As Biden administration officials celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Ambassador Katherine Tai, the first woman of color to serve as U.S. trade representative, reflected Wednesday on the struggles she has encountered as an Asian American woman in leadership.
Tai, who spoke exclusively in an interview after she delivered remarks at the White House Forum on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI), brought up some interactions in her career, illustrating some of the seemingly impossible expectations people have of Asian women.
“Recently, I had an interesting exchange with a congressman during one of my hearings, and he said, ‘I think you might be too nice,’” Tai said, referring to comments from Rep. Greg Murphy, R-N.C., at a Ways and Means Committee hearing in March. “And then a year ago, there was some article saying that I was really not nice.”
Tai, who’s also a co-chair of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, said that when it comes to others' perceptions of Asian Americans, “it can be very complicated, it can be very double-edged, but I guess my way of coping is just to ground myself and say, 'I can’t be anyone but myself.'”
Tai, who was among the many prominent Asian Americans to speak at the forum, including Vice President Kamala Harris and Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said she’s no stranger to the perception that Asian women are compliant workers, rather than leaders.
“Lots of times I will land in a foreign airport, and when I’m on government business, I have the benefit of being expedited through security,” Tai said. “And oftentimes the security team will come and they’ll know that one of us gets to be expedited, but they’ll look at the group and they won’t immediately guess that I’m the one who is the trade minister.”
Tai said, however, that the women and trailblazers from marginalized communities who have ascended to leadership positions have shown her that such roles are possible for those in such communities. And fulfilling them doesn’t require change.
“The privilege of having these types of jobs is showing that you can do them,” Tai said. “You can perform in them and still be yourself and still be true to all the parts of your heritage that make you part of you.”
Several other people opened up about their identities and the significance of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Harris, who spoke in a conversation with the actor Poorna Jagannathan of “Never Have I Ever” and Jerry Won, the founder and CEO of Just Like Media, addressed a variety of topics, including anti-Asian attacks, gun control and reproductive rights, as well as her heritage.
Harris, the first female, first Black and first Asian American vice president, emphasized to the room of fellow Asian American leaders the importance of ensuring that positions like hers don’t continue to remain exclusive.
“You will often find that when you walk into that boardroom or that meeting room, that conference room, you will often find that you will be the only one there who looks like you or who has had your life experience,” she said. “You walk in that room with your chin up and your shoulders back, knowing that when you walk in that room you are representing the voice of so many people who are so darn … proud.”
She added: “We have so much work to do. And we should do it always with pride and with a sense of knowledge that we come with people.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Tai’s co-chair on the White House initiative, told NBC News it’s critical to prioritize the group’s issues.
“What we’re doing in working with the AANHPI community is no different than what we should be doing for any community. The difference, of course, is that America hasn’t always done that,” he said. “I think in so many ways, my family, my community as a Latino, have experienced many of the same things and have many of the same aspirations. And I believe that the trajectory, the road map to get there, crosses our communities in so many different ways.”
CORRECTION (May 4, 2023. 11:15 a.m. EST): An earlier version of this article misstated a quote from Tai about when a previous article about her was published. It was a year ago, not "many years ago."