May 26, 2021

Witnessing API Discrimination: A Shared Experience

Holland & Knight Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month Spotlight Series

Holland & Knight's Diversity Council and Asian/Pacific Islander (API) Affinity Group are proud to celebrate Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month and pay tribute to the generations of Asians and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America's history and continue to play a role in its future success. This year, we took time to reflect on how we could better support our API colleagues, sitting down with attorneys and staff to have important conversations about racial justice and allyship. Throughout the coming weeks, we will be presenting a video series showcasing some of these conversations. We hope that the stories conveyed in these videos help advance dialogue around API Heritage Month as well as lead to further discussions of how we can be better allies to our API friends, family and colleagues.

In the second episode of this series, attorneys Melissa Wong, Jeffrey Mittleman and Elizabeth Burkhard talk about an instance of discrimination that deeply affected them. During a presentation on housing rights, the speaker made a discriminatory comment about foreign landlords in response to Melissa's description of her first pro bono case. The comment stunned not only Melissa but also others in the room like Jeffrey and Elizabeth. In this conversation, the three discuss how they responded to the incident, what they wish they would have done and what they ultimately learned from it. Their story serves as a powerful reminder of the long-lasting impacts of discrimination, showing how the effects of a single comment can linger more than a decade later.


Video Transcript

How One Discriminatory Comment Lives on More than a Decade Later

Melissa Wong: Our firm sponsored an organization to come in and provide a pro bono presentation on housing rights, and there was a large group of us attending, maybe 20 attorneys, on the 11th floor conference room. And it was a great presentation. We kind of learned more about the law, some of the rights of tenants, and then we had the opportunity to speak about some of our own experiences in handling pro bono cases dealing with housing issues. I recounted my first pro bono case, and keep in mind, I was maybe at the firm for four or five months at this point, and I spoke about how we had a situation with an absentee landlord. And the landlord happened to be Chinese and in China when all of these issues were happening with the rental property. And I represented another family who was fighting the landlord on several issues dealing with habitability. There was a mold issue, just a terrible situation where her own kids ended up in the hospital because of these mold issues. So I recounted that story, and the facilitator said something that was still, to this day, pretty shocking. And she said, "Well, you know, foreign people make bad landlords, and they come here to the home of the free and the land of the brave, and they don't realize that people have rights here." And I was just stunned. And it's — listen, I've heard way worse from lots of different people in terms of hateful comments, discriminatory comments, but what shocked me was that this was such a professional setting amongst attorneys who are very well-educated, very worldly, dealing with lots of different types of people. And considering that this is a facilitator who most likely represented many different types of people in really horrible circumstances and really devoted her career to these issues, at first it's kind of the reaction you get when you hear discriminatory or hateful comments. And my first reaction is always, did I hear that correctly? Is there a possibility that I might have misinterpreted this? And I remember looking at a colleague, and his eyes just widened. So I think it was obvious at that point that it wasn't just me. And I remember running through all these different thoughts in my head as to what I could say. Should I say something? I had all these very senior partners there. Am I going to make a stink at my first big meeting being a lawyer and being at the firm? So I didn't say anything. And I wonder about that a lot, even though it was a long time ago. In my position today, would I be more inclined to say something? In this environment today, would other people have said something as well? So I remember going back into my office and just being a little stunned and thinking, was this OK? And immediately Jeff and Betsy came to my office, and they were just appalled, too. And it's important to hear that. It's important to be validated and to understand that it was not just you and you're not being overly sensitive, but that other people had the same reaction. And I also thought about my parents. My parents worked really hard and saved money so that they could invest in a property that we rented out. Every time the tenant had an issue, they were immediately over there. They fixed everything. They waived rent when the tenant was undergoing financial hardship. So to hear something that foreign people make bad landlords, it just is very personal and hurtful, thinking about how well my parents really managed their investments and were good people to the tenants that we had. Based on that, immediately there were actions from Jeff and Betsy and other people who attended. We all felt the same way. And again, that was very validating. And the next day I received a call from the executive director of the organization who personally apologized, and that made a huge difference. It was just really validating, supportive, to know that other people detected incidents of discrimination and hate even when it wasn't directed at them. But to know that you had allies and that your feelings were validated made a huge difference.

How One Discriminatory Comment Lives on More than a Decade Later

Jeffrey Mittleman: So thanks, Melissa. That was amazing recall of the events that happened so long ago, and I remember it very similarly. And I remember being impacted by this individual's statements because I could see your face, and I was just so upset, being both, feeling responsible in some ways because I was the pro bono partner and also I worked with you as a partner in our own group, and just personally felt impacted for you and wanted to fix it at the moment. It took a lot of, I think, strength at that moment not to say something to the individual, but we wanted to focus and make sure that you were OK, because you, as you said, you were the only person of color in the room and that the comment was not only inappropriate because of the fact that you were asking a question and it was really unwarranted and egregious, but it was insensitive, to the point that you made that the people we were representing were mostly people of color on the tenant side. And clearly, if you have those viewpoints, I don't know how you could be able to do your job correctly. And so overall, it really impacted, I think, many of us in the room, about all of us. But most importantly, we were really just focused on you and to make sure that you were OK, you felt safe and comfortable being able to work at a place that recognized when these things happened, that we weren't going to just let it go and stand by and not do something about it. And so Betsy and I, as you said, really wanted to first make sure you were OK. And honestly, I really at that point was trying to figure out what the right thing to do with that partnership was. It was something that really impacted me personally and professionally. So I understand how it really impacted you, now all these years later, having worked with you for 12 years, that you could be able to recall the details like that because it clearly is something that was so embedded in your mind even 12 years later, 10 years later, whatever, whatever it has been. So I thank you for sharing that. And I'm hoping that things like that never happen again, but I know that's probably not going to be the case. We just have to keep trying to correct and move forward.

How One Discriminatory Comment Lives on More than a Decade Later

Elizabeth Burkhard: I remember the incident pretty clearly as Melissa had recounted it, and I remember feeling kind of appalled that the person who was presenting, who was a lawyer and who also ran a housing clinic at a university, could have these kinds of opinions and be so insensitive in sharing them to an audience where, well, just be so insensitive to sharing them regardless of the audience, but especially speaking to you, Melissa, and not knowing whether what she was going to say might be hurtful. It clearly was. We could see it on your face, we could see it in your reaction, and she seemed oblivious to it. And so I think to your point, I would like to hope I would do something different today. I think I was also an associate like you were, and it didn't even cross my mind to speak up. And I'm embarrassed by that now. But I think we ultimately did the right thing by you in addressing it and in working with the partnership to say this kind of thing can't happen. I recall the conversation that Jeff and I had with the director where we recounted what had occurred and she was appalled in hearing it. And that was a relief that there wasn't tolerance for that in their organization. And the way we worked it out was that we didn't want this individual to present anymore for any other trainings, and we also asked if we could, to the extent another mentor for housing cases was available, that we could work with another mentor. So there were some people that were already working with this individual, and they chose to continue to work with her because their working relationship was good. But going forward, we didn't want anyone else to feel like they had to, particularly where there had been this experience and this apparent lack of ability to filter her own personal thoughts and feelings in communicating about legal issues. And that just, it seemed very inappropriate, and that she couldn't appreciate how inappropriate it was made her an inappropriate person to do the things she was doing. So I feel like in the long run, I was happy with the resolution, but very disappointed that it had happened to begin with.

Jeffrey Mittleman: Thanks, Betsy. You know, it's interesting that you said that about in the moment, and I think I referenced it myself, I really, I couldn't agree with you more. I wish we had responded immediately, not just for Melissa, really for ourselves, because it was so, as you said, it was so egregious and just wrong. And you know, it's not the first time since I've been at Holland & Knight or I've been in my 49 years, it's not the first time you don't react in those situations when you feel like you should and you do something after the fact. And I think that's really important to note because I think it is more impactful to do something immediately because it shows that what you heard is so wrong and that you know it was so wrong and that you want to fix it right there or — fix is probably the wrong word — but really make sure the individual who was acting inappropriately knows it, and not just react later. And so I think that's something important for all of us to learn, is how do we, what's the best way to respond to things and not always be worried about making someone uncomfortable in a room full of people? I do remember thinking, I want to say something, but I want to make sure I'm sensitive to Melissa at the moment because I could see the pain on her face. In some ways, I was concerned about making it worse. But — and I don't want to speak for Melissa — but I think, you know, I do regret not saying something right then because it was just so awful that it needed to be corrected at that moment. I just hope that we, as a firm and as an organization and as individuals, can continue to support you and all people of color and all people who work in the organization to feel good about themselves to work here and to continue with their professional careers, but to really be individuals and to be thought of as individuals. And that's not always an easy thing. And I know, having had many conversations with many people across the firm in my 16-plus years here, it's sometimes really easy for someone like me to say that, in the sense that I'm a white male. And so I just hope that you continue to feel supported, and if you don't, you speak up and make sure that your voice is heard because it's important.

Melissa Wong: Thanks, Betsy and Jeff, your words are very meaningful, and I really appreciate them. I have a few thoughts on that, too. So I wish I had said something. I was brand-new to the organization, I was a first-year associate, but I think there are ways that we all could have responded. And it's not incumbent on other people, that we need to take ownership and respond in a way that we feel comfortable with as well. Another consideration is that she was our guest. She devoted a career to helping tenants in need, a lot of people of color. And again, when you hear these statements, there is a sense of shock that you don't know if you're really hearing what you think you're hearing. And just to understand that other people felt the same way is very validating. I do have to say, and I say this with no exaggeration, that if the both of you had not come to my office immediately after that presentation, I don't think I would still be at Holland & Knight 11 years later. And it speaks so well of the firm that we have wonderful, supportive people who immediately detect these issues and want to offer that kind of support. And not just words or lip service, but really take action and ensure that everyone in the room felt comfortable. But also, we hope that this was a learning opportunity for that facilitator in that organization, that this person is not out there in the community amongst lawyers at other firms and companies spewing this kind of commentary. So, again, I really appreciate your reaction. Other people in the group spoke up, and although it's uncomfortable and painful to recount what happened so long ago, the fact that all three of us remember it so well I think speaks well that, you know, we were able to turn it into a meaningful and important experience, both personally and in our careers and at the firm.

More Videos in this Series

Episode 1: A Series Introduction from Asian/Pacific Islander Affinity Group Chair Stacey Wang

Episode 2: Witnessing API Discrimination: A Shared Experience (You are currently viewing Episode 2)

Episode 3: Kristin Asai Shares Her Family History in the U.S. Japanese Internment Camps

Episode 4: Highlighting API Contributions to the U.S. Military

Episode 5: A Brief History of Discrimination Against Asian and Pacific Islander Americans

Episode 6: Becoming an Ally with Jennifer A. Mansfield

Episode 7: Perspectives from a Second Generation Samoan American

Episode 8: Reflecting on the Importance of Professional Mentors

Episode 9: Explaining the Model Minority Myth

Latest Insights