Kim Ng Broke Through Two Ceilingson November 18, 2020 at 7:00 pm

Kim Ng Broke Through Two Ceilings

On Friday, when the Marlins announced they had hired Kim Ng as their new general manager, they set off a tidal wave of celebratory reactions from people both inside and outside baseball. That’s to be expected when a glass ceiling is broken. Her success was a triumph for women who have always had to fight for their place in the sport.

As soon as the news of Ng’s hiring went public, a question quickly gained prominence: How do you pronounce Ng? Media outlets reporting her hiring revealed a checkered understanding of the answer. The worst offender went with the extremely phonetic interpretation of “N-G.” Most got close, and those familiar with her work in baseball got it right. (To be clear, she pronounces it “ang,” which differs from the pronunciation of some Chinese Americans, who might pronounce it “ing.”

The widespread confusion about something as basic as Ng’s name is an extension of a few all too common questions most Asian Americans are familiar with: What are you? Where are you from? These reductive questions flow from the perpetual perception of foreignness that colors the experience of many Asian people in America. And it shows why Ng’s ascent to the top position in the Marlins organization is so important for Asian Americans, too.

Ng is the second Asian person to hold the position of general manager in major league baseball, and the first Asian American as well as the first Chinese American to rise to the top. Farhan Zaidi, who is of Pakistani descent, is Canadian-born and became the first Asian person to hold the title of general manager when he reached that position with the Dodgers in 2014. Ng also became just the second Asian American to become the GM in any of the major men’s North American professional sports — Rich Cho was the first when he was named GM of the Portland Trail Blazers in 2010. This dearth of Asian people in leadership positions extends to the field as well. There have been just two field managers of Asian descent in baseball, and there are just a handful of others across the other major men’s sports.

The absence of Asian people in visible leadership positions in sports merely reflects larger trends within American society. In 2018, the Harvard Business Review completed a workforce analysis focused on ethnic and racial discrimination. They found solid evidence of what’s come to be called the bamboo ceiling.

“Asian American white-collar professionals are the least likely group to be promoted from individual contributor roles into management — less likely than any other race, including blacks and Hispanics. And our analysis found that white professionals are about twice as likely to be promoted into management as their Asian American counterparts.”

A year earlier, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published a series of studies analyzing discrimination in America. They reported that in the context of institutional discrimination, “a quarter or more of Asian Americans say they have been personally discriminated against because they are Asian when applying for jobs (27%) or when being paid equally or considered for promotions (25%).”

That Ng finally rose to her position while having to navigate the intersectional discrimination of being both a woman and Asian is a triumph — and damning for the system that held her back from ascending to the top earlier. This graphic that accompanied the Marlins’ announcement speaks volumes.

With more than 30 years of experience in baseball, including being named the youngest Assistant GM in baseball history, Ng was more than qualified to run a front office. She had interviewed for general manager openings at least six other times and each time fell short. Some of those previous opportunities seemed like mere formalities, a way for teams to tick a box on their diversity checklist. “There were times where I felt like the interview wasn’t maybe on the up-and-up,” said Ng in her introductory media session. “But I will say that just by having my name out there was a source of hope for people. And so you do it because you know that you just have to keep your name out there.” It’s a testament to her tenacity and determination that she never gave her dream up; it’s an indication of a deeply flawed system that she had to show such perseverance.

The common form of discrimination Asian people confront in America is that of a perpetual foreignness. Based on their appearance, Asian people are often assumed to be immigrants and speak a foreign language, and are often lumped into a homogenous racial group, stripping away the particularities of their specific ethnicity. This constant othering results in a persistent sense that Asians don’t belong in America, and no amount of success or achievements will ever change that.

This kind of discrimination is something that Ng has had to deal with throughout her career, most publicly in this incident from 2003.

“According to witnesses, [Mets scout Bill] Singer approached Ng in the bar of the hotel where the meetings occurred. After asking Ng, the highest-ranking Asian American in the major leagues, questions about her background in a sarcastic tone, Singer began speaking nonsensically in mock Chinese before eventually leaving.”

Pablo Torre of ESPN encapsulated this incident in a segment for the ESPN Daily podcast.

Despite thriving baseball cultures in East Asia, particularly in Japan and Korea, Asian players have always had to fight to be accepted in American baseball. When Ichiro made the transition to the major leagues, his foreignness was heavily emphasized. He was labeled “diminutive” and called an “import.” Even after winning the Rookie of the Year and MVP in his debut season, there were still some who resisted accepting him in Seattle. They derided his lack of pop and questioned the value of a slap hitter who only collected singles.

Asian Americans have historically been underrepresented in entertainment and media. That lack of representation extends to baseball as well. A steady flow of Japanese and Korean players have made their way to America since Hideo Nomo and Ichiro broke through. But the number of Asian Americans — that is American-born and of Asian descent — in baseball has been miniscule throughout its history. A rough estimate of the number of Asian American players to make it to the majors lands in the double-digits.

Ng’s story is a poignant one for Asian Americans. Seeing an Asian American succeed in the face of systemic inequity is inspiring. As a Chinese American, I am well versed in the type of discrimination she endured during her career. I understand the loneliness that comes from working in an industry where there are few who look like you. Her journey signals to me that I have a place in this sport. More importantly, she gives me a strong example to show my own daughter as she grows up. Marc Carig of The Athletic had a similar moment of clarity:

There is power in representation. Ng herself has recognized that power in this moment.

“The idea that it has affected this many people is just extraordinary. I thought it would be a big deal, but this is beyond my expectations. I think that really is just a testament to where we are. People are looking for hope, and people are looking for inspiration, and I’m happy that this is a part of it.”

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