World Trust

Big Little Man: Exposing Systemic Inequity for Asian-Americans

Posted by Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong on July 24, 2014

Alex Tizon, author of Big Little Man. Photo courtesy of the International Center for Journalists

One thing’s for certain: no one could accuse Alex Tizon of not being thorough.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist won the award for a meticulously reported series about fraud in the Federal Indian Housing Program. When it came time to tell his own story, as he does in the new book Big Little Man, he was aided by an exhaustive collection of clippings. He’d been keeping them since he was a young boy – they document every mention he could find of Asian or Asian-American men in the media. After nearly forty years of documentation, he uses the book to lay out stereotypes from origin to present-day manifestation – and then debunks them.

As an organization that offers racial equity workshops, this made us stop and think about the fact that Asian Americans are often overlooked when it comes to planning for diversity and inclusion. The image of Asians as the 'model minority' glosses over stereotypes, masking it all under the false assumption that 'Asians are doing okay.' By documenting these stereotypes, Tizon accomplished something extraordinary: he made a physical map of unconscious bias.It can be very difficult to talk about race, much less about racism or the systems that perpetuate a racialized experience. This is not least because of unconscious bias. The judgments that the brain makes about who might be a desirable partner, or an effective leader, are related to neural pathways that fire well ahead of the conscious mind’s ability to make well-intentioned choices.

Tizon, in his exhaustive cataloguing, was seeking for a way to make plain the systemic attitudes that infused the societies in which he grew up. And more than that: he translated them into a narrative. For example, in the book he offers the true version of the Magellan story all of us grew up with as children. The great explorer did not, in fact, manage to circumnavigate the globe; he was killed in battle in the Phillippines, which hardly squares with the current Western narrative of Asian men as weak. This story - both the version that gets told, and the truth - matters. We know from our work that powerful stories lay the groundwork for openness to change.

Tizon’s investigation then shifts from an inward journey to an outward chronicle of evolving viewpoints. He tracks the stories of young Asian men today, working to paint a broader picture. And in interviews, such as the one with KQED linked above, he focuses less on being right and more on dialogue – folding every caller’s perspective and experience into a larger conversation about identity.

Identity is such a sensitive issue that it can be tempting to build fences around whose voices can and should be heard. But in his book, the author acknowledges that we are interconnected beings – and for healing, it’s important that we all have a seat at the table. This is a crucial tenet of effective work toward change: for Asian-Americans, and for us all.

World Trust’s approach to transformative learning uses multiple stories as a springboard for conversations about how to engage people in racial equity. To learn more about our diversity and inclusion workshops, click here.

Topics: System of Inequity