Netflix’s new show Partner Track is billed as a sexy legal drama about a young lawyer working tirelessly to land a partner position at a big law firm while juggling fabulous, rich men, and wearing perfectly tailored suits and dresses. But underneath the love triangles and office politics is a nod to privilege, the white patriarchy — and what it really means to be the only Asian in the room.
Based on the book by Helen Wan, Partner Track follows senior associate Ingrid Yun, a first generation Korean American played by Arden Cho, who is dead-set on making partner at Parsons, Valentine & Hunt. Ingrid is a young, tough, high-powered attorney working in mergers and acquisitions, but it’s not just her matching pink skirt suit that stands out in a sea of grey and navy. Though there are other East Asians at the firm — two first-years and one middle-aged woman — Ingrid’s peers are mostly white men. As are her clients, and, of course, her boss.
In the first 15 minutes of the series, Ingrid faces multiple microaggressions from all directions: her paralegal Justin, who lacks basic professionalism and respect for her as his boss; her boss Marty Adler (Matthew Rauch), who insists on giving a case to her white male colleague despite making her work on it; and client oil tycoon Ted Lassiter (Fredric Lehne), who breezes past her to greet her paralegal (mistakenly thinking that he, another white man, must be the lawyer in the room) before turning to ask her for a sparkling water. Ingrid brushes it off, asking Justin to call dining services as a pointed, but respectful way to tell Ted that, despite his dismissal, she is the person he wants to talk to. It’s a tactic anyone who has ever been the only minority in the room will recognise: finding creative ways to assert her position without showing frustration or anger.
Ted tries to walk back his mistake by implying that he didn’t dismiss her because she was Asian, but because she looked too young to be an attorney. “You just don’t look a day over 18 to me,” he says, before adding, “You folks are lucky that way, right?” Ingrid’s options now are clear: she can agree and laugh it off, remain quiet and hopefully indicate (in a tactful, non-threatening way) that the comment was inappropriate and unwelcome, or put him in check and call him out. Ingrid chooses the second option, grimacing for a beat but ultimately moving on to shake hands with the client’s personal attorney. She is at work, after all.
In this two minute scene, Partner Track illustrates perfectly what being the only Asian in the room can look like. It’s not always about dealing with big injustices or aggressive racism; it’s a series of small calculations, moment by moment, on how to react when someone asks, “Where are you from?” and the inevitable, “No, but where are you really from?” Every time one of her white colleagues makes an off-the-cuff remark or racist joke, Ingrid has to make an active decision: Should she speak up? Should she let it slide? Or, in this case, should she comfort the client and assure him he didn’t just do something wildly offensive by laughing along? It may seem trivial, but these small decisions can add up to major consequences. If the client likes her and she’s on the case, she could make partner. If the client doesn’t like her, then she can kiss her promotion goodbye. Her split-second reaction to this poor excuse for a compliment could determine the rest of her career, and she knows it.
Ingrid is also well aware that being the only Asian senior associate means she has to be the very best she can be. In fact, she has to be the best there ever was. She works more than her white male colleagues, not because she lives for digging through legal documents (though she does, in fact, love doing that), but because she knows that she has to be twice as good to get half the credit. When her white male love interest and colleague Murphy (Dominic Sherwood) notes that she “never stops working,” Ingrid responds that she “doesn’t have the luxury.”
Ingrid’s extreme work ethic reflects her upbringing in a Korean American household. In the few scenes with Ingrid’s parents, the audience sees that she has been taught that success will come to those who keep their heads down and do the work — but it has to be done flawlessly. Only perfection will be rewarded. To many first or second (or more) generation Asian Americans, this worldview will sound familiar. The strong belief that Asian Americans can get ahead by playing by the rules is a consequence of the model minority myth, which falsely puts Asians on a pedestal as the marginalised group in America that has, essentially, reached parity with white people. The reality is that the Asian American experience is as wide and varied as its diaspora, and not all Asians are the same. (When it comes to the pay gap in 2020, for example, Burmese women made 50 cents for every dollar paid to a white, non-Hispanic man, while Indian women were reportedly paid $1.22, according to the National Women’s Law Center.)
And while the model minority myth has been weaponised by white American culture, such as during the Civil Rights Movement, as proof that racism is somehow surmountable, it’s also been used by Asian Americans to show they are a “good” minority, especially in the wake of the U.S. government forcing Japanese Americans into internment camps during WWII. As historian Ellen Wu explained in an interview with The Washington Post, “The model minority myth as we see it today was mainly an unintended outcome of earlier attempts by Asian Americans to be accepted and recognised as human beings.”
Partner Track doesn’t go into the weeds of the model minority myth and all its implications, but it’s important context for why Ingrid behaves the way she does when confronted with microaggressions. Like so many of us, she’s internalised it. After Dan (Nolan Gerard Funk), another rich, smug, white senior associate, does a racist comedy routine at the company retreat, her first instinct is to remain in her seat and endure silently. She only gets up to follow Tyler (Bradley Gibson), the only Black associate we see in the firm, and when he tells her he is leaving the retreat, she hesitates. Though she does eventually go with him, it’s far from a big scene. And she does so after first going to her boss to raise a complaint. Tyler knows that the law firm and its HR department won’t help him, but Ingrid is still convinced that the system can work for people like her and Tyler. Even as her boss manipulates her into chairing the firm’s Diversity Gala and trots her out as its proud “Asian American female lawyer,” she still believes that she can win. All she has to do is swallow her pride and survive these little indignities. But that’s easier said than done, and, at a certain point, it’s just too much.
The system betrays Ingrid, just as I knew it would. I, like Ingrid, have often been the only Asian American in the room. I have had to calculate when to speak up, when to keep quiet. I have felt the physical and mental toll of playing along to be a “team player” and being forced to negotiate with myself on how I want to address racism in the workplace, or weighing whether it’s worth speaking up at all. During one particularly difficult moment in my career, when I felt isolated and vulnerable as one of the few Asians at work, I began hyperventilating in the middle of a company-wide meeting and started crying. At the time, I took the afternoon off to rest and then went back to work. It wasn’t until much later that I realised it was a panic attack.
Watching Partner Track, I can see that my reaction wasn’t just caused by what was happening that week, but by years of brushing off all the small moments that came before, just like Ingrid. I should have taken better care of myself, let myself feel the pain of those small moments. And if you’re the only Asian in the room reading this, I hope you take better care of yourself too.