that claim.
On LinkedIn, the comments are made possible by the platform’s determination to become more than just a resume repository. Years ago, it rolled out a personalized news feed, and in 2020, it inexplicably launched its own version of Snapchat Stories. The features were largely home to cheerful corporate missives until Black users began posting about racial discrimination in the workplace amid the George Floyd protests.
“It’s OK to bring your whole self to work when you’re white”
The posts put LinkedIn content moderators in the “incendiary position of determining what manner of race-related speech is appropriate for its virtual workplace of 706 million users,” wrote Ashanti M. Martin in The New York Times. The company did not appear to welcome the challenge, and Black users told the Times their posts were vanishing under “vague rules of decorum.”
In a statement emailed to The Verge, Greg Snapper, a LinkedIn spokesperson, said that in the past year, there have been some “significant shifts” in how members discuss workplace issues. “And at the same time, we’ve seen an increase in the volume of member reports on posts, comments and messages,” he added. “We’ve taken a number of actions to protect our members who have a high bar for safe conversations given the professional context of LinkedIn and we couldn’t agree more.”
The issue about what language is accepted on LinkedIn is reminiscent of the ongoing debate about bringing your “whole self” to work. Mike Robbins, a self-described thought leader, wrote a book on the topic, saying that people can “work better, lead better, and be more engaged and fulfilled” if they show up “fully and authentically,” rather than hide who they are.
Unfortunately, he quickly realized the reality was far more complicated. “It’s OK to bring your whole self to work when you’re white. And cisgender. And male. And straight. Or whatever,” he said in Digiday. But such acceptance didn’t always extend to other identities.
He was jumped by three men who said, “You gonna try some kung-fu on us?”
Some Asian professionals who spoke to The Verge said they’d been taught to do the opposite: keep their heads down and focus on their work. “From my own experience, the way you’re brought up is very goal-oriented,” says Kane Ma, a former UNC at Chapel Hill basketball player and chief technology officer at Kamo Digital. “Sometimes I think it leads to minimizing other topics like talking about racism or discrimination.”
After the Atlanta spa shooting, more people began to speak out condemning anti-Asian violence. Ma posted about a hate crime he’d experienced in Chapel Hill, where he was jumped by three men who said, “You gonna try some kung-fu on us?” before fracturing his skull. “As an Asian American and person of color, I have experienced the recurring theme of racism in America,” he wrote.
It was the first time he’d spoken publicly about the attack — and he did so to build awareness with executives in the business community. “There are leaders of organizations who have a lot of influence over the people who work for them,” he says. “So I think sparking discussion or at least introspection could be really productive.”
Almost immediately, however, Ma realized he’d struck a nerve with white supremacists. “Kane Ma, perhaps you should read this article and stop implying Caucasians are the de facto source of this hatred,” wrote one user. “Yeah, what about the Arab who just killed all of the white people in Boulder?” responded another. “Funny, don’t hear any race hacking about that, huh?”
Ma says the comments didn’t surprise him. “If I posted this on Facebook, I’m sure I would have gotten worse,” he says.
To Ingrid Fung, what made the LinkedIn comments stand out was that users felt confident using their real profiles. “What made me most uncomfortable was that people were okay attaching their professional identities to what they were saying,” she explains. “They felt so comfortable, they didn’t expect there would be any repercussions.”
In fact, when she emailed the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay to report the man who’d said her statistics were “crap” and suggested Stop AAPI Hate was backed by the Chinese Communist Party, the assistant vice chancellor of policy and compliance responded to say that while the school did not support the man’s statements, it was “limited” in its response because he was just an ad hoc instructor. He then sent Fung a public statement on “civility and inclusion.”
“I feel like I’m being held up at these organizations to cover other people’s lack of action and racism”
She says the interaction disappointed her. Her goal wasn’t to get the man fired; she just wanted the school to speak with him so he’d know he’d been out of line.
The lack of action was made worse by the fact that Fung says she’s received numerous requests over the past year from organizations looking to increase diversity on their boards. “I feel like I’m being held up at these organizations to cover other people’s lack of action and racism,” she says.
The responses Fung and Ma received on LinkedIn show how difficult it is for people to understand racism against Asian Americans and Canadians. Both were able to speak out in part because they are successful — as a venture capitalist and business executive, respectively, they’re in positions of relative power compared to other parts of the Asian community.
That fact also makes it easy for people to fall back on stereotypes, dismissing their concerns as the complaints of wealthy professionals. These comments imply that certain kinds of employment prevent them from experiencing any form of racism — or that their experience must be representative of the entire Asian community.
In the case of anti-Asian discrimination, that perceived success has been both the catalyst for resentment and the reason the Asian community’s lived experience has been repeatedly denied, even on a social network for professionals.