Violent attacks on Asians and Asian Americans (A/AA) have increased exponentially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to data from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, although the number of overall hate crimes in the United States’ largest cities decreased by 6% in 2020 compared with 2019, anti-Asian hate crimes soared by nearly 150%. Cities with the largest increases in anti-Asian hate crimes included New York City (833% increase), Philadelphia (200% increase), Cleveland (200% increase) and San Jose, California (150% increase).
According to data from Stop AAPI Hate, 3,795 cases of anti-Asian hate incidents were received by its reporting center between March 19, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021. Verbal harassment made up the majority of the reported hate incidents (68.1%), followed by avoidance or shunning (20.5%), physical assault (11.1%), civil rights violations such as refusal of service (8.5%) and online harassment (6.8%). Media coverage of hate crimes against A/AA reached a fever pitch after the horrific killings of six Asian women in the Atlanta metropolitan area and the physical assaults in New York City of a Chinese woman who was slapped and set on fire, a Filipino American man who was slashed across his face with a box cutter, a Thai immigrant who died after being shoved to the ground, and a Filipino American woman who was suddenly kicked in her stomach and head repeatedly in broad daylight.
Like those in other ethnic groups, A/AA experiencing racial discrimination may develop mental health concerns such as generalized anxiety, panic disorder, depressive disorder, a low level of life satisfaction, low self-esteem, sleep problems, low appetite and even suicidal ideation. On top of these potential mental health concerns, the recent violent attacks may have caused many A/AA individuals to become hypervigilant or even fearful in public more frequently and to constantly worry about the safety of their families and friends.
These attacks and harassments immediately drew heightened attention in many professional fields, including counseling. Professional counseling organizations such as the American Counseling Association, the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development, and the Association for Assessment and Research in Counseling have responded to anti-Asian hate crimes through official statements, specific research grant releases and other supportive actions. At the same time, individual counselors should also recognize our ethical obligation to nondiscrimination and social justice. According to the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics, professional counselors are responsible for providing nondiscriminatory counseling services (Standard C.5.), advocating for individuals who are underserved or experience barriers to services (A.7.a.), and contributing to the public good (C.6.e.).
So, what should and can professional counselors do to respond to anti-Asian hate crimes? Perhaps, the very first step is to gain a deeper understanding, especially about the hidden factors and prejudices that might have historically contributed to the discrimination behind anti-Asian hatred.
Various factors contribute to the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes. One of the most visible and widely debated factors is the use of racist language (especially by influential public figures) such as “China virus,” “Wuhan virus” and “kung flu.” The use of such language provides permission or license for others to express their deeply held prejudices. Researchers have coined this phenomenon the “emboldening effect.” There are many other myths, however, that have fostered the prejudices that we, as a nation, have toward A/AA.
One hidden prejudice could be that A/AA are viewed as perpetual foreigners. Seemingly innocuous questions such as “Where are you from?”; “Where are you really from?”; and “What’s your real name?” perpetuate this belief, with the underlying assumption being that they cannot be from the U.S. and their English-sounding name is not their real name. This belief that A/AA are foreigners extends to the entertainment industry. Take the movies Minari and The Farewell, for example. Despite being American-made films, both movies were ineligible for the Golden Globes’ best picture category. Instead, they were relegated to the best foreign language film category because much of the movies’ dialogue was not in English. The implicit message here is that A/AA experiences are not American enough or, even worse, that these populations are always viewed as being foreigners/outsiders. Such perspective relegates A/AA populations to some kind of marginalized status and also fosters disdain or hostility among many Americans toward them.
Another hidden prejudice is the model minority myth. This myth perpetuates the belief that A/AA are the most successful minority due to their hard work, focus on education and community support. There are three problems with this myth.
First, the myth paints a monolithic picture of the Asian community when there can be huge disparity within the different Asian diasporas. For example, Bhutanese Americans experience a higher poverty rate than do other Asian groups, such as Japanese Americans. Second, the internalization of this myth puts enormous pressure on A/AA to succeed, which can negatively affect their mental health.
Third, and perhaps most damaging, is that this myth perpetuates another myth: the myth of meritocracy. The underlying message is that the Asian community has transcended decades of racism because of their hard work; therefore, if an individual (or a particular group) is not as successful, it is assumed to be due to their lack of effort rather than systemic injustice. This line of thought effectively creates a wedge between different minority communities in the U.S. and
maintains the status quo of white privilege and supremacy.
Collectivism may be another significant but often neglected factor. The majority of A/AA populations share a belief that their identity lies within a group, such as their family, a specific community or even collective society (see Derald Wing Sue and David Sue’s Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice). Growing up and living in such collectivistic culture, A/AA individuals are typically educated to honor harmony and avoid conflict, and gradually they develop a tendency to be compliant and quiet or to keep away from standing out, even in a positive manner.
Coupled with this sense of collectivism, many historical policies, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, have silenced the A/AA community. To survive, A/AA populations learned to be self-reliant and not bring attention to issues surrounding the A/AA community. Sayings such as “keep your head down” and “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” are common mantras that A/AA individuals typically hear from their parents and grandparents. Thus, when they experience unfair treatment, bullying, discrimination or even violence, they tend to tolerate it and choose not to report. Although the collectivistic way of being in no way causes hate crimes against A/AA individuals, perpetrators of hate crimes may perceive members of the A/AA community to be easy targets because of their lack of self-advocacy.
Many A/AA people have internalized the model minority myth and developed a condition of worth around it. They believe they should be exemplars for others and succeed in various aspects of their lives — socially, academically and financially. Otherwise, they “fail.” In fact, one study reported that Asian American college students were more susceptible than other ethnic minority college students to experiencing feelings of being impostors. Failure to tolerate the discrimination and preserve the collective honor of becoming a model minority may result in a sense of guilt, bringing shame to the family, community or society.
The perception of A/AA as foreigners has also become an inhibitor to self-advocacy. There are legal and political histories that have contributed to this perception, but a lack of English proficiency, the presence of prominent accents and the use of nonalphabetic characters are also believed to promote their “foreigner” status, discouraging them from voicing their experiences of racism and discrimination.
Furthermore, some A/AA populations may have inherited the feeling of “indebtedness” to America from the first generation of Asian immigrants. Many Asians immigrated to the U.S. for better educational, economic and employment opportunities, especially for their children. Some Asian immigrants also fled to the U.S. to avoid human rights abuses and nondemocratic rule in their own countries. Early Asian immigrants may thus rationalize the racism they experience in America as the price of admission they need to pay to this country.
Emerging voice and hope
However, since the surge of xenophobia toward A/AA resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, A/AA have been taking more active and vocal roles to advocate for the realization of their rights. Stop AAPI Hate, sponsored by multiple organizations, was established in March 2020 to stand united against racism and hate that targets Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. In addition, the news media has been highlighting the escalation of hate crimes against A/AA. In March, Democrats in the House of Representatives held the first congressional hearing on anti-Asian discrimination in three decades.
Several factors, such as the utilization of social media and the increased representation of A/AA in entertainment, politics, sports and executive roles, are conducive for this somewhat unusual movement among A/AA to make new cracks in the “bamboo ceiling.” We want to highlight two other plausible factors: a demographic change within the U.S. and a generational change among A/AA.
Many A/AA grow up in a collectivistic cultural background that encourages the pursuit of harmony with others (in particular, others in the majority) and values showing respect toward others who are higher in the social hierarchy. The fact is that minority populations are becoming a majority in the U.S. Activism against racial injustice, for civil and human rights, and for equity for themselves is becoming a part of the discourse of this new majority. A/AA are drawing inspiration from activist movements, such as Black Lives Matter, that have emerged out of other underrepresented communities. Even as we recognize the divisions between minority communities and their different histories of suffering, there is a chance to continue the history of solidarity for those who have been kept in subordinate positions.
Generational change is another significant factor. Second, third and even younger generations of immigrants are often substantially better off on several socioeconomic attainments such as income, education and homeownership than their parents who migrated to the United States, according to Pew Research Center analysis. These individuals are more assimilated to the U.S. culture and more astute to the issues of inequality and social justice than their parents or grandparents are or were. Thus, thoughts about racial identity and racism may be quite different between younger generations of A/AA and early Asian immigrants.
For example, younger A/AA individuals may naturally claim their identity as Americans and thus may not possess the deep indebtedness that was part of their parents’ or grandparents’ experience. In addition, whereas early Asian immigrants typically embraced collectivism and harmony, younger A/AA generations may prioritize equality and social justice. Even the use of technology makes a difference between A/AA generations. Younger A/AA individuals are much more familiar and comfortable with using social media to communicate their thoughts and advocate. All of these generational changes have contributed to raising a stronger voice against anti-Asian hatred.
Suggestions for counselors
Highlighting issues surrounding the A/AA community is a step in the right direction because it combats the invisibility of A/AA experiences. Efforts to include the A/AA community in the discourse should be consistent rather than a one-time event. We offer a few suggestions for counselors on starting and maintaining the conversation.
1) Practice self-reflection: If you are a counselor educator or supervisor, have you talked or facilitated discussion in your class or with your students/supervisees about the escalation of hate crimes and discrimination against A/AA? If so, why? If not, why? If you pause and examine your thoughts, feelings and physical reactions, what do they tell you about your perceptions or hidden beliefs regarding A/AA populations?
2) Broach the conversation: After the mass shooting in the Atlanta area in March, each of the authors of this article were reached out to by friends, colleagues, former professors and even their students. We all appreciated and felt touched by even short messages such as “How are you doing?”; “I am just thinking about you”; and “I am grateful you are in my life.” There might be hesitation to bring national news to an individual level, but we encourage counselors to reach out if they think about doing it. These gestures can make many A/AA individuals feel cared for and assured that they are part of the larger community in the U.S.
3) Voice concern about exclusion of A/AA: We noticed that some organizations were offering multicultural training on racial minority groups that did not include A/AA or having diversity committees without an A/AA representative. Reaching out to organizations to address the need for the inclusion of topics related to the A/AA community or individuals from an A/AA background is advocacy work that we all can engage in.
4) Reach out to your elected officials: Email or call your local elected officials and ask them about specific bills and votes that affect A/AA communities. Express your concern and support for A/AA in your community. The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (napawf.org) has a petition page that suggests elected officials focus on fighting systemic racism and address the needs of survivors and the affected community.
5) Reach out and enhance counseling accessibility to A/AA populations: We encourage counselor educators and professional counselors to consider providing support groups for A/AA individuals on campus and in the community. Professional counselors could collaborate with local elementary, middle and high schools to provide individual counseling, support groups or psychoeducation sessions not only for A/AA students but also for their parents and families. Professional counselors may also consider posting mental health service information specifically related to A/AA populations and anti-Asian hate crimes on their professional websites. Asian mental health communities such as the Asian Mental Health Collective (asianmhc.org) provide lists of Asian counselors.
6) Provide education in the community to foster mutual understanding and promote equality: Share your knowledge on mental health and multiculturalism with people in your community. For example, local public libraries often hold workshops and presentations. Professional counselors can use such channels to help people in the community gain a better understanding of the impact of racism and discrimination on their daily functioning.
As we were working on this article, continual occurrences of hate crimes (as of April 24, the latest being the mass shooting at an Indianapolis FedEx facility that killed four Sikhs, among others) prompted us to revise the manuscript multiple times. The addition of each hate crime example added heaviness and fear to our hearts. This feeling of heaviness and fear is a glimpse into the world of racism.
Hate crimes/violent crimes against A/AA are not a new phenomenon, and racist acts are occurring on a daily basis. However, these acts often receive attention only when they result in mass shootings, viral videos or sensationalized coverage in the media. Then, gradually, the attention fades away.
One of our co-authors, Terence Yee, remembers a comic strip in which everyone wants change, but fewer people want to change, and even fewer want to lead the change. The fact that anti-Asian hate/violent crimes have captured national attention and people are talking about them is progress. This progress is giving us something to ponder: Now that we know it, what will we do with it?
Yumiko Ogawa is an associate professor in the Department of Counselor Education at New Jersey City University. She has more than 25 years of clinical experience in various settings. In addition, she has been providing play therapy training in the U.S., Japan and the Philippines. She is a co-founder of the Play Therapy in Asia Summit. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yi-Ju Cheng is an assistant professor in the counseling program at Rider University. She is a licensed professional counselor and registered play therapist whose clinical and research interests center on children and their families from diverse cultural backgrounds.
Yung-Wei Dennis Lin is an associate professor in the Counselor Education Department at New Jersey City University. He came from Taiwan and has resided in the U.S. for 17 years.
Terence Yee is an assistant professor in the Department of Education and Counseling at Villanova University. Being an immigrant from Malaysia and identifying as Malaysian-Chinese, his research interest includes the experiences of international counselor educators and international students. He has a private practice that serves predominantly Asian and Black men.
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