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March 15, 2021

Guest Chair's Column: Champion of Diversity and Inclusion: Tailwinds for Positive Change

By Alexandria Hien McCombs

I am humbled and honored to receive the 2021 Champion of Diversity and Inclusion Award by the American Bar Association Health Law Section. This award recognizes the professional, personal, and social responsibility that we have to each other: to recognize and value our differences and to promote equity in every setting. The keynote speaker at the recent Emerging Issues in Healthcare Law Conference, Bethany Hamilton, emphasized the significance of the question, “How are you?” She advised us to wait for the response. Listen. Really listen. That response becomes a gateway to developing empathy and conversation with the other person.

Alexandria H. McCombs accepting Champion of Diversity & Inclusion Award from Section Chair, Hal Katz

Alexandria H. McCombs accepting Champion of Diversity & Inclusion Award from Section Chair, Hal Katz

22nd Annual Emerging Issues in Health Law Virtual Conference, March 2021

As leaders in our professions and communities, we have tremendous power and influence. Although we may not fully realize it, our power is a tailwind that can manifest itself in several ways. The key to unlocking the tailwind is to understand where it comes from and how to use it to drive positive change for diversity, inclusion, and equity. Let me share some real-life examples:

The first tailwind is network. In 7th grade Language Arts class, I composed an essay about unequal access to education. I longed for a public school district with a stronger curriculum than my current district. My parents tried to buy a house in a different school district, but their loan application was denied. We were stuck. And I felt like our lack of money barred me from educational opportunities.

My teacher, Mrs. Mary Hess, responded with a lengthy note on the back of my essay. As an evening professor at a community college, she observed students from both school districts as having comparable abilities. She suggested that I consider the prestigious private school nearby as the best option for academic excellence. It also would not require my family to move. Well, of course not, I thought to myself. It’s a private school! And how on earth could my family afford a private school on minimum wage income? As if Mrs. Hess anticipated my reaction, she added a footnote, “If you’re serious about your education, please see me. You would be an excellent candidate for a scholarship, and your family wouldn’t have to move.”

After a full-day family interview with the school’s dean of admissions and rigorous testing, the school offered me a full academic scholarship each year from 7th through 12th grade funded by an anonymous donor. Each year, I wrote a thank you letter to my generous donor grateful for the academic experience. I also owe so much to Mrs. Hess who leveraged her influence and network to create this opportunity for me.

The second tailwind is recognition. My favorite class in college was “Intellectual History of Modern Europe in the 20th Century.” Taught by the brilliant chair of the History department, Professor Susan Ashley’s class drew a formidable roster of honors students in their junior and senior years. Class participation accounted for 50 percent of the final grade. During the first week, I was intimidated and afflicted with imposter syndrome as the only sophomore in the class. The students in the class seemed to contribute profound thoughts that I couldn’t even imagine. There were three dominant students in the class who did most of the talking. The only question that I could think of in my head was, “What are you saying?”

Professor Ashley intervened. When I made my first comment in class, she asked me to repeat it. She then instructed my classmates to reflect and asked me to elaborate. Professor Ashley told everyone that my comment struck the central theme instead of digressing into philosophically interesting but historically irrelevant tangents. From that point on, my confidence and class participation grew as I felt valued. I had something meaningful to contribute. I didn’t have to use obscure big words from a Scripps spelling bee competition. Instead, I had every right to verbalize my opinion. Later in the course, Professor Ashley took me aside and praised my growing confidence. She noted, “I made them listen to you that first time. You made them listen the rest of the time. Don’t ever be afraid to use your voice and to demand that they listen!”

The third tailwind is sign-off. Throughout my legal career, I continue to develop strong relationships with business leaders and colleagues. These relationships are built on mutual trust, respect, and commitment. When the CEO, divisional President, or most senior business executive requires the final approval of a major project to come from me, it validates my role. Endorsement at the top carries significant weight for the rest of the organization.

Unfortunately, we have seen the opposite happen by the tone set at the top. Since the pandemic, there has been an alarming rise in anti-Asian sentiments ranging from microaggressions to violence and even murder. Violent attacks on the elderly in everyday situations and mass shootings at businesses amplify the need to change the narrative about people of Asian descent. Language choices such as “Chinese virus” and “Kung-flu” inflame and perpetuate hatred in a nation that is still rectifying its centuries-old racism from the Chinese Exclusion Act, WWII internment camps, and mainstream media portrayal of Asian stereotypes. It was refreshing to see films like “Crazy Rich Asians” and shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” where Asian Americans are depicted as multi-dimensional, imperfect, and human. We are not the one-dimensional male villain with the sinister squinty eyes or the alluring temptress in distress. We are also not fooled by the gibberish uttered when an actor of Asian descent is masquerading in another Asian language. This was a recurring defect in movies set around the Vietnam War where the director made no attempt to engage a language or dialect coach for the actor. Asia is a large continent with many diverse and different languages, cultures, and traditions. We don’t all look alike or sound alike.

The model minority is also a dangerous stereotype perpetuated externally and internally. People of Asian descent are often viewed as diligent, intelligent, and quiet. In her illuminating article, “A Tipping Point for Asian American Lawyers?,” Vivia Chen acknowledges that this stereotype “started off as a compliment to Asian American resilience.” However, it has also created the myth that Asian Americans are docile, submissive, and content. In society, the assumption of not speaking up or fighting back may be a reason why Asian Americans are viewed as easy targets. In business, some Asian Americans may be overlooked for high profile deals, stretch assignments, and even promotions because they are perceived as quiet and content with the status quo. Within the Asian American community, we are taught by our parents to respect and obey authority figures. We are discouraged from questioning their authority or asking questions in general. On one occasion, I was punished for interrupting a teacher in defense of a classmate who was wrongly accused of hitting another student. On another occasion, I was dismissed as speaking nonsense when I questioned the inappropriate behavior of an adult friend of my parents. As a result, we are expected to internalize our struggles and to overcome any challenges by redoubling our own efforts. The external stereotype combined with the cultural self-restraint devalue the Asian identity and voice in the American fabric.   

Thessaly La Force, features director for The New York Times Style Magazine, shared this vulnerable reflection about being an Asian American that resonated with me:

When I was 10 years old, I stole a blond wig from the theater camp I attended that summer. I wore it alone in my room. I paraded in front of my mirror with it perched on my head like the feathers of a cockatoo. When it was on, I let myself fantasize about being a white girl. It was then that the more Chinese side of me became visible. The beige and yellow undertones of my skin clashed with the golden yellow of the wig. The almond shape of my brown eyes didn’t sit as well as the pretty blue eyes I imagined having beneath the flaxen bangs. I was trying to erase a side of myself. But in doing so, I only saw myself more clearly.

Growing up in Oklahoma City, those thoughts often crossed my mind. Life seemed easier, better, and happier if I had been white. Kids would not make fun of my given name, my parents would speak perfect English, and strangers would not stare at us in a disapproving way. I also associated race with wealth. Maybe we wouldn’t live from paycheck to paycheck had we not been Vietnamese refugees.

And then it clicked. In college, I found my tribe of true friends and empathetic teachers who accepted me for who I was. I wasn’t blonde, but I was bold. In our profession, the ABA Health Law Section became another tribe that not only accepted me but embraced my diversity in every sense of the word. There are too many Section leaders and members to name individually, but the common theme is that they saw potential in me even before I did. They propelled me on a leadership path where I could learn and grow. After over 15 years of service to the Section, I was honored to lead the Section as its first Asian American Chair in its 25-year history and underscore servant leadership as our beacon. In turn, it’s a personal mission for me to mentor and sponsor other lawyers, students, and emerging leaders. I participate on many in-house and career panels and help raise the profile of other colleagues by making connections, sharing job leads, and demanding diverse staffing from my outside counsel. The ABA Health Law Section is only as diverse and inclusive as we make it. 

Montrece Ransom, the 2019 recipient of this same award, made a compelling analogy. Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance. Belongingness is being able to dance like no one else is watching. Our purpose is to identify and cultivate the potential in others even before they may even realize it. Draw from your own positions of strength, your tailwinds to fortify your allyship.

For additional information and resources on how you can harness those tailwinds for positive change, please visit:

Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council

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Alexandria Hien McCombs

McKesson Corporation, Irving, TX