“Where are you from?” No, really, where are you from?
The president of the United States reportedly asked these questions of an analyst briefing him on the release of a family held hostage in Pakistan.
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Not content with her answers—New York, specifically Manhattan—he persisted. “Where are your people from?”
Finally, he learned that this analyst is of Korean descent. He then turned to the men in the room to ask why “this pretty Korean lady” wasn’t working on North Korea issues.
For many reading this anecdote, it’s seems like another beyond-the-pale example of President Trump’s insensitivity and racism. And yet, for those of us who work in national security and trace our ancestry to Asia, the story is all too familiar.
It’s pervasive. You get asked this all the time. You check your reaction and try to dodge the question as best you can. It’s meant as a compliment, or perhaps innocent curiosity. You move on from the incident, tuck it away in your brain, continue with the briefing. But later, it will bubble up again, and you think about what it means.
It means to some, their mental picture of an American doesn’t include you.
It means to some, your ethnicity should define your interests and expertise.
It means to some, your face is a license to question your loyalty to the United States.
To some of those people, your interest in working in national security itself is suspect. How could you possibly be dedicated to the strength and security of the country in which you were born? You must be a plant.
To those people, it will not matter that you have relatives who were here for the American Civil War. It will not matter that your grandfather helped put Neil Armstrong on the moon. It will not matter that for at least three generations, your family has dedicated their careers in service to the United States to strengthen its national security.
But those people who assume that a national security professional can only be a man with close-cropped hair, wearing one of the same five outfits (green, blue, navy, olive drab and Brooks Brothers) are actually letting those assumptions get in the way of good national security outcomes and hurting their own organizational effectiveness.
Take, for example, the U.S. Admiral in Japan who spent an entire meeting assuming I was a translator, not realizing I was actually the staffer for the Military Personnel Subcommittee that he wanted to be talking to about his pilot retention issues until it was too late and our delegation had to leave. His assumptions about what a congressional staffer should look like got in the way of effectively communicating his needs to the legislative branch.
Or consider another instance, when folks in charge of personnel at an intelligence agency responded to my questions about lack of diversity hiring with the response, “The people we work with would prefer to work with someone who looks like an American.” Yeah. That actually happened.
The intelligence community lags behind the rest of the federal government in diversity. But their response shows why. It also shows they don’t understand the advantages an intelligence officer might have when they blend in with the target population, or has the ability to disarm their target because they aren’t what’s expected.
Deciding who to hire and promote in national security is not a casting decision. It is one that should be made on competence, skill and expertise, all of which are separate from one’s race and gender. Sadly, when people make decisions on who to hire based on whether they have the right “look” for a job, whether that’s an intelligence analyst or the commander in chief, they may find they’ve overlooked the more qualified candidate for someone who cannot handle the substance of the job.