Written by Olyvia Yoon and Gwendolyn Price
The History of Racism Against Asians
Even before the rise of attacks since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asians and Asian-Americans have experienced a long history of racism in America. “Yellow peril,” a term coined in the late 19th century, is a xenophobic metaphor that portrays Asians as a threat to the Western world (Tchen & Yeats, 2014). This threat was displayed in artwork showing Asians savagely invading and terrorizing Western countries and their inhabitants. Accompanying yellow peril, other xenophobic rhetoric continued to spread. Pervasive propaganda against Asians would galvanize the Chinese Exclusion Act, an immigration act banning Chinese immigrants from obtaining naturalization for a decade. Flash forward to 1942: under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order, thousands of Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Although German- and Italian-Americans were affected as well, Japanese descendants were disproportionately locked into internment camps under suspension of the United States military. This constituted one of the biggest and most heinous violations of American civil rights in the 20th century.
Even today in the 21st century, the narrative of Asian-Americans is inaccurately portrayed. Whereas Asians were previously viewed as lacking cleanliness and undeserving of citizenship, currently, the Model Minority myth prevails, demonstrating an extremely misleading and harmful perpetuation of Asian Americans (Museus & Kiang, 2009). The Model Minority myth inaccurately promotes Asian Americans as a superior racial minority group and as ideal immigrants due to their perceived academic and economic successes. In reality, this narrative originates from the selective immigration policies that discriminated against Asian immigrants who were poorer and less educated. It also comes from invalid statistics and blatantly ignores the existing hardships experienced by both Asians and Asian-Americans.
In various societal domains, Asian-Americans are often underrepresented and severely stereotyped when given moments in the spotlight. Within the entertainment industry, from Harry Potter’s Cho Chang to Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Asians are continually and offensively portrayed with negative tropes–the overly awkward and meek nerd or the accented, abrasive, and unacclimated foreigner. Otherwise, they are removed from their own narratives entirely as with the main Asian character in Aloha being played by a white person (Nguyen, 2015). In other careers, Asian-American representation is increasing, however, they are still an understudied and underrepresented population in STEM fields and academic research (So Yoon & Gentry, 2019), especially in research examining discrimination or bias against Asians.
In a brief interview based on her work examining racial discrimination and health in Asian and Asian-American populations at the University of Washington-Vancouver, Dr. Sara Waters stated it best: “Asian Americans have not been the focus of much of this research, perhaps due in part to the ‘model minority myth, and we need to do a better job of recognizing and addressing how racism affects all communities of color.”
The Rise in Anti-Asian Attacks During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Since March 2020, crimes against Asians have increased by over 150%, featuring attacks in countless cities across the world (Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism CSUSB, 2021). While the roots of prejudice and discrimination cannot be pinpointed to one cause, a major factor in this historic rise in Anti-Asian attacks likely stems from the rhetoric blaming Asians for the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the virus originated from China, the heinous labeling of the SARS-19 strand as the “China virus” only fuels the scapegoating of Asians and Asian-Americans, increasing sentiments of hate in America. As Asians are being spat on, beaten, shoved onto the ground, or set on fire on the streets, the most upsetting aspect is that Anti-Asian attacks have largely been targeting elderly members of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community (Lin & Williams, 2021). Despite the brutal and persistent attacks over the last year, mainstream news coverage on these crimes has been minimal, with the Asian community only receiving recognition after the fatal shooting of eight individuals, six of whom were Asian women, in Atlanta, Georgia on March 18th, 2021 (Fausset et al., 2021).
Those in the Asian-American community then ask: Will we wake up and see another Anti-Asian attack on our social media newsfeeds? Another elder robbed or beaten? Another individual who doesn’t look too different from our grandfather, cousin, or even our mom?
And the question we must all ask ourselves, regardless of what we look like, is when will we stop normalizing America’s (and other countries’) history of contempt toward Asians?
Why Does This Matter? Delving into the Implications of Long-Term Adverse Physical and Mental Health Risks
As we continue to ride the waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are numerous mental and physical health implications for Asians and Asian-Americans that stem from the rise in Anti-Asian attacks, many of which will likely persist even after global health conditions stabilize.
The most pertinent is Asian and Asian-Americans’ increased risk of poor mental health. In addition to greater reports of discrimination experienced by Asians, higher levels of discrimination are predictive of increased depression, anxiety, somatic symptoms, and sleep problems (Lee & Waters, 2021). Unfortunately, these correlations are unsurprising. With the rise of Anti-Asian attacks, especially in densely populated cities such as New York and San Francisco (Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism CSUSB, 2021), many people of Asian descent have new fears to live with each day. Children worry for their aging parents on their unsuspecting strolls around the neighborhood, and partners worry for their significant others who must take the subway alone to their workplace across town. Although mental health issues have increased amongst many during the COVID-19 pandemic, Asians are particularly at risk for developing mental health conditions with the additional layers of discrimination, stigmatization, and violence accompanying the exacerbated and novel factors of the pandemic (Wu et al., 2020).
Furthermore, the current socio-political climate has serious implications for Asians’ overall physical health. In addition to heightened negative mental health effects, racial discrimination can adversely affect physical health by triggering biological stress responses. When a person is exposed to stressors such as discrimination or fear of discrimination, it creates chemical and physical responses in their body. When these stress responses continue over time, the cumulative burden it places on a person’s body (called allostatic load) is associated with serious health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and ulcers (Berger & Sarnyai, 2015).
What can you do next?
In the midst of what’s happening, some of us may be wondering: “What can I do now?” or “How do I move forward?” After the surge of racially motivated attacks, Vice President Kamala Harris urges members of the AAPI community to turn their pain into power (Summers, 2021).
If you identify as Asian or Asian-American, the first thing you can do is take care of yourself. Take as much time as you need to process your thoughts and emotions, even if that means staying away from the news or other media outlets. Do whatever you need to do to prioritize your mental health. For some, that may be confiding in trusted friends or family members. For others, maintaining sound mental health may be seeking a therapist or joining a support group. Although cultural barriers surrounding the topic of mental health have existed generationally, social support plays a substantial role in buffering the adverse effects of stress on the long-term health of Asian-Americans (Lee & Waters, 2021).
In addition to caring for your mental health, embrace and connect back to your cultural roots. Whether your parents or grandparents are immigrants, or perhaps you yourself are an immigrant, the pressure to assimilate and be more “American” can be inevitable–changing your name, hiding your accent, trading mom’s homemade leftovers for a ham and cheese sandwich so the other kids in the lunchroom won’t make fun of you. As you age and mature, beyond all the teasing and weird looks, be proud of your culture. While times we were outcasted or scorned may be the most salient memories, especially in times of stress, there are also waves of nostalgia in the warmth of our childhood. Culture is woven in your grandmother’s ancient-seeming stories, your dad’s heavy accent and loud snores, the way your mom will never explicitly apologize but will still place a bowl of warm soup or sliced fruit in front of you. And while all things eventually become fleeting moments, interweaving our culture into our current identities allows these memories to be a bit more permanent. So, go visit your grandparents or call your mom. Make that dish you grew up eating all the time to the point where you got sick of it, but now miss it anyway. Relearn words or phrases in your mother tongue.
If you are not Asian, there are still many things you can do to be an ally to the AAPI community. First, if you witness acts of violence or discrimination against members of the AAPI community, do something. You can report the incident to the police or an initiative such as Stop AAPI Hate (https://stopaapihate.org/reportincident/). If you are witnessing a microaggression (i.e., indirect discrimination) like a racist joke, interrupt it by saying you don’t want to hear the punchline. Interrupting bias, making the invisible visible, and educating folks can be a good way that allies can help reduce anti-Asian bias (Sue et al., 2019). Of course, anytime you step forward, be mindful of your safety and well-being, and call for medical attention or police intervention if needed.
Another important step you can take as an ally is to check up on your Asian friends and colleagues. Even if someone you know seems unaffected or is not personally related to any reported anti-Asian attacks, reaching out and offering your support is extremely worthwhile. After checking up on your Asian peers, another way you can help is by educating yourself on Asian-American history and culture. Being an AAPI ally is more than enjoying anime, bubble tea, sushi, or K-pop, but recognizing and standing with the communities these originate from.
Finally, we can all raise awareness of AAPI hate in whatever capacity we can. Awareness and advocacy can take on various forms, such as having a serious conversation with a family member, sharing resources on your social media account, or participating in rallies. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “the greatest tragedy is not the brutality of the evil people, but rather the silence of the good people.” When we fail to acknowledge these issues and remain silent, we become part of the problem in allowing injustice and hate to spread. Only when we speak up about the historical and ongoing necessity of social justice for Asian-Americans can our communities become more peaceful and prosperous.
Berger, M., & Sarnyai, Z. (2015). “More than skin deep”: Stress neurobiology and mental health consequences of racial discrimination. Stress, 18(1), 1-10. https://doi.org/10.3109/10253890.2014.989204
Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism CSUSB. (2021). Report to the nation: Anti-Asian prejudice & hate crime. https://www.csusb.edu/sites/default/files/Report%20to%20the%20Nation%20-%20Anti-Asian%20Hate%202020%20Final%20Draft%20-%20As%20of%20Apr%2030%202021%206%20PM%20corrected.pdf
Fausset, R., Bogel-Burroughs, N., & Fazio, M. (2021). 8 Dead in Atlanta Spa Shootings, With Fears of Anti-Asian Bias. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/03/17/us/shooting-atlanta-acworth
Lee, S., & Waters, S. F. (2021). Asians and Asian Americans’ experiences of racial discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic: Impacts on health outcomes and the buffering role of social support. Stigma and Health, 6(1), 70-78. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/sah0000275
Lin, N., & Williams, A. (2021). As US Emerges From COVID, AAPI Leaders Say Hate Incidents Expected to Rise. NBC Los Angeles. https://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/national-international/anti-asian-hate-crimes-statistics-in-the-us/2597914/
Museus, S. D., & Kiang, P. N. (2009). Deconstructing the model minority myth and how it contributes to the invisible minority reality in higher education research. New Directions for Institutional Research, 2009(142), 5-15.
Nguyen, M. (2015). ‘Aloha’ film attacked for ‘white-washing’ of Hawaii. MSNBC. https://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/aloha-film-attacked-white-washing-hawaii-msna608961.
Sue, D. W., Alsaidi, S., Awad, M. N., Glaeser, E., Calle, C. Z., & Mendez, N. (2019). Disarming racial microaggressions: Microintervention strategies for targets, White allies, and bystanders. American Psychologist, 74(1), 128-142. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000296
Summers, J. (2021, May 20). Harris to Asian Americans: Turn pain and outrage into political power. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/05/20/998329626/harris-to-asian-americans-turn-pain-and-outrage-into-political-power
Tchen, J. K. W., & Yeats, D. (2014). Yellow Peril!: An archive of anti-Asian fear. Verso Books.
So Yoon, Y., & Gentry, M. (2009). Racial and ethnic representation in gifted programs. Gifted Child Quarterly, 53(2), 121-136.
Wu, C., Qian, Y. & Wilkes, R. (2020). Anti-Asian discrimination and the Asian-white mental health gap during COVID-19. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 44(5), 819-835. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2020.1851739