How do we root out supremacy culture? First, let’s start with toxic productivity

On healing the unexpected ways we propagate (inner) violence

Friends, Atlanta opened new depths in me, making this my most intense pandemic week yet. I saw how urgently Asian-Americans (including myself) need to share about our experiences to break old patterns of invisibility — ultimately to heal supremacy culture. Given this, I’d *really* appreciate your help in sharing this post with others if it moves you. Much love, M.


After Tuesday’s domestic terrorism spree directed at Asian-American women in Atlanta, I’m nearly a screeching banshee because of the banality of another white boy with a gun snuffing out human life. I’m terrified I could be next. And my volcanic rage wants to explode because of all the ways our culture sentences people who look like me to perpetual ‘otherness’.

This anger is full-bodied, and I’m off-gassing so much heat it’s difficult to sleep.

And yet, my primal howl gets stuck in my throat. When I try to let it rip, a voice warns, “Good girls don’t scream.

When I try to wail, few tears come. My ancestors whisper, “Don’t make trouble.

And then, lifelong numbing strategies kick in. Numbing’s been my way of coping with “Ching-chang-chong” and “Me love you long time” cat calls, and the perennially infuriating “Where are you really from?”

This is the impossible bind of being an Asian-American woman during the “China Virus”.

You see, all my family has ever wanted is to feel safe and have a shot at thriving.

My grandparents fled civil war-torn China in the 1930s/40s so I could have a better life. Like the Atlanta massage parlor workers, they kept their heads down at thankless low-wage jobs no one else wanted. My dad’s family washed other people’s dirty laundry; and they endured slights from customers who looked down on their foreignness and broken English — even though my grandfather fought in WWII for the US Army.

“Work hard” my family told me; and unspoken, “Fit in to stay safe.”

So I did. And I’m now blessed to embody the American Dream.

Yet in 2021, despite all I’ve achieved as a “model minority”, I’m more scared than ever to be Asian-American.

I’m wary of walking outside — for fear of being knifed unprovoked, hit in the face with a sock full of rocks, or worse. My mom is particularly leery of leaving her house because so many recent attacks have targeted older Asian-Americans.

As my college classmate Ju-Yon Kim writes:

“It’s one thing to feel trapped and isolated by a virus; it’s another to feel trapped and isolated by other people. The first we can bear for the common good; the second is unbearable.”


Friends have asked: “How can I support you?”

Here are the basics. Go Google for more.

But, to be a lifelong supporter of systemic change?

Root out ALL the subtle ways supremacy culture lives in us — including the inner brutality we’ve rebranded “productivity”.

You’re probably thinking: “Huh? What does productivity have to do with racism?”

Everything.

Toxic productivity (and its close cousin perfectionism) is the most normalized expression of the violent waters we swim in as a culture. More subtle than the knee on George Floyd’s neck or January 6th’s insurrection, its invisibility is its insidiousness.

To quell external violence, we need to heal internalized dominance.

The challenge? These patterns start early and are socially approved.

Let me explain through my journey.


My indoctrination into this cult of toxic productivity started young. I went to a high school that hedge fund managers have described as more cut-throat than anything on Wall Street.

At our lockers each morning, we’d brag about how little sleep we got. Yes, at 14, I wore it as a badge of honor that I only got 4-6 hours of sleep per night. (It’s also why I’m only 5’1”.)

In this testing ground for the rat races I’d later enter — I learned to worship at the altar of superhuman productivity.

I left sleep for the weak, and play for the frivolous. I valued “hard” over soft (e.g., science > humanities, discipline > rest). And I believed fear-driven “hunger” was a healthy catalyst for achievement.

Because I felt I had no choice but to be hard on myself, I judged those who chose to be human. When people got 8 hours of sleep or advocated for what they needed, I’d think, “Hey, don’t you know the code?! You’re not allowed to acknowledge what you need! Suck it up.”

In retrospect, it was a profoundly brutal way to live.

In trying to maintain machine-like productivity, I ignored my “inconvenient” human need for rest. I dismissed the voice of my soul, and bowed to a tyrannical internalized task master.

In denying my humanity, it set me up to deny others’ humanity.

And when profound alienation gets mixed with dominance, it creates a molotov cocktail that implodes (visible in rapidly rising suicide rates and opioid deaths) -OR- explodes in external violence.

So, when I read about the Atlanta gunman's fear of his own lust — I saw supremacy culture fueling his inner civil war. Just as I had grown up in an intensely demanding culture intolerant of personal frailty, so too did the gunman. Just as I had vigilantly armored against vulnerability, so did he.

But whereas I turned this fear on myself, the gunman unleashed it on 8 innocent people. He was so internally weaponized that it wasn’t a big leap to turn those weapons outward.

For both of us, internalized dominance was the root of our suffering.


So, how do we heal supremacy culture in ourselves?

It starts with seeing it for what it is: a violent separation from our real inner authority.

Tactically, it means giving ourselves permission to honor our rhythms and needs (e.g., for rest, play, and self-compassion); and honoring the humanity of those we lead and are in relationship with.

It’s deceptively simple. Yet my safety and our collective freedom depend on it.

Will you join me?


Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your reactions.

If this post touched you, I’d *really* appreciate if you shared it with others. Hit forward, or use this link for social media. I worry this conversation about race, misogyny and xenophobia directed at Asian-Americans is fizzling out now that the news cycle is moving on. The only way we’re going to change these systemic patterns that impact all of us is by building awareness of the underlying dynamics.

To be in deeper conversation on this topic, join me and Danica Tiu on Clubhouse Friday March 26th @ 5:30pm PT. (If you’re not yet on Clubhouse, and want to join the conversation via iPhone/iPad, let me know; I have a few invites.)

PS, I’d like to thank all the Black & Brown leaders who have walked before me and give me the courage to speak truth.


Melissa’s Reading & Watch list

What’s giving me hope?

Kenneth Jones & Tema Okun’s work to dismantle supremacy culture in organizations. (SURJ, 5 min)

They name the subtle ways supremacy culture shows up in organizational life — e.g., perfectionism, the unrelenting sense of urgency, quantity over quality, fear of open conflict, and conflating progress with bigger / more. Better yet this list offers practical suggestions for how to counteract these patterns.

What’s making me curious?

Given how frequently the Asian-American community gets silenced, I am honestly wondering how long this moment in the spotlight will last and what I/we can do to build a broader cultural conversation. I’d love your thoughts!

In the meantime, some of the best writing I read this week:

What’s making me laugh?

Where are you really from?” (YouTube, 2 min)

This is a brilliant and hysterical response that turns the tables on the question all Asian-Americans get asked.

And in case you missed it…

The Week That Broke America (6 min)

My reflections on the origins of George Floyd’s murder in the unmetabolized traumas that created supremacy culture.


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To learn more about the leadership coaching and organizational change consulting work I do, you can find me here.