Millions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) call America home, despite the anti-Asian sentiment that questions their place in the country.
Since the start of the COVID pandemic, they have repeatedly found themselves at the receiving end of unprovoked violent attacks.
And even though the pandemic’s unique circumstances have impacted numerous communities, the challenges faced might be far from comparable in some instances.
Additional stressors such as racism, bigotry, and xenophobia have significantly increased the burden on an already historically grief-stricken population.
This is likely to have a profound negative impact on the mental health and well-being of crime survivors and the community.
Where does this anti-Asian sentiment stem from, what are its consequences, and what can we all do to combat the violent acts that come from it?
Multiple local and national reports have recorded the rise in violent attacks against AAPI.
In fact, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 58% of Asian American participants said it’s more common for other people to verbalize racist views against Asians than it was before the pandemic.
A more recent report was released by Stop AAPI Hate, a not-for-profit created to track violent and discriminatory acts against Asian Americans.
The document covers 3,795 reports received through their website between March 2020 and February 2021.
From deliberate avoidance to civil rights violations, discrimination against Asians has taken many forms. According to the report, incidents include:
- 68.1% verbal harassment
- 20.5% shunning (including social rejection and avoidance)
- 11.1% physical assault
- 8.5% civil rights violations
- 6.8% online harassment
Females reported attacks 2.3 times more than males during this time.
The numbers likely don’t represent all of the incidents because not all victims report hate crimes and attacks. Language and cultural barriers, fear, and lack of trust are some of the possible causes.
From shunning to shooting: Say their names
Dozens of attacks against AAPIs have been reported across the nation in 2021 alone. They show a painful reality where older people and women are frequent scapegoats.
The following are only a few incidents of violence against Asians that have made headlines:
Eight people, including six Asian women, were killed following a series of shootings in the Atlanta area on March 16. Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, and Yong Ae Yue died in the attacks. Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng died in a related shooting in Acworth, Georgia.
Attacked while walking
Vichar Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai immigrant, was shoved to the ground during his morning walk in a San Francisco neighborhood. He died soon after.
Assaulted on a train
Noel Quintana, a 61-year old Filipino American man, was attacked in Brooklyn during his morning train commute. A stranger slashed his face from ear to ear with a box cutter. Quintana later said nobody responded to his “Help me!” cries.
Attacked while waiting for the bus
Matthew Leung, a 51-year-old elementary school worker, lost part of a finger during an attack at a bus stop in Rosemead, California.
Attacked in the street
In San Francisco, Xiao Zhen Xie, age 76, was punched in the face while waiting to cross the street at a traffic light. She defended herself with a stick she picked up.
Punched while walking
While walking alone on the streets of White Plains, New York, an 83-year-old Korean American woman, who decided to remain anonymous, was spat on and punched so hard by a stranger that she blacked out.
Harassed waiting in line
Another woman, age 52, was shoved to the ground outside a Queens bakery after being verbally abused by the assaulter for no apparent reason.
Punched on the subway
In separate incidents on the same day, two older Asian women were punched in the head and face on the New York City subway.
None of these incidents has been classified as a hate crime.
Finding one root cause of racism against Asians or any other marginalized group is not a straightforward process. The phenomenon comprises a multitude of factors that interconnect in complex ways.
“Asians are easily identifiable and thus easily othered,” Dr. Ravi Chandra, Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, told Psych Central.
“The hate rhetoric from political leaders, the 4,000 verbal and physical assaults over the last year, and the recent homicides and mass murders at the Georgia spas have made it clear that Asian Americans, particularly women and elders, are not safe in the current climate,” Chandra said.
History and COVID-19
From indentured labor to the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to Japanese internment camps during World War II, violence against Asians is indeed not something new.
It’s been a problem for quite a while.
“The escalation of hate crimes against Asian-identified individuals is directly connected to the rampant anti-Asian sentiment historically and contemporarily perpetuated from the highest positions of office in America,” Joyce Yang, PhD, licensed psychologist, researcher, and full-time faculty member at the University of San Francisco, told Psych Central.
Many believe former President Donald Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric has been particularly damaging.
In fact, a recent study found that a tweet sent out by Trump on March 16, 2020, immediately spiked the number of racist anti-Asian hashtags. The tweet referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus.”
“Trump stoked anti-Asian sentiments that have existed for a long time,” Jason Wu, PhD, a licensed psychologist in San Jose, California, told Psych Central.
Chandra added that “for the last year, political leaders persisted in calling COVID-19 the ‘China virus.’ Many people’s distress about the pandemic was thrust onto Asians as if they were the cause.”
This is not the first time the Asian community has been scapegoated, says Wu. “There is a historical precedent. The Chinese were blamed for the bubonic plague in San Francisco. The city enacted discriminatory quarantine measures against Chinese and Japanese Americans that European Americans were not subjected to.”
In the more recent years, U.S. foreign policy and mainstream media accounts have also contributed to the portrayal of some Asian countries, especially China, as America’s rival.
A 2021 Gallup poll, for example, showed that Americans now see China as the nation’s greatest enemy. This, in part, stems from the inaccurate perception that the Asian country has become the world’s driving economic power.
Unverified claims that China’s government unleashed the coronavirus on the world as a bioweapon have also fueled the problem.
According to the Center of Hate and Extremism at California State University, incidents of violence and discrimination against AAPIs in 16 large U.S. cities increased 149% since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the pandemic in March 2020.
“Many AAPI members describe feeling like perpetual foreigners in this country, reinforced by questions of ‘where are you originally from,’ or people mispronouncing our names,” Wu said. “In addition, there are many Asian Americans who have been both implicitly and explicitly taught by both those in power in society, as well as some of their own Asian elders, that it is best to not draw attention to oneself as a method of protection and staying safe in this country.”
The model minority myth
Experts believe that another contributing factor to racial discrimination against Asians is the perpetuation of the model minority myth.
This is the belief that all members of the AAPI community are high-achieving, intellectually superior, self-sufficient, and progressively becoming richer and more successful.
Despite the stereotype, the community is experiencing record unemployment, hunger, and financial struggles.
“[The myth] was explicitly manufactured to make Black, Indigenous, and People of Color feel fundamentally less than while manipulating AAPI into docility and obedience,” Sarah Kwan, MS, PhD, a psychologist in San Francisco, told Psych Central. “It is a violent tool that continues to foment infighting and trample on solidarity. This is by design.”
The model minority myth is additionally problematic because it puts significant inequalities within the AAPI community in a blind spot.
It also perpetuates the belief that AAPIs don’t face significant challenges as individuals and as a group, and therefore, don’t require support and attention.
Victims of hate crimes and attacks can experience intense mental health trauma for a long time, particularly if they don’t receive support and professional help.
“Survivors of such attacks may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” Wu said.
According to Wu, symptoms can include:
- flashbacks and/or nightmares of the incident
- avoidance of people, places, thoughts
- distrust toward people
- interpersonal difficulties
- sleep disturbances
- anger and irritability
Racism and violence can also have long-term and chronic repercussions. They can affect an entire community across generations. And they can also resurface emotions related to historical trauma.
“It has triggered the underlying racial traumas that many of us have suffered through the covert and overt racism that we have experienced throughout our lives,” Wu explained.
The current events also reinforce the feeling of not belonging, says Chandra.
“[It] floods us with the sense of not being understood or cared about. That our pain and suffering is invisible and marginalized,” he explained. “When we are targeted physically, emotionally, and psychologically, it reminds us our sense of belonging is precarious and conditional.”
This intense experience can lead to chronic mental and physical health consequences, including a constant sense of loss and grief, in addition to many other negative outcomes.
“The number of Asian clients who have reached out to me specifically to work on racial trauma has grown exponentially,” Yang said.
A growing body of evidence suggests that racial discrimination is an important psychosocial stressor that often leads to physical and mental health challenges, including racial trauma.
“In my research and clinical practice, Asian-identified folks report noticing changes in their cognitions of how welcome they are in their own neighborhoods, and hesitation or avoidance of leaving the house alone and being out in public,” said Yang. “These are all signs and symptoms of race-based stress and trauma.”
Race-based traumatic stress (RBTS), or racial trauma, refers to the cumulative negative impact of racism on an individual’s mental and physical health.
Racial trauma can develop from exposure to one or multiple incidents of race-based discrimination. It can also be transmitted intergenerationally.
Trauma-triggering incidents can take many forms, including:
- microaggressions such as shunning, racial slurs, and being spat on
- different levels of physical injury and harm
- systemic neglect and civil rights violations
- witnessing or learning of crimes against other members of the community
The impact of racial trauma can be devastating, particularly when left unattended.
Some of the mental health symptoms of racial trauma include:
These symptoms often mirror those of PTSD.
“Often, sleep and appetite take the first and biggest hit,” Kwan said. “You can also keep an eye out for symptoms such as irritability, bouts of anger, muscle tension, stomach upset, and any other changes in the way your body feels.”
Members of the AAPIs communities have been repeatedly and historically exposed to racial discrimination. This makes them more sensitive to experiencing more severe health symptoms.
“[The] feeling of being targeted and unsafe can lead to hypervigilance, a symptom of trauma, in which the body starts responding to a perceived threat, both real and/or imagined,” Wu explained. “[This] keeps a person in a state of alertness to constantly scan for threats in our environments as a protective mechanism to keep us safe.”
This hypervigilance, says Wu, can trigger other symptoms such as:
- sleep disturbances
- chronic fatigue
- avoidance of situations
- irritability and anger
- problems in interpersonal relationships
- difficulty concentrating and focusing on a task
Stereotypes also play a role, adds Kwan.
“As we are consistently exposed to racial trauma. Our minds and bodies can become places that feel unsafe. This is compounded when racial stereotypes and expectations are internalized,” she explained.
“For AAPI, a major stereotype is that we are ‘unemotional’ and lack emotional needs. The message is that we ‘shouldn’t’ need help, and to seek it out would be shameful.”
This might lead to emotions being repressed, and signs of pain or distress ignored, explains Kwan.
Chronic stress and burnout
“Many AAPI individuals have been following the constant barrage of anti-Asian rhetoric,” said Wu. “This repeated exposure to traumatizing material has left many feeling angry, burnt out, helpless, and hopeless.”
He added that, “Sitting with that anger without any tangible outlets to affect real change can be exhausting and lead to burnout.”
The way many authority officials handle these violent incidents is another contributing factor to increased chronic stress levels.
“The minimization of the issue of race in what happened in Atlanta by a law enforcement officer felt like […] our experiences of discrimination and hate were minimized or denied,” Wu said. “We were made to feel as though we are being ‘too sensitive to race’ or ‘crazy.'”
Intersectionality is a way of understanding the complex intersecting or overlapping forms of discrimination. The term was originated by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights advocate and lawyer.
Intersectionality means that many forms of oppression, like racism and sexism, can be present and active simultaneously.
For example, if you look at many of the crimes against AAPIs, you might see that victims represent different groups of the community: ethnic groups (Asians), biological sex (females), and age (older adults).
This intersectionality of oppression in our societies presents unique challenges.
The three shootings in Georgia can be understood as an instance of intersectionality of hate crimes.
“This tragedy was an intersection of so many issues,” said Wu. “Systemic racism, misogyny and sexism, gender-based violence toward women, toxic masculinity and the justification of violence, and the dehumanization of sex workers.”
These are not mutually exclusive issues, he says.
“When we do not acknowledge how all of these issues are interconnected and only focus on one or two, we end up minimizing or dismissing the significance of the others,” Wu said.
Advocating for change takes more than caring.
“More than ever, it is important to see to the heart of the issue so we can dismantle it at its roots,” Kwan said.
If you’re looking to step into action, these are some of the ways you can help.
Going from bystander to upstander
Bystander intervention is training created to combat the bystander effect. This is when individuals don’t offer help to someone who’s being harassed, harmed, or assaulted.
The bystander effect is often voluntary and might result from everyone assuming someone else will step up to help. As a result, no one does.
Bystander intervention is based on the “3 Ds.”
- Direct: If deemed safe for everyone, you can consider addressing the harasser or asking the person being harassed if they’re OK.
- Distract: Come up with a creative way to distract and diffuse the situation. For example, consider asking the person being attacked a casual question such as “where’s the restroom?”
- Delegate: After assessing the situation, you could get someone else to help.
You could also add two more Ds.
- Document: If you consider it safe, you could make a video of the situation to later show authorities.
- Delay: After an incident, you could stay and offer support to the person. This might include asking how they are or if they need you to call someone else.
Everyone has biases. Many of these are unconscious and unintentional but can still be very harmful.
Some people can be racially biased without being aware of it. These unconscious forms of racism and discrimination can have ripple effects, such as perpetuating damaging stereotypes.
Uncovering and processing these biases require intentionally examining ourselves.
These are only some of the questions we can ask ourselves to keep our prejudices in check:
- What makes a community? Is it a few selected members, or is it all of its members regardless of perceived and real differences?
- What happens when you feel you belong in a certain group, but others don’t recognize you as a member?
- How would you feel if you’re at home but others demand you to leave for no reason?
- What if you loved your country so much but felt your country doesn’t love you back?
Research suggests that putting yourself in someone else’s shoes can significantly reduce your unconscious biases.
Empathy, then, might become a strong motivation for pro-social behavior.
Several campaigns and activist movements have launched as a response to the increasing number of anti-AAPI attacks.
GoFundMe has set up the Support the AAPI Community Fund that, to date, has raised more than $3 million. The money will be distributed among pro-AAPI grassroots movements.
The Atlanta chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice has also created a donation page to raise funds for the victims and families of the shootings in Georgia.
Hate is a Virus established a CommUNITY Action Fund to help national and local efforts supporting the AAPI community.
Learn more about AAPI
Inclusion begins with awareness.
One of the ways to stop unintentionally promoting stereotypes and to come up with effective ways to help is learning more about AAPI.
Wu says that we can also “educate ourselves and others on the history of anti-Asian racism in the United States to combat the racial gaslighting that occurs when people minimize or dismiss AAPI experiences of oppression and discrimination on the basis of us being ‘model minorities.'”
More than 20 million people in the United States identify as AAPIs. That’s 6.1% of the overall population.
It’s important, however, to not homogenize such a diverse community.
AAPI members traditionally come from different regions of the world, speak many languages and dialects, and follow diverse cultures and traditions.
Not all of the ethnic groups comprising AAPI have a country of their own. For example, the Hmong have lived in different regions, including southwestern China, Laos, and Thailand.
According to self-identifications reported in the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, there are approximately:
- 5.2 million people of Chinese descent
- 4.6 million people of Asian Indian descent
- 4.2 million people of Filipino descent
- 2.2 million people of Vietnamese descent
- 1.9 million people of Korean descent
- 1.5 million people of Japanese descent
- 342,000 people of Thai descent
- 339,000 people of Cambodian descent
- 226,200 people of Taiwanese descent
- 800,000 people of other not-specified Asian descent
- 607,000 people of Native Hawaiian descent
- 204,000 people of Samoan descent
- 160,000 people of Guamanian or Chamorro descent
- 67,000 people of Tongan descent
- 50,600 people of Fijian descent
- 270,400 people of other not-specific Pacific Islander descent
Racism is not a problem that only one group can solve on its own. It requires all of us to become aware, step into action, grow in empathy and solidarity, and understand this cannot become a trending topic only.
“What we can all do to fight the current wave of anti-Asian sentiment is to listen to and magnify AAPI voices,” Wu said. “Validate the experiences of the AAPI community to help combat that sense of invisibility, and help us feel seen, important, and valued in this country.”
“This is a moment of potential awakening and awareness in the broader culture for the histories and identities of Asian Americans, and our still-frustrated quest for belonging, equity, and justice for our entire community,” Chandra said.
To take forward steps, consider visiting and sharing these additional resources:
- Stop AAPI Hate
- NAPABA Hate Crimes Task Force and Pro Bono Legal Resources
- APISAA Therapist Directory
- AAPI Women Lead Survey on Gender-based Violence
- Asian American Health Initiative
- Asian Mental Health Collective
- National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association
- Asian American Psychological Association (AAPA)
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Inclusive Therapists
- Asians Do Therapy