Systemic Racism and the Asian American Community


Johnny Kim, PhD, who has presented at AAMFT conferences, and his 16-year old daughter were on the way to her school when she told him about a school newspaper article she was writing concerning hate crimes directed at Asian Americans, designed to address the Atlanta shooting where six women of Asian descent were killed. He was pleased and proud she was helping to raise awareness of the issue, but thought she should know it wasn’t an isolated incident.

“I told her that all the things she is hearing and reading—I grew up with them. The aggression and discrimination are things I experienced my whole life. Most Asian Americans have,” says Kim, a professor in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver, whose family came to the U.S. from Korea when he was three.

Jessica ChenFeng, LMFT, AAMFT Professional member holding the Clinical Fellow and Approved Supervisor designations, and an associate professor at Loma Linda University who has worked closely with the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community on issues related to discrimination, agrees and says the issue has had a more dramatic effect on emotional health in the community than is evident.

“Hatred of Asians and Asian Americans is not new in U.S. history. Most Asian Americans feel some degree of not belonging and have faced a ‘perpetual foreigner’ experience, even if they were born in Los Angeles like myself,” she says. “They’ve likely had a lifetime of microaggressions or explicit racist experiences. This year has just exacerbated these experiences and put them on the forefront of our public discourse and awareness.”

In 2020, Asian Americans reported they had been targeted at least 500 times by the end of February, according to the organization Stop AAPI Hate. About 68% of the cases involved verbal assault and 11% were physical attacks. Since it began tracing violence and harassment of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders about a year ago, it has received about 3,800 complaints. Women are more often the target, suffering nearly 70 of the attacks.

The attacks often link members of the AAPI community to the COVID-19 pandemic, a problem some believe was exacerbated by public officials referring to it as the “China Virus” or other names that connected it to Asia.

Kim, who has offered presentations on the topic for AAMFT and others, says while he believes his daughter’s generation will be more accepting of various races and cultures, the cumulative fear and helplessness in most of the Asian American community from years of mistreatment will linger for some time. 

And he and ChenFeng both say therapists will have to find ways to reach out to members of this community, who are sometimes reluctant to seek help for emotional problems. They will have to find approaches that fit the culture and the individuals’ unique experience.

ChenFeng notes that Asian Americans have a different experience than Asians, and a Pacific Islander’s is different still. But hate crimes can be aimed at any of them, she says.

“These are very different populations in terms of their lived experiences in America. However, especially recently, if anyone presents as phenotypically ‘Asian’ they can be targeted in hate crimes.” Sensitivity to the distinct experience of the client is key, she says.

“It’s helpful to start with a working knowledge base of information about the group, but to be open hearted about how each client and their family may have a different experience from what we have read or heard about,” she says. “Asian American families are not a set of cultural norms and beliefs. They are very much dynamic, always changing and adapting, and impacted by their racialization being in America.”

Resources: Anti-racism resources to support Asian American, Pacific Islander Community (NBC News); Anti-racism resources for the AAPI Community (Asian American Studies, Cornell).

Differing attitudes

Subtle attitudes about emotional health among members of the AAPI community may cause them to feel addressing them or even reporting a hate crime shows weakness or reflects badly on one’s family. A strong belief in the connection between emotional and physical health may also play a role in their reluctance to rely on emotional support services, experts say.

Kim notes that a Gallup poll survey found Asians had the highest incidence of employment discrimination of any group at around 30% but filed less than three percent of the employment discrimination complaints from private firms.

“So, there is evidence of this reluctance to speak up about racial discrimination within the Asian community.”

He also notes they may have “a collectivist view” that seeks harmony and avoids group conflict. “Asians prefer to keep information about problems within the family rather than seek outside help,” he also says.

The NPA report said such attitudes and a strong sense that the individual should rely on willpower may cause dramatic emotional upheaval when they are discriminated against or subjected to violence. And ChenFeng notes that this gap can create inter-generational stress. Later generations of Asian Americans are wanting to speak up against discrimination while some first-generation elders, due to their previous racial experiences, may think it’s better to keep their heads down. 

“When a second generation of Asian Americans struggles with mental health concerns, their parents may not understand why and discourage them from seeking out mental healthcare because they are afraid of judgment or stigma.” Therapists should be aware of the generational differences, including the unique experiences of many in the community who have faced turbulent or traumatic periods in their home countries or as part of life in America.

She also notes that therapy is a western concept and many Asian cultures have “cultural models of healing that have supported them for centuries such as traditional Chinese medicine and its understanding of how the body and emotions are interconnected.” 

Looking for solutions

Kim is an expert in solution focused brief therapy and believes it is well suited to working with the AAPI population because of the trauma they may have suffered long term or more recently in the rash of attacks.

As the name implies, SFBT helps the client discover coping strategies rather than dissect the emotional problems they are facing and its causes, which may be more comfortable for a culture where delving deeply into an issue is conflicting. SFBT implies that the client is the “expert” and can develop solutions that work for them, which can lessen the chance that a therapist of another culture might put too much emphasis on their own values. It is also goal oriented, which might be more comfortable to some in the community, rather than therapy that looks backward.

“Most importantly, SFBT helps clients have hope in their lives by helping them believe things can get better and helping them identify the pathway to get there, which are the two key components of Hope Theory.”

ChenFeng says therapists may find it is important to address the issues of the client’s community and family.

“In many Asian cultures, saving face is a significant cultural value. This is much more complex than what people believe it to mean. It is about not only saving your own face, but that of others. It is a way of respecting self and community and family. Because of this, it feels uncomfortable or disrespectful to share about the difficult things in one’s own family, especially to a stranger or a therapist.”

“I often say to clients ‘I know this is not easy to speak about your family in this way. I want you to know that I see your parents as having done the best they could do, and you sharing about this doesn’t make me think any less of them.’ It’s important to validate that any Asian American family will have experienced pain and struggle in their relationship with the dominant U.S. culture. The racialized expectations and assumptions put on the Asian American family exacerbate the tensions already felt intrapersonally and interpersonally.”

Some optimism

ChenFeng believes the longer someone has resided in the U.S, the more open they are to therapy and that there are important efforts to decrease stigma so that communities are not “hurting in isolation.”

Kim says that he believes his daughter may have an easier time because there is more awareness of the Asian community in the United States through arenas like entertainment, food, sports and travel. In addition, he and others believe cultural stigma around mental health counseling within the Asian community may shift over time since younger people are less likely to hold them.

“I’m optimistic” he says, “but we still have a long way to go, and therapists can help by working with members of this community to better promote mental and emotional wellbeing through psychotherapy.

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Therapists should be aware of the generational differences, including the unique experiences of many in the community who have faced turbulent or traumatic periods in their home countries or as part of life in America.

Jessica ChenFeng, PhD, LMFT, is an AAMFT Professional member holding the Clinical Fellow and Approved Supervisor designations, and an associate professor at Loma Linda University.

Johnny Kim, PhD, is a professor in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver.

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