Like the rest of the country, I woke up on Wednesday, March 17 to the horrific news of a mass shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people. Six were Asian women, aged between 44 and 74 years. I immediately fell asleep. Lulu Wang, American Chinese filmmaker and director The Goodbye, gave voice to my pain on social media: “I know these women. Those who work to the bone to send their children to school, to return the money home. “
The fact is that I have been in a state of numbness for much of last year. In addition to the unprecedented tensions that COVID-19 has put on us all, Asian Americans like me have had to face the rates of discrimination, verbal aggression, and physical violence. They have punched us, pushed us, stabbed us, spat at us, told us that the pandemic is our fault, we have brought it to this country and we should go back to where we came from. The most vulnerable people (women, young people and the elderly) are disproportionate targets.
Racial trauma and fear of the news
The relentless beating of headlines and viral videos depicting unprovoked violence against Asian Americans contributes to vicarious trauma, even for those who are 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 on the street, to always go shopping in broad daylight, with plenty of account. Then I broke my heart thinking about his firm belief in the goodness and possibility of this country, which motivated his immigration here almost 50 years ago. And she broke up again two weeks ago, when my mom told me that a teenager had called her a racial insult.
As a psychiatrist and director of the MGH Center for the Emotional Well-Being of Non-Profit Intercultural Students, operated by volunteers, I am well aware that Asian Americans faced mental health issues long before COVID-19. Since the 1960s, we have been stereotyped as a “Model Minority”: a uniformly successful group that keeps their mouths shut and doesn’t shake the ship. This stereotype intersects perfectly with the cultural values that value stoicism and self-sacrifice, and greatly stigmatizes everything that is perceived as shameful, including struggles for mental health. Asian Americans are two to three times less likely than whites seek mental health treatment and most likely the services available are not helpful. Our research shows that there are Asian American and Pacific University (AAPI) college students half likely as white students carrying a psychiatric diagnosis such as anxiety or depression, possibly because they have never seen a mental health professional, but almost 40% more likely to attempt suicide.
To this burden we now add a racial trauma, the mental and emotional injury caused by racial discrimination. As described by psychologist Robert Carter, racial trauma makes the world feel less secure and stays in the psyche long after the incident is over. Victims report anxiety, hypervigilance (a state of greater alertness), avoidance of situations that remind them of the attack, insufficient sleep, mood swings and yes, numbness. These symptoms reflect those of Post traumatic stress disorder. Actually, words can hurt us, unlike a childish 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 brought home that is not enough with a minority model: AAPI doctors and nurses have been attacked, even by patients they were caring for. What I never learned, neither from my parents when I grew up, nor from my high school history curriculum, 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 the persecution and caricature of Chinese and Asians as the “yellow danger,” sick, lewd, and treacherous. In 1871, a crowd of 500 people killed, mutilated and hanged 20 Chinese men in Los Angeles during one of the deadliest lynching incidents in U.S. history. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the only law that prohibited a particular ethnic or national group from immigrating to the U.S. and naturalizing as citizens. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order forcing more than 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps, more than 60% of whom were U.S. citizens. The hatred we see now echoes these pre-Asian refrains as sick and disloyal and perpetually foreign invaders.
A different perspective on the Model Minority myth
Now I see the Model Minority label in a different light. Who could blame Asian Asians for having adopted a seemingly more positive reputation, given the widespread discrimination they faced? But this stereotype is both harmful and wrong. It hides the significant differences and challenges facing the extraordinarily diverse AAPI community, which has greater income inequality than any U.S. racial group. And it encourages policymakers to overlook our problems. The most insidious thing is that it establishes a divisive contrast with other minorities, blaming them for their problems and perpetuating the fiction that structural racism does not exist. On top of all that, we now see how quickly the Model Minority stereotype returns to the yellow danger.
Will the racism we have experienced during this pandemic be a turning point in the racial awakening of our community? Our center can attest to a new hunger among AAPI parents for education and resources to help them talk to their children about race and racism. There are more members of our community who get organized, become politically active, and talk about hate incidents that were not previously reported. It has been a long time since we broke our silence and protested against AAPI hatred, yes, but also that we proudly stand in solidarity with other marginalized groups against violence and oppression in all its forms.
Dr. Chen would like to acknowledge that Ian Shin, MA, MPhil, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, who provided historical background for this publication.