Anti-Asian racism: Breaking through stereotypes and silence

Like the rest of the country, I woke up on Wednesday March 17 to the terrible news of a mass shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people. Six were Asian women, aged 44 to 74. I immediately went numb. Lulu Wang, the Chinese-American director and director of The farewell, expressed my pain on social networks: “I know these women. Those who work hard to send their children to school, to send money home. “

The point is, I have been in a state of numbness for much of the past year. In addition to the unprecedented strains COVID-19 has placed on all of us, Asian Americans like me have faced skyrocketing rates of discrimination, verbal assault and physical violence. We were hit, shoved, stabbed, spat, told the pandemic was our fault, we brought it to this country and we should go back to where we came from. Our most vulnerable – women, young people and the elderly – are disproportionately targeted.

Racial trauma and fear in the news

The relentless drumbeat of viral headlines and videos portraying unprovoked violence against Asian Americans contributes to vicarious trauma, even for those not directly attacked. Fearing for the safety of my parents, both 70 years old in Virginia, I called home last March to warn them not to go out too much, to always shop in the light of day, to be very careful. My heart then broke thinking of their deeply held belief in the goodness and possibility of this country, which motivated their immigration here almost 50 years ago. And it broke again two weeks ago when my mom told me that a teenager shouted a racial insult at her.

As a psychiatrist and director of the nonprofit, volunteer run MGH Center for the Emotional Well-Being of Cross-Cultural Students, I am keenly aware that Asian Americans struggled with mental health issues as well. before COVID-19. We’ve been stereotypical since the 1960s as the “Model Minority”: a consistently successful band that keeps their mouths shut and don’t tip the boat over. This stereotype fits perfectly with cultural values ​​that advocate stoicism and self-sacrifice, and greatly stigmatize anything perceived as shameful – including mental health issues. Asian Americans are two to three times less likely than whites to seek mental health treatment and more likely to find available services unnecessary. Our research shows that students at Asian American and Pacific Islander universities (AAPI) are about half as likely as white students to have a psychiatric diagnosis like anxiety or depression – perhaps because they don’t. have never seen a mental health professional – but almost 40% more likely to have attempted suicide.

To this burden we now add racial trauma – the mental and emotional wounds caused by racial discrimination. As psychologist Robert Carter has described, racial trauma makes the world less safe and lasts in the psyche long after the incident is over. Victims report anxiety, hypervigilance (a state of heightened alertness), avoiding situations that remind them of the attack, poor sleep, mood swings and yes, numbness. These symptoms mirror those of post-traumatic stress disorder. Words can actually hurt and hurt us, unlike a childhood rhyme – sometimes even more than sticks and stones.

The weight of racism, past and present

Time and time again, the events of this pandemic have made it clear that it is not enough to be a model minority – AAPI doctors and nurses have been assaulted, even by patients they were caring for. What I never learned, neither from my parents growing up, nor from my high school history program, is that anti-Asian racism is nothing new; it is woven into the very fabric of this country.

Looking back teaches us a lot. Fear that Chinese workers would take American jobs in the mid-1800s fueled persecution and the caricature of Chinese and Asians as the sick, obscene and treacherous “yellow peril”. In 1871, a mob of 500 slaughtered, mutilated, and hanged 20 Chinese in Los Angeles in one of the deadliest lynching incidents in U.S. history. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the only law to prohibit a specific ethnic or national group from immigrating to the United States and naturalizing as a citizen. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order compelling more than 120,000 Japanese Americans to enter internment camps – over 60% of whom were US citizens. The hatred we see now echoes these earlier refrains of Asians as sick invaders and unfaithful and perpetual strangers.

A different perspective on the myth of the model minority

I now see the model minority label in a different light. Who could blame Asian Americans for adopting a seemingly more positive reputation, given the pervasive discrimination they face? But this stereotype is both detrimental and false. This masks the disparities and significant challenges facing the extraordinarily diverse AAPI community, which has the highest income inequality of any racial group in the United States. And it encourages decision-makers to overlook our problems. More insidiously, it creates a divisive contrast with other minorities, blames them for their problems, and perpetuates the fiction that structural racism does not exist. On top of all that, we now see how quickly the stereotype of the model minority is returning to the yellow peril.

Will the racism we experienced during this pandemic be a turning point in the racial awakening of our community? Our center can testify to a new hunger among AAPI parents for education and resources to help them talk to their children about race and racism. More and more members of our community are organizing, becoming politically active and speaking out against incidents of hate that were not previously reported. It is high time that we break our silence and speak out against the hatred of AAPI, yes, but also that we proudly stand in solidarity with other marginalized groups against violence and oppression in all its forms.


  • MGH Center for the Emotional Well-Being of Intercultural Students. Resources on anti-Asian racism and mental health, with sections dedicated to parents, students, therapists, educators and allies.
  • Toolkit to help Asian parents talk to teens about racism (available in five languages).
  • Report incidents of anti-Asian hate to Stop AAPI Hate.

The post Anti-Asian Racism: Breaking Stereotypes and Silence first appeared on Harvard Health Blog.

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Jothi Venkat

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