Damaged Karma: Commoditization and Exploitation of Asians in Tech

Cultural appropriations perpetuate stereotypes, disrespect and exploit Asian culture, and reflect an industry-wide disdain for Asian people and culture.

by Brian Kung on April 6th, 2015

A Journey of 1,000 Microaggressions

The year 2011 was coming to a close and I was just beginning my career as a Ruby programmer. I wanted to program websites, and I’d heard something about Twitter and Ruby on Rails. I figured it was as good a place to start as any, and soon I was chugging away at the Ruby Koans, a set of nearly 300 short problems that have to be solved with Ruby code. It is a fantastic resource for beginners. But while the Ruby Koans were the start of my journey as a Rubyist, they also kindled my interest in understanding race relations in the tech field by dint of a single, seemingly innocuous line:

Screenshot from Ruby Koans, reading AboutAsserts#test_assert_truth has damaged your karma. The Master says: You have not yet reached enlightenment'.

Thankfully, enlightenment is test-driven.

It was a bit presumptuous and downright disrespectful to be told that a programming exercise had damaged my hope for rebirth and happiness. It also seemed ignorant to suggest that my karma, itself, was “damaged,” when karma seemed to be more akin to a cosmic accounting of one’s deeds. It was like an ATM telling me that I had “damaged my currency” upon withdrawing money. This nonsense marred an otherwise stellar piece of learning pedagogy. Why had they chosen that particular turn of phrase? The question would stew in the back of my mind for years to come.

It was the first time I noticed a thoughtless use of Asian concepts or language in tech, but not the last. An Asian American myself, only the outright racist examples angered me enough to make a mental note of the matter, at first:

Screenshot reads 'The Master says: Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything.'

RubyMonk has quite a few of these.

But as time went on, I began to include even seemingly harmless quotes in my growing file of microaggressions.

Excerpt from Eloquent Javascript, reading 'A student asked: 'The programmers of old used only simple machines and no programming languages, yet they made beautiful programs. Why do we use complicated machines and programming languages?' Fu-Tzu replied 'The builders of old used only sticks and clay, yet they made beautiful huts''. Quote from Master Yuan-Ma, The Book of Programming.

Eloquent Javascript 2nd ed. unfortunately continues where Ruby Koans left off.

Why were programmers hiring for ninjas, espousing meditation, and writing “koans?” Why were these faux-Asian aspirations so widespread?

The Model Minority

A simple answer was that Asian cultures and religions were highly admired in tech circles. But it wasn’t as simple as that; the discomfort remained. In many ways, the relationship between technology companies and Asians is one that I’d been familiar with long before entertaining thoughts of being a programmer. Growing up in predominantly affluent white neighborhoods, I had been told over and over again that I was smart because I was Asian. Asians are often upheld as a model minority – hardworking, highly educated, and affluent. While this may be true for some sections of the demographic, it is obviously not a universal truth. Besides which, “Asians” are an extremely poor group to make generalizations about. There are more Asian people in the world than any other group.

The stereotype persisted long after my failing grades and opting out of advanced math classes, my consistently low GPA, and my fifth year in college. I was lucky enough to have broken the mold before the expectations broke me. I never toiled away for hours at a piano or math homework. My freewheeling personality seemed to be wholly divorced from the stereotypes surrounding people who look like me. On the other hand, many of my friends’ countless hours of practice and study would often be reduced to a simple, deterministic phrase: it’s because you’re Asian. It was as if study and hard work were a genetic trait, like the migration patterns of geese. At best, it was an inside joke for the expectations that we were unfairly held to. At its worst, it was a way for our white classmates to comfort themselves by robbing us of agency.

Historically, the term “model minority” was used to describe Japanese American success. In a 1966 New York Times article called “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” the Japanese were explained to have experienced the worst of all kinds of discriminations, and yet managed to come out on top. The author uses “the Negro” as an example of a “problem minority” for whom “we barely know how to repair the damage that the slave traders started,” then goes on to laud the Japanese for bouncing back after the internment camps and decades of institutionalized racism. In short, the phrase “model minority” is a rhetorical tool used to center whiteness and validate anti-black racism. While blacks are portrayed in the media as thugs, Asians are seen as meek and subservient individuals. Ironically, the ethnic group that started the Japanese internment camps and engaged in slave labor capitalism for centuries is not counted amongst the so-called “problem minorities.”

After experiencing first-hand the myth of the model minority for two decades, I viewed the digerati’s hypothetical admiration of Asian culture with skepticism. My suspicions were borne out soon after Google and a host of similar companies released their workforce diversity data. In America, just 5% of the population is Asian, yet 16.3% of Computer Science bachelors degrees are awarded to Asians, and we are stunningly over-represented in big name tech companies: 34% of Google’s employees and Facebook’s employees are Asian, while LinkedIn sits at a lofty 38%. At first glance, the data seems to indicate a rosy picture for Asians in tech.

You might expect that those same companies would have similar ethnic ratios in their executive boards, but you would be wrong. Asians are consistently paid less than their white peers, as well as passed up for promotions, a phenomenon known as the “bamboo ceiling.” In other words, it is Asian labor that is valued, not Asians themselves. Nor are Asians seen as viable management talent, despite our overwhelming overrepresentation in the lower ranks. The admiration for the Asian model minority seems to extend only so far as Asians remain a labor force and a minority in decision-making capacities.

Eastern Mysticism: The Legend Continues

Serene, pastoral background on a Mac Book.

Photo CC-BY Marius Brede, filtered.

Perhaps the most well-known Eastern mystic in technology walked around barefoot, lived minimally, and did not eat meat. He is lauded for his insight, his vision, and amassed a cult-like following around the world. He also had a peculiar body odor due to his aversion to showering. Yes, Steve Jobs was a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, a student just a degree apart from the renowned Shunryu Suzuki. Steve Jobs and counterculture hippies like him took to imported Eastern philosophy like sponges to water.

In the aftermath of World War II, San Francisco became a focal point for counter-cultural elements, serving as the backdrop for the return of veterans of the Pacific theater, the dishonorable discharges and processing of homosexual servicemen and women, and the Summer of Love, where hippie culture came into its own. Before children and businessmen alike slipped tame supercomputers into their pockets, technologists were among those counter-cultural elements. They were avid readers of science fiction and espoused radical ideas like “access to computers should be unlimited and total,” and “mistrust authority – promote decentralization.” It was into this maelstrom that Steve Jobs was born.

Since then, the companies Jobs founded have gone on to multi-billion dollar valuations, and San Francisco itself has become the home of massive fortunes. Perhaps it is no wonder that executives and programmers alike now advocate meditation, as Jobs did.

And yet, does the proliferation of electronic gizmos in the landfills of the world reflect the minimalism Jobs was famous for? Does the newest iPhone marketing promote the tranquility of Zen or the lust of another consumer device? Does meditation exist solely to prop up a worker or CEO’s flagging focus, in service to the almighty dollar?

At first glance, Silicon Valley’s adoration of anything Zen, ninja, or old master seems like a compliment, but it is a pale homage, at best. It is Katy Perry in a bastardized kimono, the white woman teaching yoga in Lululemon pants, and David Carradine playing a Chinese man in yellow-face.

Buddhism may not be inherently anti-capitalistic, but when Eastern icons and ideas are used to further the agenda of an industry, there may be some cultural appropriation involved.

Not to mention that the profit goes disproportionately to white men.

Information Super Highway Workers

“We should ride the train for free, we built the railroads”

– Jin, “Learn Chinese

The commoditization of Asian labor is not a new idea. The railway boom of the 19th century  brought a flood of Chinese immigrants, also mostly male, who were hired to construct nearly every railroad in the western United States – none of whom became tycoons. However, anti-Chinese initiatives were soon started by labor leaders like Denis Kearney, fearing depressed wages caused by Chinese immigration. This sentiment eventually led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, a law with the dubious honor of being the first to restrict immigration to the United States by a particular ethnic group. It also prevented those extant Chinese immigrants from naturalizing. While Americans were happy to make use of Chinese labor, it was only under the condition that Chinese were treated as sub-human.

Railroad tracks.

Photo CC-BY triforce_goddess64.

“Yellow Peril” is the term for the fear that Asians pose an existential threat to the Western way of life. Asians were feared for sexual depravity, as communist agents, and to this day are thought of as competition for wages. Yellow peril has the flavor of Cold War era terminology, but it still manages to capture the hysteria that white Americans evince in the face of Asian scares from education to outsourcing to immigration.

As a Chinese American citizen, myself, it is only through luck and good timing that my grandfather was able to come to the United States. A successful engineer, he ran several recycling plants in Myanmar when he received word that the government was about to seize them. Taking advantage of a connection with an Austrian professor and what was, to the best of my knowledge, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which did away with nationality-based quotas, he managed to escape to the United States with his children, my father among them. We’ve gone on to become electricians, radiologists, and, yes, programmers, among other things. It seems clear to me that our presence has been a net positive to America, despite the dire warnings of depravity and debasement that engendered the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The world today is exponentially more connected than it was even 30 years ago, leading to the lowering of barriers to foreign, and especially Asian, labor in the form of outsourcing. When Paul Graham championed immigration reform to “let the other 95% of great programmers in,” by his statistics, almost 40% of those other programmers are either Indian or Chinese. These are workers who, whether by visa or outsourcing, will largely enter into the employ of white men, all while being held back by the “bamboo ceiling.” Meanwhile, prohibitively complex and long immigration policies form a nearly permanent barrier to entry, even for technically qualified immigrants.

In a globalized economy, companies will find the talent to fulfill their requirements regardless of what country the labor force comes from, but the combination of high barriers to immigration and outsourcing maintains colonial power structures while extracting as much capital gain as possible.

You Have Sinned Against Arrays

…The Son says: you have not yet found the way, the truth, and the life.

When it is Christianity that is used as a prop, teaching programming by falsely donning the robes of another religion becomes repulsive to an American audience. Cultural appropriations like “Zen master” aphorisms, ninja job listings, and the subversion of Eastern religious ideas toward corporate gain are not homages to Asian cultures that birthed them. Instead, they perpetuate stereotypes, disrespect and exploit Asian culture, and reflect an industry-wide disdain for Asian people and culture that manifests itself in yellow peril and “bamboo ceiling” hiring practices.

Ultimately, the appropriative language that the tech community uses can be traced back to a fetishization of Asian culture. It is reflective of a commoditization not only of Asian labor, but of Asian icons in the pursuit of economic gain, oftentimes at a cost to Asian people themselves.