Asian American Experiences of Racism During COVID-19

asian american

By Sumie Okazaki

From  the earliest days of the COVID-19 global pandemic, there has been a surge of anti-Asian hostility directed toward Asian Americans, ranging from racist verbal assaults and shunning to physical assaults, some even resulting in deaths. Social scientists have responded to this crisis by tracking and documenting hate incidents and hate crimes, educating the public about Asian American history and experiences, and documenting the psychosocial impact of anti-Asian racism. Asian American activists, writers, artists, professionals, and families have created spaces for dialogue, healing, and social action. While the Asian American population is demographically diverse and has experienced the pandemic and antiAsian racism in many different ways, I argue that there is a new level of racial consciousness and identity as Asian Americans that could open new avenues to pursuing racial justice in the US.

From the earliest days of the spread of COVID-19, it was painfully clear that the global pandemic was bringing about not only dire health and economic consequences to many Asian Americans but also a new level of consciousness as targets of xenophobic and racial hostility and violence. Against the background of a national reckoning with anti-Black racism sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, debates over teaching about the history of racism in schools, and the role of affirmative action and testing in elite education, Asian American communities continue to grapple with unease and anxiety over their positionalities within contemporary America. The looming question is: what does it mean to be members of this society that simultaneously provides Asian Americans with opportunities to partake in the “American dream” while vilifying them as alien sources of viral contagion?

Asian American-owned businesses such as Chinese restaurants1, nail salons2, and massage parlours3 were among the earliest sectors to be shunned due to xenophobic fears of COVID-19 contagion, weeks before the mandated temporary closure of non-essential businesses and social distancing were instituted. Asian American healthcare professionals also faced racism and xenophobia even as they were hailed as heroic front-line workers4, and Filipino/a nurses died from COVID at a much higher rate than nurses from other backgrounds because of their disproportionate presence in intensive care units, emergency rooms, and long-term care facilities such as nursing homes5. Casting the Chinese and Asians as sources of COVID contagion reprises the “Yellow Peril” and Orientalist tropes of Asians as dirty, diseased, and unassimilable aliens, which has surfaced again and again throughout US history in times of national crises, such as  wars  and pandemics6. Early indicators of COVID-19-related racism that targeted Asian-owned businesses and front-line workers were followed quickly by the reports of increased micro-aggressions against Asian Americans (e.g., “China virus”, “Go back to your country”) in person and online, and worse. One way that social scientists have been able to track the exponential rise of Sinophobic and anti-Asian sentiments in the national discourse is through the analysis of social media.

Analysis of Twitter data is an innovative approach to gathering real-time macro-level data on attitudes toward race, racism, and racial minorities that are difficult to assess through traditional surveys.

Because Twitter generates a massive volume of data on users’ relatively unfiltered opinions and sentiments that are time-stamped (and sometimes also geo-stamped), analysis of Twitter data is an innovative approach to gathering real-time macro-level data on attitudes toward race, racism, and racial minorities that are difficult to assess through traditional surveys7. Indeed, several studies have analysed Twitter data to examine racism and discrimination toward Asian Americans and Black Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the Black Lives Matter activism following the killing of George Floyd. For example, a recent study8 analysed 668,597 English-language tweets in the two-week period in March 2020, containing over 1.2 million #ccovid19 or #chinesevirus hashtags, and found an exponential rise in anti-Asian sentiment accompanying the #chinesevirus hashtag following a tweet by then-US president Trump connecting China to the coronavirus. A mixed-method analysis9 of over 3.4 million tweets between November 2019 to June 2020 containing a mention of a racial or ethnic group showed a sharp rise in negative tweets referencing Asians, but not in negative tweets referencing other people of colour following the emergence of COVID-19. And another study10 found that the exponential increase in the Twitter mentions of “Chinese virus” in March 2020 was also accompanied by an implicit “Americanness” bias (which is to say, an increase in the subconscious belief that White individuals are more “American” than Asian Americans).

A group of social scientists and community activists established the Stop AAPI Hate (SAH) Coalition in March 2020 as a community-based online data collection portal to track and respond to the sudden surge in anti-Asian hate incidents. According to the most recent report by SAH11, covering the dates between 19 March 2020 and and 31 December 2021, a total of 10,905 hate incidents against Asian Americans were voluntarily reported. Of the incidents reported, 66.9 per cent were harassment, with a much smaller portion of respondents reporting physical assaults (16.2 per cent) and shunning (16.1 per cent). To estimate the prevalence of hate incidents in the broader population, Stop AAPI Hate also conducted a survey of nationally representative Asian American respondents in September and October 2021. This survey found that roughly one in five Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans reported experiencing at least one hate incident within the past year, and roughly one in three APA parents said their child had experienced at least one hate incident at school within the past year12.

Asian Americans are more conscious than ever before of their vulnerability and the fragility of their sense of belonging as Americans.

Anxiety and unease from the widespread experience of anti-Asian hate incidents such as verbal or online harassments, shunning, and being refused service during the pandemic were acutely heightened by a wide circulation of graphic videos of extreme violence against Asian American elders and the killing of six Asian women in Atlanta-area massage parlours. Because the shooter stated his motive as stemming from sexual addiction, but targeted three establishments owned and operated by Asian-descent women, the Atlanta massacre on 16 March 2021 resurfaced memories and renewed fears of racialised misogyny and gendered violence among many Asian American women12. With the constant news of other Asian American individuals who are assaulted or killed in public spaces such as on streets and subways, Asian Americans are more conscious than ever before of their vulnerability and the fragility of their sense of belonging as Americans. For many in the South Asian American community (especially Muslim South Asian Americans and Sikh Americans), virulent xenophobia and Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11 had already alerted them to the ease with which Asian Americans become racial scapegoats in times of national crises13. The passage of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act by the US Congress, intended to improve the reporting and tracking of anti-Asian hate crimes, may have represented a symbolic victory for Asian American communities that called for more forceful local, state, and federal resources to combat anti-Asian hate, yet the legislation has done little to reduce the incidence of anti-Asian violence.

Unsurprisingly, the surge in anti-Asian hate and discrimination during COVID-19 has had a measurable psychological impact. For example, one study15 surveyed 543 Chinese American parents and their children in the early months of the pandemic and found that higher levels of anti-Asian racism and Sinophobia were associated with poorer mental health among parents and youth. Other studies16, 17, 18 have similarly documented the association between increased COVID-19-related discrimination and poorer mental health among various Asian American populations. My colleague and I also conducted a national survey19 of 689 Asian American adults in December 2020 and found that more frequent COVID-19 discrimination experiences, especially those that occurred in person and were directed personally at the respondent, were associated with both psychological distress and worry.

While the poorer mental health of Asian Americans as a result of racial victimisation is deeply concerning, there have also been individual and collective responses that connect Asian American communities to healing and social change. For example, the national attention focused on the surge in anti-Asian hate has created opportunities for Asian Americans to create spaces (often virtual spaces due to the continuing pandemic) to learn about and discuss Asian American history and activism and to share personal accounts of racism’s toll on identity and mental health. These conversations have taken place in workplaces, at universities and K-12 schools, and among friends and families. Asian American scholars, activists, writers, and artists have shared their professional expertise and lived experiences that speak to the present moment. Asian Americans of all backgrounds participated in protests, rallies, and other civic events in response to anti-Asian racism. This anti-racist social movement reflects a new critical consciousness among Asian Americans, accompanied by increased civic and political participation calling for structural change.

Finally, this broad Asian American critical consciousness surrounding race and racism prompted by the pandemic has occurred in the context of a national reckoning with anti-Black racism in the US. Recognising that anti-Asian racism is intertwined with anti-Black racism, Asian American activists have mobilised in support of Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist social movements20. To be sure, we must acknowledge the deep-seated anti-Black sentiments within Asian American communities21 and the ways in which Asian Americans have benefited from anti-Black racism22. Although frank discussions about American racism may feel intimidating, threatening, or disquieting, they are critical for building a more just society. COVID-19 has brought about new and renewed opportunities for Asian Americans to engage in a larger collective work toward racial justice.    

About the Author

Dr. Sumie Okazaki is Professor of Applied Psychology at New York University. She conducts research on the impact of immigration, social and culture change, and race on Asian and Asian American adolescents, emerging adults, and parents within local and transnational contexts. Her most recent book, co-authored with Nancy Abelmann, is Korean American Families in Immigrant America: How Teens and Parents Navigate Race (2018, NYU Press).

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