Many Asian Americans say – we can wear a mask to protect against Covid but how can you protect yourself against racism?
The physical assaults are the stories that show up on the news. But the mental impacts of racism have been deadly for Asian Americans. They have experienced the highest mental health distress from both the pandemic and rise of hate crimes during pandemic while they are the least likely to seek help for the same.
“There are a lot of trauma reactions, similar to PTSD symptoms. However what makes racial trauma very unique is where PTSD is post traumatic stress disorder, a lot of racial trauma is not post. There is no ending to it right now. It is past, present and ongoing. So, it makes it very unique and tricky trauma symptoms to treat sometimes.” says Linda Yoon, a therapist and the founder of Yellow Chair Collective.
For many older generation South East Asians including Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian refugee immigrant population, the recent violent crimes have triggered their PTSD symptoms that remind them of war, genocide, displacement they experienced in their home countries.
Yoon says that there are a lot of physical symptoms in this trauma, including sleeplessness, nightmares, flashbacks, dissociation, confusion, loneliness, and a lot of anxiety and depression. And a lot of anger towards the injustice that they are experiencing.
A lack of understanding of the available mental health services as well as the cultural stigma associated with it, makes it even harder to reach this community.
The concept of mental health comes from psychology, which comes from the western culture and study, says Yoon and because psychology separates mind from the physical body, it feels alien to the eastern society. “In traditional eastern medicine and wellness, they talk about yin and yang – balance which also includes balance of your body and mind. And there is no separation between body and mind.”
So a lot of times Asian Americans will complain about their mental health symptoms in their physical somatic sense. “We talk about pain in our body, we talk about anger that lives inside our body, we talk about the shoulder pain that was caused by family stress, we talk about stomach issues that have been impacted by stress and anxiety.”
To address mental health issues and reduce the stigma, more integrative holistic approaches to mental health will make more sense to Asian populations in a culturally sensitive and linguistically competent manner.
But the good news is that they do not want to “shoulder the fear burden anymore” reports Anh Do at the LA Times). At the start, they “bent to cultural tradition” and kept quiet. They were taught to keep their troubles to themselves. And they wanted to avoid attention to their families. But then as assaults increased, they started reporting and creating safety plans for their loved ones.
“They gave their children mace.” “He makes sure his phone battery is always charged ready to be used in case something happens” and he needs to record it. “Never go alone, even for the smallest errand.” “Hyper vigilance, and avoidance of places”. These are some of the strategies ordinary Asian Americans are employing to stay safe, here in America, according to Do.
The potential for bullying, stereotyping and violence is so high that Asian American parents are afraid to send their kids back to school and generally go back in public.
Who are Asian Americans Exactly?
In 1968, UC Berkeley student activists Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka coined the term “Asian American” to unite the different communities of Asian descent and strategically create more political power in numbers.
Then, in the 1980s and ’90s this classification was broadened even further via the addition of Pacific Islander and creating the term Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI. While AAPI was meant to be inclusive, in reality it has often had the opposite effect.
According to Pew Research, this demographic marker includes about 19 million people, up 81 percent since 2000. 59 percent of all Asian Americans are immigrants, including 1.4 million of whom are undocumented. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in America, currently 5.6 percent of the county’s population but projected to be as much as 14 percent by 2065.
The income gaps among different Asian American ethnic groups are the widest of any racial group, and they are still growing. While Indian Americans have the highest median income of $100,000, for example, Burmese Americans have the lowest, at $36,000. By bundling over 50 ethnic groups that speak over a 100 languages under one broad AAPI banner, the aggregated data does a disservice to the individual communities.
But what makes us uniquely Asian says Professor Karthick Ramakrishnan, Professor of Public Policy, UC Riverside, to Vox, “is our “history of exclusion” whether this is the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, or the 1917 Immigration Act that barred Indians or by 1924, the Japanese as well.
In all these three cases, the immigrants came to the US as laborers but were framed as the source of economic problems, and in some cases public health ones, too.
The yellow peril is a racist metaphor for Asian Americans who are seen as outside threats that are invading the west with their diseases as explained by Professor Russell Jeung, Chair & Professor, Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University, at a USC Center for Health Journalism webinar titled “What Anti-Asian Hate Means for Mental Health, Safety and Justice.”
The “model minority” trope that suggests that all Asian Americans are well off, hardworking and successful and pit them against other minorities “masks the inequalities that Asian Americans face. The yellow peril is much more operative” suggests Professor Jeung, one of the founders of STOPAAPIHATE.org.
“Sometimes when we are on the inside, we are model minorities, we are white adjacent, we are crazy rich Asians. But in times of war, such as Japanese incarceration, or what happened to South Asian muslims and Arab Americans with islamophobia – in times of economic downturn and in times of pandemic, Asian Americans are framed as perpetual foreigners, or outsiders who don’t belong” says Professor Jeung.
Time and again, when diseases come from Asia, says Professor Jeung, “Asian Americans are perceived as the source of the diseases, policies seek to exclude them, and Asian Americans are met with interpersonal violence.”
AAPI Hate Crime on the Rise
#stopAAPIhate website tracker was created to collect individual reports, to document the issue, to figure out what’s happening, to track trends, and to provide policy interventions. The hate and anger directed against Asians was appalling, up to 100 incidents a day and that surge has continued.
Asian Americans report everything from being barred from ride shares, to being coughed and spat on, their businesses being shunned, their elderly being shoved and kicked, their children being bullied in person and online, racial epithets and slurs and the ever common curse – “go back to China”.
Almost unanimously, respondents named racism as their biggest stressor and greatest fear during the pandemic. Asian Americans are more concerned about other American’s hate than they are of a pandemic that has killed over half a million Americans. That’s how widespread and traumatizing the racism is.
Here in the Bay Area, there were higher incidents of hate crime against Asians in the beginning of the pandemic. This is likely because Northern California, more dependent on public transportation, the likelihood of different communities and different cultures interacting with one another is greater versus Southern California, which is very steeped in the car culture.
Help is At Hand
In Oakland, a volunteer service has been activated where a volunteer comes within 10-15 minutes of a call to accompany you to the bus stop, help you to a grocery store or back to your home.
Professor Jeung is angry and sad and distressed about the state of America although he is heartened that the Asian American community is standing up and “seeing our community really mobilize and working in unity with other allies.”
But he questions what healing looks like? And “as we experience racism, we might become racists – how do I stop this within my own self and how do I stop this for my students? What prescriptions do we have for our society so that we can stop that cycle of violence and racism?”
These are questions that do not have easy answers for us in the South Asian community either. Many of us faced stigmatization and violence in the aftermath of 9-11 but how do we become better allies and show support to our discriminated Asian brethren now?
A simple check up on your Asian American friends and neighbors, says Yoon, will go a long way. Her patients report feeling invisible and alone. Other strategies include intervening if you can when you see an incident, report what is happening and donate when you can.
Words matter, says Professor Jeung as the world watched Trump’s hate speech about the “China Virus” going viral, and normalizing hate towards the Asian American community. “We need official statements to normalize love and respect. It is sort of obvious but it is really needed.”
So, whatever organization you belong to or work at, pressure them to put out official statements about supporting the AAPI community because it helps them be seen and heard and acknowledge their pain and suffering.
President Biden’s new actions to respond to the increase in acts of anti-Asian violence have been celebrated in the community as a movement in the right direction. But in order to address the root case will require “ more education, more expanded civil rights protections and more restorative justice models”, says Professor Jeung.
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking, and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents