As a marketing professional, Eric Toda always watches the Super Bowl with a critical eye. But this year, as he saw brands commit to change after a year of racial justice protests and political division, including in one spot from the NFL that many felt missed the mark and a highly criticized Jeep ad featuring Bruce Springsteen, he didn't feel inspired by the messages of hope and unity.
On his mind were the recent reports of elderly Asians in Chinatowns spanning from the Bay Area to New York City who were being violently assaulted, and in at least one case dying from their injuries, following an already tough year that saw a spike in anti-Asian racism during the pandemic. Between March 19 and Dec. 31, 2020, the national coalition Stop AAPI Hate documented 2,800 firsthand accounts of anti-Asian hate.
The news brought Toda back to the time he was 14 years old, when his own grandfather was beaten by a group of teenagers in a San Francisco park and had to recover in the hospital.
More than 20 years later, Toda, now a marketing executive at Facebook, is using his position of influence to speak out against ongoing anti-Asian racism, which dates back to the 1800s and surged during the pandemic.
"The model minority myth is killing us right now," Toda tells CNBC Make It, referring to the stereotype that upholds Asian Americans as hardworking, quiet and economically successful as a means to erase a history of racism toward members of the community. "It continues to put us on a pedestal for being silent and being OK with being silent. It pits us against other minority communities."
"I realized that, after having a relatively successful marketing career with a platform, I needed to use my voice in a bit of a contrarian way to our culture, to call out and raise awareness of what's happening, and also try to make change," Toda explains. "The difference now is we're much louder and more empowered in using our voice."
Calling for brands to support Asian communities
As a marketing executive who has also built brands at Gap, Airbnb and Snapchat, Toda says advertisers should put more money into campaigns that condemn racism targeted toward all marginalized groups, including Asian Americans, and improve representation of Asian American and Pacific Islanders by including them in more roles in front of and behind the camera. An advertiser's goal, he points out, is to shape consumer perception with a few seconds of airtime.
In recent weeks, major brands including Nike, ESPN and HBO made public statements in support of Asian American communities and against racially-motivated attacks. Their messages encourage consumers to contribute to ongoing work being done by groups like Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Asian Americans for Equality, Compassion Oakland, Send Chinatown Love and Stop AAPI Hate.
It's a good start, though Toda says he wants to see more allyship from white decisionmakers at brands, within companies and among the public overall to understand why issues of race, and racial discrimination, are so important to address.
"White colleagues will say, 'that's a big ask to make. We all have jobs and now we have to consider bias and race and nuance every day?'" Toda says. "Well, yes, now you know what it's like to live in my skin, or to live in a Black or Latinx person's skin — we have to consider that while we're doing our jobs, too. That's empathy and perspective."
He also believes brands can do more to draw from their multi-billion-dollar coffers to contribute to justice organizations directly.
Employers must examine anti-Asian bias at work
Toda also wants organizational leaders to use this time to examine how they perpetuate the model minority myth in the workplace. Toda has seen what some call the "bamboo ceiling" in effect in his own professional network, in which, due to racial bias, Asian American professionals are the least likely demographic to be promoted into leadership.
Researchers say employers can do better by examining promotions gaps for Asian American and Pacific Islander employees and providing better paths to opportunities, such as through leadership training or mentorship programs. Hiring decisionmakers should also be trained to recognize and actively confront their own racial bias when evaluating candidates.
Toda says his employer has been "extremely supportive" of his confronting the issue of anti-Asian discrimination and is working with him to enact change internally and externally; ultimately, he says his speaking out is a "deeply personal" objective.
For its part, Facebook provided the following statement to CNBC Make It upon request: "We stand with the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, including our many colleagues at Facebook. We condemn any and all acts of xenophobia, violence, and intolerance — and given the rise in anti-Asian sentiment, we are staying vigilant of any threats. We prohibit hate speech and violence towards the community and our teams are working to keep it off of our platform. We are examining the investments we've made to support justice in the AAPI community and are exploring what more we can do."
Facebook's chief diversity officer Maxine Williams shared a post Wednesday expressing solidarity with AAPIs and colleagues.
The gaps in corporate diversity training
Within organizations themselves, corporate diversity and anti-racism trainings often leave out issues of discrimination toward Asian American employees, leaving workplaces ill-equipped to handle discussions of this particular moment.
"A vast majority [of DEI leaders] don't know how to talk about issues around Asians of America in a nuanced and complex way," says Michelle Kim, CEO of the diversity training provider Awaken. She adds that unless leaders have been active in studying the history of and being involved in conversations about the Asian experience in America, "most people end up focusing on race as a very Black and white issue."
Toda also sees this issue: "We continue to be considered white-adjacent. That's just not the truth. If you're looking to be anti-racist, you have to include all racism against minorities."
Though Toda is glad issues of anti-Asian racism are gaining attention right now, he urges companies to do more, whether through their HR or diversity and inclusion functions, to support underrepresented and marginalized employees across every spectrum of identity.
"I'm very aware that in the marketing space, this is likely going to be the social justice flavor of the month. Next month, it could be another minority group," he says.
"The conversation always comes back to: How are you being anti-racist and supporting your entire community and employee base with education and support, so when it happens to another community in the future, you're ready?
"The reality is," Toda says, "being anti-racist isn't a 2020 thing. It's not even a 2021 thing. It's a forever thing."