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Collage by Yunuen Bonaparte. Photo by Jason Leung.

A recent surge in violent attacks against Asian Americans has captured the nation’s attention. In addition to the mass shooting in Atlanta that claimed eight lives, including six women of Asian descent, assaults on Asian Americans have continued to rise at an alarming rate.

Hate crimes against Asian Americans in major U.S. cities skyrocketed by nearly 150% in 2020, even as overall hate crimes dropped, according to a recent report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

That figure may seem surprising to those who haven’t previously considered Asian Americans as a particular target for racism over other minority groups.

But discrimination and violence against Asian Americans has been foundational to the population’s history in the United States.

America’s legacy of exploiting Asian immigrant labor at home while pursuing imperial interventions in Asia has resulted in damaging stereotypes and the violent subjugation of Asian Americans.

Asian Americans who’ve been trying to call attention to racist attitudes since before the COVID-19 pandemic have often experienced gaslighting from those who glossed over their concerns. For other Asian Americans, the recent spate of attacks has served as a rude awakening that their belonging is more tenuous than once believed.

For some, like me, it may be a combination of both. As a first-generation Asian American born to Indian parents, I feel horrified if slightly removed from recent attacks primarily targeting people of East Asian descent.

Still, when I called out the xenophobia of punch lines at the expense of Asian Americans just before the pandemic hit last year, it felt like I was crying wolf.

“Understanding the historical context for recent anti-Asian discrimination and violence — and its mental health impacts on the community — are essential to paving a path forward.”

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Whether Asian Americans foresaw the recent rise in hate crimes or not, the mental health impacts, including heightened rates of anxiety, have been severe.

Asian Americans face particular barriers to accessing appropriate mental healthcare.

This is due partly to reticence when it comes to talking about mental health in many Asian cultures and partly to a lack of competency among mental health professionals to address the specific needs of Asian Americans.

Understanding the historical context for recent anti-Asian discrimination and violence — and its mental health impacts on the community — are essential to paving a path forward.

The first significant wave of Asian immigration to the United States began with Chinese laborers coming to the West Coast during the 1850s Gold Rush. Valued as a cheap workforce, they were also subject to mob attacks.

“The double helix of the Asian American story is the United States wanting Asians to perform labor for the sake of society while ensuring that Asians remain vulnerable to violence and even death,” said James Kyung-Jin Lee, associate professor of Asian American Studies at University of California, Irvine.

A similar pattern of labor exploitation and racist violence characterizes the next century-plus of Asian immigration to the United States.

“The recent spate of anti-Asian sentiment and violence is not at all surprising if you take these incidents in the broader context,” Lee said.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited immigration from China through the mid-20th century, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, for example, enacted anti-Asian sentiment on a federal level.

But regular attacks have also occurred on an individual scale all along. Among the most infamous is the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American falsely taken for Japanese and beaten to death by men who decried him for stealing American jobs.

America’s history of military intervention in Asia, including World War II in Japan and the Vietnam War, has also been integral to how Asian bodies are considered in the American public imagination.

The slaughter of opposing troops and sexual conquest of local women impressed upon generations of American soldiers the perception of Asian men as weak or feminine and Asian women as subservient sexual objects.

The Atlanta killings “speak to a longer history of the ways that Asian women’s bodies have been subject to both the desire and the violence of white men” through American wars in Asia, Lee said.

Despite a clear history of anti-Asian racism and violence in the United States, many Asian Americans have often felt their grievances overlooked.

“There is this feeling among a lot of Asian Americans of, I feel like I’ve been screaming into an abyss,” said Helen H. Hsu, PsyD, former president of the Asian American Psychological Association.

Media representation of Asian Americans has expanded in recent years, with movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” doing big box office, and “Minari” garnering multiple Oscar nominations.

But the persistence of damaging stereotypes about Asian Americans in pop culture signals that anti-Asian racism has not been taken as seriously as racism toward other racial ethnic groups.

That’s due in part to the model minority narrative, which casts Asian Americans as a high achieving and “safe” racial group, while setting them in contrast to negative stereotypes about Black and Latinx people.

Not only does the model minority myth minimize wealth disparity among Asian Americans, which is growing more rapidly than among any other racial group in the United States, it’s also “a very shallow veneer,” Lee said, underneath which lies “persistent, ugly, anti-Asian sentiment.”

While Asian Americans have higher levels of integration into predominantly white neighborhoods and schools, any sense of assimilation isn’t guaranteed, Lee said.

“Even if you enjoy some measure of wealth or status, your feeling of belonging is always precarious,” he said, especially as an immigrant. Subsequent generations also have to contend with being seen as perpetually foreign, even when America is the only country they know.

Many Asian Americans, including the historians and mental health professionals quoted in this story, anticipated the spike in anti-Asian discrimination and violence that has coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic and was exacerbated by callous, xenophobic messaging from the former Trump administration.

The result has been a burgeoning mental health crisis among Asian Americans.

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Stop Asian Hate community rally in San Jose, March 2021. Photo by Jason Leung.

For a lot of American-born Asian Americans in particular, “there is a real rage” and shock over recent events, Hsu said, compared with those who were more accustomed to expect harassment or bias.

Some Asian Americans are even learning about America’s history of violence against the community for the first time. While the facts are distressing in themselves, recognizing the history of anti-Asian violence can lessen the burden on individual mental health.

“Understanding the context takes away some of the shame or blame that can come up when people feel targeted,” Hsu said. Instead of considering one’s emotional response to racism as an individual mental health problem, looking at the larger picture helps people recognize the issue as systemic rather than personal.

“Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental healthcare than white Americans.”

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Asian Americans are often less equipped to talk honestly about facing discrimination or harassment.

Hsu noted that Black families tend to be more accustomed to talking with their kids about racism, a custom colloquially known as “the talk” among African Americans and race scholars.

But, Hsu said, for many Asian Americans, “Our families rarely gave us the language to process this. I’ve heard a lot of Asian patients say things like, ‘Well, my family said to work hard and stay quiet, then everything will be fine.’”

Stigma toward seeking mental healthcare, or even expressing emotions, is significant among Asian American cultures, Hsu said. Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental healthcare than white Americans, according to data collected in 2012 from the National Latino and Asian American Study.

A lack of cultural competency among mental health professionals in addressing issues specific to Asian Americans is also a big challenge.

“You don’t have to be Asian or even a person of color” to be a culturally sensitive therapist, Hsu said. “However, very few therapists actually have this training — and I’ve heard countless stories of them actually doing harm and committing microaggressions in session.”

While major health boards, including the American Psychological Association, have made diversity value statements, “translating that into action is a whole other reality,” Hsu said.

Asian American therapists can play an especially vital role in creating space and understanding for those feeling the weight of current events.

“We are in a collective grief and trauma state right now,” said Joy Lieberthal Rho, LCSW, a practicing clinician in New York City who is Korean American. “The best thing I can do for my clients is to sit with that and hold it.”

Rushing through that grieving process might suggest there’s an easy solution. “We really do need to learn this is going to be a very long process,” Rho said, adding that conversations sparked by recent unfortunate events have been encouraging.

People have also found comfort in the solidarity of direct action, at rallies and other events calling for awareness and justice. But staying in tune with your own emotional needs is important, too. And for some Asian Americans, that may mean taking a step back.

“The work will always be there,” Hsu said. “If somebody needs some time for rest and self-care and to turn off the news for a bit, that’s OK.”

“There is this feeling among a lot of Asian Americans of, I feel like I’ve been screaming into an abyss.”

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Bystander training, in which allies learn how to respond in case of witnessing harassment or worse, is one form of direct action to take.

Lindsey Boylan, a progressive candidate for Manhattan borough president, called on New Yorkers to receive training this spring, in the wake of a broad daylight attack on a 65-year-old Filipino immigrant that shook the city. Boylan pointed to the organization Hollaback!, which offers free training sessions regularly.

In relationships with Asian American friends and loved ones, it’s important for allies to emphasize listening over talking, Rho said. Taking the initiative to educate themselves, rather than expecting Asian American friends to lay groundwork for them, is also key to being a supportive ally.

“Be somebody who expresses concern but doesn’t demand emotional labor,” Hsu said.

Donating to organizations committed to supporting Asian Americans is another way to step in and help.

GoFundMe has created Support the AAPI Community Fund as an umbrella resource that’s distributed across a range of local organizations. The site hosts individual fundraisers for many different AAPI-focused advocacy groups, as well.

Advocates and organizers have also called on people to support Asian American-owned businesses, which have been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic due in part to xenophobia.

Ultimately, there’s hope and historical precedent for coalition building among different minority groups in demanding social justice. With outcry over anti-Asian hate rising up concurrently with the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s a powerful momentum to keep pushing for more conversation and substantive change.

“As much as possible, we need to not let the story fade into the background,” Lee said. “We need to pay attention and help each other.”

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