AAPI Heritage Month: How PacSun President Alfred Chang Is Learning — and Working — to Banish Stereotypes

For AAPI Heritage Month, FN is spotlighting Asian American and Pacific Islander executives, entrepreneurs and designers as part of its ongoing commitment to champion diversity across all areas of the footwear business. 

Alfred Chang was about 10 years old when he had his first encounter with direct racism. At the time, he was a fifth grader, living in a town of roughly 10,000 people in central Michigan.

“Talk about your token Asian,” he said. “You’d have heard the unawareness: I was blamed for the Vietnam War. They made the automatic assumption that, because I was Asian and that war was against an Asian country, I was at fault.”

But in fact, Chang, who was born and raised in the United States, is Chinese American — and the fall of Saigon ended more than 15 years before that incident.

“I just absorbed it and ignored it,” he said of his immediate reaction, “but, again, I was young. It started to give me an understanding about how people thought. … Stereotypes are at the heart of racism.”

For decades, media portrayals have pegged Asian Americans as quiet and submissive, hard-working and well-educated. By typecasting them as the “model minority,” the inequities against Asian Americans were downplayed — after all, they were categorized as more industrious, more successful, more “problem-free” than their Black, Latinx or other counterparts of color.

These stereotypes have been drawn further into the spotlight over the past year amid the COVID-19 outbreak, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan. With the recent escalation in anti-Asian hate attacks, the Asian American and Pacific Islander community has been on edge — and Chang’s fears have expectedly elevated.

“I’m a grown man with three kids, and I’m probably the most scared I’ve been,” he explained. “Am I scared for myself? Not necessarily. But I’m definitely scared for my children. There’s no doubt of the prevalence — it’s happening even in the most diverse cities and states.”

In California, where Chang lives with his wife and kids and serves as the president of youth-oriented lifestyle retailer PacSun, the violence against Asians has seen a frightening spike: According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, anti-Asian hate crimes surged 140% in San Francisco and 80% in Los Angeles. What’s more, nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate recorded roughly 3,795 hate incidents across the U.S. from March 19, 2020, to Feb. 28, 2021.

But experts have emphasized that many more go unreported.

“This is exactly the problem Asians and Asian Americans have faced for so long: We don’t react. We don’t raise our voices as loud,” said Chang. “But this needs to be spoken about as well. We shouldn’t be afraid to claim it. I needed to make sure that would change — not just in teaching my children, but also leading my organization.”

That said, the issue of diversity, equity and inclusion has always been at the forefront for Chang, whose career started at Gap Inc., where he looked up to then-Old Navy president Jenny Ming.

“Here I was, out of college, seeing a Chinese immigrant and American citizen leading the way,” Chang said. (Within just four years, Old Navy became the fastest retailer to reach $1 billion in sales.) “I was surrounded by leaders who were diverse in terms of sexual orientation, culture, background and ethnicity. It felt very comfortable to me, and I felt encouraged by my mentors to push forward.”

But when he started working at PacSun more than 15 years ago, Chang — who is now on year three as president — said that it wasn’t always “as optimistic and open” simply because of the nature of the brand; the company was founded around skate and surf culture, which is still viewed as largely white and male-dominated.

Today, however, he suggested that the environment has “greatly changed.” One-fourth of employees working at PacSun’s corporate headquarters identify as AAPI. The company has also doubled down on charitable commitments through its PacCares initiative, which has donated to organizations like the Black and Latinx youth-focused STEM to the Future, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up campaign and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation.

Plus, in tandem with Mental Health Awareness Month, the brand is releasing its Women’s Desert Dreamer x PacSun Mental Health capsule on May 14, with 10% of the proceeds going to the Asian Mental Health Collective, which is aimed at making mental health support more easily available and accessible to Asian communities around the world.

The company has also contributed $25,000 to the official GoFundMe in support of the AAPI community. (The fundraiser has brought in a total of $6 million from some of the country’s largest businesses and executives, including fast-fashion giant H&M, social media network Twitter and streetwear label Chinatown Market.)

“We try to put thought into what would be the most authentic and honest way we can help,” Chang added. “The hope is going forward that there will be clear causes and opportunities for the AAPI community. If there’s any good that should come out of this, it’s banding together, standing up against [hate] and speaking up.”

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