It happened out of nowhere, like it usually does.
I was doing some research for a podcast episode on “How to Sell Without Feeling Like a Salesperson.”
One of the top hits that popped up was an article of a popular blog for online entrepreneurs. I’d heard of him before and had been meaning to check out his blog for a while, so I was excited to see he’d written about this very thing.
I read through the first few tips, nodding along in agreement.
Then I got halfway through the article and I stopped.
Blinked a few times.
One of the strategies he listed was called “Opening the Kimono.”
Did I just read that?
I immediately started googling the phrase. Is this a real thing? Did he make this up? Do other people actually say this?
Then, I asked myself the question I ask every time I get this achy-heart feeling in my chest:
Wait. Am I just being too sensitive?
I wanted to let it go. I really did. I ran my own financial planning business. I was my own boss. There was no reason to let this affect me and I didn’t want to be offended by it. I wished it could just roll off my back so I could keep it moving.
But reading the phrase “Opening the Kimono” made me feel like despite everything I had accomplished up to this point, none of it mattered.
At a moment’s notice, I could still be reduced to a stereotype.
I jumped into the world of finance with a touch of naïveté. I thought I was going to learn everything I needed to know in a few years and go back to myoriginal passion of teaching kids financial literacy.
I was only off by about a lifetime.
I landed a job at a wealth management firm in midtown Manhattan.
The first time I was a part of an all-department meeting, I walked past all the chairs lining the walls and took one of the seats at the big conference table. I was a front seat kind of nerd.
I got busy taking notes on every word that was said. At one point, I didn’t understand something so I raised my hand to ask a question about it. I remember feeling everyone turn to look at my hand when it shot up.
After the meeting, my boss pulled me aside and told me to ask her those kinds of questions one on one. She said I should only ask questions that I thought would be relevant for the entire group.
The last thing I’d want, she told me, was to have anyone think I didn’t understand everything that was going on. I knew she was looking out for me and I thanked her for letting me know.
I didn’t sit at that conference table again for the rest of the year.
As the months went on, I started to find my footing. I learned when to speak up and when to ask later. I remember the first time I had actually been assigned a part to speak in a department meeting. I took a seat at the conference room table for the first time since that first day. I clutched my handouts and passed them out with pride.
I had earned my seat at the table.
The firm I worked for was run by six white men. Every single financial planner was white and male, and most of the People of Color were in support roles. It took me a while to notice and once I did, I tried not to let it bother me.
I knew to mostly bite my tongue when I felt uncomfortable about something. I was already the Filipino-American hippie from California (not a hippie) who moved to Brooklyn before it was cool (whatever that means). I didn’t need to add Angry Minority to the list.
Besides, it was rarely a conversation I had the energy to see through and I didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with the intangible, but very real repercussions of being “that girl.”
When someone would call a rundown piece of equipment “ghetto” or if someone called me “sweetheart” even if they knew my name, I kept my mouth shut or chuckled nonchalantly. I didn’t want anyone to think I couldn’t take a joke or that they couldn’t feel relaxed around me.
Then there were the times where I couldn’t hold it in.
I was in a meeting with the managing director and another associate. Out of the blue, the associate said, You know, I’d really love to visit Africa one day.
Why? I asked, feeling my body tense up.
Because it would be really cool to say I went to Africa.
I turned to him and narrowed my eyes. But what country in Africa? Only douchebags say they want to visit a continent instead of a country.
I quickly looked at my managing director and then looked down. I was pretty sure I said that out loud.
After we let a pause settle in the room, my managing director burst out laughing. Ha, you’re right! I would never say ‘I want to visit North America!’ Hahahahaha!
My heart jumped back into my chest. It felt like I had just gotten away with something.
Most of the time though, I left my personal feelings at the door. I learned how to be invisible and indispensable at the same time.
I worked hard to assert my ideas without being too aggressive or demanding. I reveled in using logic to make my case or prove a point and did my damnedest to make sure I took nothing (too) personally.
It was exhausting.
I felt a new kind of freedom when I quit my job at the beginning of 2015 and started Brunch & Budget, like a burden was lifted, a burden I didn’t even quite realize I was carrying until I unloaded it.
It wasn’t just about being able to work from home or choose my clients or not wear heels. It was about getting to reshape my identity, to feel like myself again and rediscover who I was and what I really cared about.
Then, out of nowhere, I was reminded, with three simple words, that there was still no place for me at the table.
After my quick Google research, I was more confused than ever about where “Opening the Kimono” came from.
Some say it was a term used in business that could be traced back to the 80’s or 90’s during a time when the US was fearful of a Japanese takeover. It’s a phrase that seems to come back in waves in business vernacular, from Marie Claire using it to describe Netflix holding back demographics information to Jamie Dimon at JP Morgan using the phrase “open kimono” to talk about his open book policy with regulators.
Others have claimed it could be traced back to ancient samurai days and people speculate that it was just the Japanese equivalent of someone loosening their tie and that “some people will take anything as offensive,” depending on which Quora answers you read first.
Let’s be real, though. I know the image I get in my head when I read that phrase. I couldn’t imagine anyone else reading it and thinking, “Oh, like a samurai loosening his kimono sash after a long day.”
“Opening the kimono” implies a coyness and sensuality that conjures up images of submissive Asian women reluctantly willing to show you their most vulnerable side. I understand why someone would use it just from the shock value alone. It took the wind out of me when I read it.
People have written articles condemning it, defending it, shrugging about it, or simply attempting to define it. I have talked to friends about the phrase and got a mix of “never heard of it” or “I heard other people use it so I thought it was okay.”
I went back to the article and scrolled down to the comments. Surely someone must have called him out, even a little, on why he decided to use a racially and sexually charged phrase to describe something that he defined as “open door policy” or “opening the books,” two other idioms that could have been easily used instead to convey the exact same thing.
I scrolled and scrolled and the only reference I saw to the phrase were other people beginning to adopt it into their vocabulary.
Maybe it’s not a big deal. Hey, men wore kimonos too. Maybe it was just an Asian equivalent to loosening a tie.
Except I couldn’t shake that feeling.
It was the same feeling I got when a coworker used the phrase, “Chinese Wall” to describe keeping an ethical wall between two parts of a company that may have a conflict of interest.
It was the same feeling I got when a gas station attendant asked me if I was Chinese and then told me 10 minutes worth of stories about the only other Chinese person he knew.
It was the same feeling I got when someone in college offhandedly said, “I get all chinky-eyed when I’m high,” implying that she thought her face looked ugly scrunched up.
It was the feeling that I was suddenly the Other in the room. The Exotic. That I was a caricature, a collection of stereotypes that was even further whittled down to a few casual phrases.
We can argue all day about the semantics of it and whether or not it’s right or wrong, but at the end of the day, all I can speak to is how it made me feel. And the truth is, it made me feel like less than a whole person.
Here’s the other truth though.
I’ve called things “ghetto” without thinking twice, used “that’s gay” or “how retarded” to describe something I thought was stupid, tried using “fo shizzle my nizzle” in a sentence to fit in, asked someone what their “spirit animal” was, and have said I felt “gypped” when someone ripped me off.
I’ve done it too. I’ve made someone feel like less than a whole person and without even realizing it.
I actually got a chance to meet the writer of the article at a conference recently. I had sent him the first draft of this piece before publishing it because I wanted to give him a heads up that I was going to mention his name.
After meeting him, I didn’t feel the need to mention it anymore. We shook hands, he told me he really didn’t mean to offend anyone, and I told him, I know.
Yes, this phrase is offensive, but not because the writer chose to use it. I could have read this phrase anywhere, and now that I’ve seen it once, I see it everywhere.
This phrase is offensive because it made me feel instantly on the defensive, like I had a new stereotype to face, catalog, and decide how to handle, a culture I had to defend because even though it wasn’t mine, it was mine.
I found this article about a year ago and my brain still gets a little fuzzy when I think about it. It’s a mix of quiet anger and and that stifling feeling that I can’t do anything to change it.
I think about this when I talk to clients and friends who are navigating a world where they are also seen as the Other, the Token, the Diversity Quota.
It’s a world where we’re told we speak so well, asked where are we reallyfrom, a world where it’s okay to ask invasive questions about our culture, or touch us like we’re in a petting zoo.
It’s a world where we’re then told we’re just imagining it, playing the race card, or making it a bigger deal than it needs to be.
It’s a world where we are routinely underpaid, passed over for the job, or have to go the extra mile to get promoted, and smile the whole way there.
It’s a world where there are only a few seats at the table for us and we’re scrambling to make sure we get one, sometimes at the expense of each other.
Even when I run my own business where I technically call the shots, I think about when I need to hide this part of myself, when I need to stay invisible, when I need to bite my tongue.
And then I google, “how to build our own damn table.”