“We’re just tired,” Will Lex Ham of New York City tells CNN. “We’re tired of being scapegoated.”
Ham’s sentiments echo the fatigue, frustration and collective trauma experienced by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) due to racist attacks on their communities.
For many in the AAPI community, just leaving home requires a new routine and a mental shift that prioritizes survival. It’s coupled with a subtle fear, wondering if they or a loved one will become the next victim.
“I no longer listen to music when I’m walking around,” Pearl Sun says. “I want to make sure I pay attention to what or whatever might be happening around me.”
This spike in hostility towards Asian Americans coincides with the Covid-19 pandemic. Between March and December of 2020, 2,808 complaints were reported to Stop AAPI Hate. The organization, which tracks racist encounters against Asian Americans, reported 8.7 percent of the incidents involved physical assaults, and 71 percent included verbal harassment like the one NBA star Jeremy Lin experienced, when he was called “coronavirus” on the court.
In an interview with CNN anchor Don Lemon, Lin spoke about the need for awareness and solidarity for AAPI community members.
The history we rarely hear about
While Covid-19 may have raised the xenophobic flames, racism against Asian Americans is not new.
The history of racism against Asians in the US dates back to the 1800’s, says Doris Chang, Associate Professor at New York University and a clinical psychologist who studies racism’s impact on the AAPI community. She points to the 19th century recruitment of single men from China for cheap labor in American mines, fishing boats and railroad construction.
“They were willing to take jobs working in terrible conditions, making poor wages. As the economy worsened, they were eventually seen as a threat to White men in terms of a threat to their jobs and a threat to their livelihoods,” Chang explains.
“We saw even then in the late 1800’s these explosions of anti-Asian violence. Eventually we saw when it led to the passages of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was the first piece of legislation that officially barred immigration or limited immigration on the basis of one’s race.”
Chang says violence toward Asian Americans occurs in cycles punctuated by dormancy. Asian people are often “welcomed in this country as long as we are seen as useful to the larger American project.”
“During times of social, political, economic instability,” she continued, “then we are marginalized again and seen as a ‘perpetual foreigner’ and therefore a threat to national security.”
Resurgence of hate
As Covid-19 spread in the US, President Trump publicly referred to coronavirus as “Kung Flu” and the “China Virus.” He insisted the appellations were not racist, instead simply referring to the pandemic’s geographic origin. But Chang says the descriptions resonate with –and help inflame– that cycle of discrimination.
“So, we have this coming together of stereotypes, paired with activation of those stereotypes for political rhetoric — paired with already a feeling of unsafety and fear.”
Chang and her team are studying the Asian American experience during the pandemic in combination with the protests over George Floyd’s murder. Their goal is to ultimately promote alliances and solidarity with Black Lives Matter and immigrants’ rights groups. But her initial findings reveal disturbing figures for her own community.
In her survey of nearly 700 Asian Americans across the country, 16 percent reported being deliberately coughed or spat on. And 24 percent reported workplace discrimination while 14 percent said they had been barred from an establishment like a shop.
The uptick in discrimination against the AAPI community is distressing. But there are ways to push back and resources available to lend support. Here is what you can do:
Speak up and speak out
“On the advocacy side, one of the questions we still get when we talk to people about this issue is, ‘Is this a real thing?’ That’s literally the question that some people will ask us,” explains John C. Yang, President and Executive Director of the AAJC. He says the “Stand Against Hatred” platform “documents that this is real. It documents where that has happened.”
Yang also explains how this platform amplifies visibility of AAPI people while also reshaping and reclaiming a narrative perpetuated by harmful stereotypes.
“Unfortunately, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders often are invisible to the public. Or, where we are visible, it falls into a couple of different stereotypes. One stereotype is the so called ‘model minority’ – the suggestion that there are no issues that really affect the Asian American community. ‘They are already doing well, and they don’t have needs that we need to be worried about.’”
“And we know that that’s false. This moment proves that that is false,” he continues.
By amplifying and centering AAPI voices, community needs get amplified as well.
“So, in that sense, making sure that these stories are visible—those needs are visible is critical.”
Teach and train
Right To Be, a website that fights harassment, partnered with AAJC to launch free bystander intervention training. “We are launching these trainings in partnership with them (AAJC) really to help folks who are witnessing anti-Asian, anti-Asian American harassment and be equipped to safely respond,” Emily May of Right To Be explains.
The one-hour intensive class explores the “spectrum of disrespect” from microaggressions to violence.
According to the organization’s website, the training teaches how to safely intervene when witnessing anti-Asian racism whether online or in person. It also allows for practice through real-world scenarios. The virtual events are free of charge, but registration is required.
For those who have experienced harassment, Right To Be created an online class to help survivors cope and grow.
“What we wanted to do with the training on ‘what to do if you experience that type of harassment’ is really support that healing and resilience,” May tells CNN.
“Our hope in providing these bystander intervention trainings and equipping Asians and Asian Americans to have more resilience practices at their disposal is that we can start to heal some of the long-term, multigenerational trauma that is happening.”
Racism attacks the mind
As a clinical psychologist, Doris Chang says many of her Asian and Asian American clients are under a lot of distress as a result of recent attacks.
Although the need is great, “Asian Americans tend to underutilize mental health services more than other groups do. We just don’t go,” Chang explains.
“Whereas Black Americans and Hispanic Americans are starting to come to therapy in greater numbers than before, that has not shifted for Asian Americans.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), members of the AAPI community are the least likely to seek help of any racial group. In 2019, the organization claims, only 23.3 percent of AAPI adults with mental illness were receiving treatment.
To help raise awareness about mental health offerings for AAPI individuals, NAMI has listed a number of resources specifically designed for Asian Americans. Among the resources listed is Psychology Today’s search portal to help AAPI people find Asian mental health professionals with common backgrounds.
In addition to NAMI, the Asian American Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut in conjunction with the #IAMNOTAVIRUS Campaign has created a downloadable workbook to promote and prioritize self-care for Asian Americans.
Protect Asian elders
Between March 2020 and December 2020, Stop AAPI Hate received 126 reports of incidents specifically involving elderly Asians and Asian Americans. Chang tells CNN safety for elderly family members, many of whom do not speak English as a first language, is a major worry.
“It has been a really painful experience to see our most revered members of our community being targeted.”
In response, activists in California’s Bay Area created Compassion in Oakland to accompany elderly Asian men and women who may feel unsafe outdoors. According to the non-profit’s website, more than 400 Californians are stepping forward to protect elder Asian Americans. On the organization’s website, out-of-state volunteers can apply to bring a ‘Compassion project’ in their area.
Raise funds to empower AAPI individuals and businesses
There are numerous grassroots crowdfunding sites raising funds for specific anti-xenophobia causes. You can also set one up for your own community.
“What GoFundMe does best is enabling people to take action on the causes that matter most to them, in real time,” says Musa Tariq of GoFundMe.
“The community the #StopAsianHate initiative has created is remarkable – people are sharing their personal experiences with racism and calling on others to help.”
Jean Casarez, Aaron Cooper and Steve Coppin contributed to this report.