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Asian American Racism: From Psychological Injuries to its Underpinning in Physical Violence

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

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When you're one of the few minorities in a primarily white community, you learn from a young age that you're different. Sometimes you understand this by what people say, other times it's demonstrated as racial gestures, but most of the time it's felt as a passing judgment. You may feel deep yearning to be accepted as "normal" and similar to your white peers and adapt to that by erasing your Asian identity and assimilating. What you learn is, "You don't belong here." We all try to fit in and belong to a community, but true belonging doesn't actually happen while comparing your unworthiness to others.

As a Vietnamese-American woman born and raised in Idaho, I didn't see myself as Asian as much as I saw myself as "other" because truly identifying as Vietnamese, let alone Asian, made me too much of an outsider. To put it into perspective, Asians make up around 1-2% of the entire population in Idaho. We barely existed and henceforth, I felt a persistent identity crisis around belonging.

Beyond race and ethnicity, being of a different class and religion made it all too clear I was not going to belong in Idaho. I left to California, seeking to find people who would accept me. It has been almost two decades since leaving Boise, exploring my Vietnamese roots as well as my place in the Asian American diaspora, living in BIPOC (black, indigenous, persons of color) and global majority communities, working in Chinatown during the peak of Asian American violence, and moving back to a white dominated space here in Utah.

After all these years, I am certain that if I became the norm in privileged spaces without discerning the unhealthy patterns of control and fear that those groups held, I would have surely continued hating myself. It was clear this problem of not belonging was not only racially based, as there were plenty of Vietnamese people who didn't accept me either. Through this journey, there were profound lessons in identity, emotional safety, and and self-acceptance that have led me back here today to support others to connect with their own sense of self.

I hope you know you're not alone and these jarring and painful experiences are real and shared by others, especially other minority groups. Furthermore, these experiences can actually guide you to finding the answers in yourself. What I hope to support with you is to allow these experiences to have a voice and a name without judgment. This is where curiosity meet discovery.

The Way You Feel May Not Make Sense

I didn't have the language for it at the time, but there were many experiences of microaggressions in my every day existence. A microaggression is a subtle behavior – verbal or non-verbal, conscious or unconscious – directed at a member of a marginalized group that has a derogatory, harmful effect. These then are classified as microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidation (Sue et al, 2007)

Microassults are more deliberate and conscious, and refer to what we think of as racism. These are the slurs we usually hear such as "chink", "China man", and "Jap" and gestures as someone pulling their eyes into a slanted shape.

Microinsults and microinvalidations are often unintentional and operate from a subconscious level, which are formed into bias. These are extremely common interactions between our white counterparts and people of color that affect our daily lives. The denial that the microaggression has occurred is hurtful because the person doesn't understand that while there isn't intent to harm, it can still cause significant harm.

For example, the most common question I had growing up was "Where are you really from?" and "What type of Oriental are you?" Everybody has an immigrant story, but ours seems more exotic unfortunately. The person who was asking this often didn't know they were insinuating that Asians didn't belong here or were perpetual foreigners. I've gotten so used to this question that I don't flinch at all when I got asked. I tell them, "It's crazy to believe it, but I'm from Idaho." If they press further, wanting to get an answer about my ethnicity I state, "My parents are from Vietnam. After the war lots of Southeast Asians were placed in white communities to assimilate so you'll find us in random places." To reiterate how odd the question is, I'll ask them, "Where are your parents from and how did they get here?"

Other microinsults and microinvalidations amongst Asian-Americans can include:

  • "Your English is so good."

  • Assuming you are Chinese and greeting you with, "Ni hao."

  • Assuming that you're good at math and science because of the model minority myth

  • "When I see you, I don't see color."

  • Assuming you're docile and expecting you to break that expectation at work

  • Exoticization of Asian American women and demasculating Asian American men

  • Treatment among friend groups as the token Asian

When I was a teenager, it was difficult and near impossible to explain to my white friends how hurtful it felt to experience these microaggressions. It was as though their non-racist self-identity blocked them from what was happening and I recognized I couldn't talk with them about it. As I moved to Asian dominated places like college and grad school, my Asian friends couldn't understand it either. Everybody believed racism didn't exist so it felt bewildering, almost like being gaslit twice. As a consequence, many of us minority folks suffer in silence. However, as I broadened my exposure with with African American, Latinx, LGBTQ friends, it was clear that I wasn't alone and many people experience these types of interactions with the privileged and dominant group. I realized context matters and just because someone else doesn't understand it, they can still believe you and validate your experience.

The Model Minority Myth as a Tool to Further Harm

The "Model Minority" myth may sound like a good stereotype, but it's actually another way to using powerful narratives to dictate how people should behave. This myth was created a white sociologist William Petersen praising Japanese Americans for "enduring the most discrimination and worst injustices" and achieving great success in America "by their own almost totally unaided effort." He argued that these cultural values prevented Asians from being a "problem minority", which then aided to shame and blame the other minority groups for their inability to pick themselves up by their "bootstraps" and succeed. It cemented a false tier of racial hierarchy and was used a tool for scapegoating and racial rivalry we continue to see today.

As with any stereotype, it makes everybody a monolith instead of acknowledging the reality that everybody is different and has access to different resources, which may impact their ability to succeed in school. While there is a lot of pressure for Asian American children to succeed in school in order to access financial security and wealth, not everyone's intelligence is based on their schooling ability. This can further their sense of 'imposture syndrome'. You may feel like you aren't allowed to struggle in school because you're inherently expected to succeed. Most people won't share their struggles so it can further your shame. Ultimately, this is a painful cycle of trying to live up to a stereotype and expectation that everybody has placed on you.

The Persistent Fear that Men Would Fetishize my Asianness

Relationships are one of the most important foundations to your well-being, but do you often wonder if romantic partners value as you for who you are or is it for what you represent? Relationships are already complex, but interracial dynamic furthers that complexity and can lead to significant self-hatred and resentment. Given that many Asian women and men are in interracial relationships in America, can you also understand your own biases towards yourself and the other person? For example: Do you feel a pressure to show up only as parts of yourself? Are you showing up authentically or just how you think would make your partner comfortable?

Even at a young age, "yellow fever" was real and it was clear to me that I was noticed for being Asian and not seen objectively as a whole person. When I was a teenager, I would often get approached by middle aged men letting me know that I was "the most beautiful Asian" they'd ever seen. It was creepy. What bothered me more was that I was verifiably a chubby nerd with big glasses and braces, so I was confused because although I wanted validation for being pretty, I knew I wasn't. Their view of me wasn't consistent with reality and it unsettled me.

This is and has always been a sensitive topic -- not just for me, but for the person I was dating when I brought it up. An Asian fetish is a strong sexual or romantic preference for people of Asian descent or heritage. We would fight about "preference" and "fetish", and at the end of the day my main argument was that many men had desirable traits of an ideal woman and placed it onto Asian women, thus creating a preference for Asian women over other women. The men would claim it wasn't a fetish because they were "good" characteristics (not necessarily sexual ones), but that can't possibly be true of all Asian women. It's still stereotyping. Having the suspicion I was an amalgamation of an exotic, passive, smart, petite, hyper-sexual, model-minority, or a form of "almost a White woman, but more agreeable", I was not comfortable of being an idea to somebody.

Like any person, I wondered if I could be loved and understood for my own inherent values and characteristics? It's exhausting and heartbreaking to continually have to doubt your self-worth because someone doesn't see you. You're just a representation of something or someone else; it's limerence at its finest, but somehow you think you scored. Ultimately, the more I feared this, I ended up in relationships with men who had a history of dating primarily Asian women and who also refused to acknowledge it was a problem. Just because they didn't believe it didn't mean it was so. I played a role in this as well, dismissing my own doubts, and I finally took a step back to reassess this dynamic. If you don't know what it feels like to be seen, you will always accept those in your life who don't embrace you. This is such an important topic, of which I will go into more detail and research, but to be frank, if someone has a preference for Asian women, it's a fetish. It's not their fault, yet it's not okay to place characteristics on a person and continually do that without causing harm.

Finally, Violence Directed at Asian Elderly and Women

From what you've read so far, the Asian population in America has existed for the most part unseen and unheard. When we are somewhat seen, it's to satisfy an idea and not an acceptance of our being. When the world was struggling through COVID, it only made sense at this time to have a scapegoat for the unimaginable pain that ran rampant around the world. It made more sense for Asian-hate narratives to permeate the mind of those who already didn't see us as whole people.

On March 16, 2021, a young white man targeted Asian spas in Georgia and killed six Asian women. Weeks before and after this shooting, my Asian patients and coworkers in Oakland, Chinatown were being targeted. Every single week, there was another incident of elderly people being assaulted, women being groped, cruel comments from political leaders, and a cloud of blame and hostility towards all Asian people for this disease. What people don't know was a year before, our clinic started hearing about this mysterious disease in January 2020 and we already started planning for what we thought was similar to SARS or tuberculosis. In March 2020, as COVID-19 began spreading on the Grand Princess cruise ship along the Oakland port, the Asian community knew to start quarantining and masking. As a collective, we took this disease seriously and knew it was all of our responsibilities to minimize exposure and learn about the spread.

Given the situation, Asian Americans did their best to stop the spread. The rest of the US did not as they claimed they were protecting their "individual freedoms" over the heart of humanity. People refused to stay home and mask. Perhaps I wouldn't have felt such a slap in the face, a deep moral injury as a healthcare provider, if the US citizens really saw as heroes. I lost my faith in why I was saving people and wondered why those people who refused to mask deserved treatment at all. In these instances of anger and despair, I asked myself, "Why was I was sacrificing my body for theirs?" We could have done this together and many people did not need to needlessly die across the world.

In the midst of this, my friends asked me how I felt about the spa shootings, I said, "I can't feel anything." I was completely overwhelmed and exhausted. My tank was empty. When I had to go into work, my body was on high alert and heart raced as I questioned if this war would ever end and whether my body was disposable? My heart broke over and over every week as my patients and I were afraid to exist in the only place we've felt safe. I offered my ear over telemedicine while my patients grieved quietly, "I can't leave my home" or "My entire family in Vietnam is dying and the only reason I'm alive is because I have a vaccine here."

At the end of December 2021, I quit. I decided medicine wasn't for me anymore. There's a mass exodus of healthcare workers leaving the field since COVID 19. We constantly see reasons for why doctors are leaving medicine, but perhaps we need to assess the greater issues of loss -- loss of value, loss of safety, loss of love, and loss of respect in this nation. I don't feel valued or respected. I know this feeling deeply... I'm an Asian female. This is a repetitive narrative because it's not inherent in this structure. Even with many fancy degrees under my belt, my only value was of extraction for someone else. This is our society.

Alas, here we are and I want to ask you if you feel hurt and angry? This anger is telling you that this is not okay; you do have inherent value and deserve respect. As you can see, it's not readily given from the external world so we need to build value and respect within ourselves and make it a priority to uphold in our communities. We need to build something beautiful and better, with a foundation of peace, instead trying to use these crumbles we've been given and wondering what's wrong with us?

Do you see why you matter?

True belonging comes from self acceptance. Maya Angelou puts it beautifully, "You are free when you realize you belong no place -- you belong every place -- no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great." To belong, you need to seek to belong to yourself. It seems contradictory when you're seeking outwards, but your own self worthiness is the reward.

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