How — And Why — Academic Researchers Are Taking On Anti-Asian Hate
The news in March that six women of Asian descent were among the eight people killed by a gunman in Atlanta reverberated throughout Asian American communities in the United States.
It hit UCLA doctoral student Eunhee Park especially hard. She was born and raised in South Korea, like several of the women killed in Atlanta.
“I think that was really like a triggering point for everyone to come out” and speak out about the violence, Park said. She underlined that “everyone” includes her circle of academics who conduct research about Asian and Asian American communities.
Park studies reproductive health, immigrant health, and prevention of violence against women. She’s currently co-leading a two-pronged research project called Double Jeopardy that’s examining the impact of sexual violence on Asian international students enrolled in the UC system, as well as the impact of xenophobia on Asian international students during the pandemic.
After the killings in Atlanta, Park attended several online meetings led by students and Asian American Studies scholars.
“It was my first time to really examine the history of Asian Americans in the United States, and the history of xenophobia and immigration law against Asians,” she said.
Before Atlanta, Park was hesitant to classify her research in a racial justice category. It’s not that she saw herself working in an ivory tower, conducting research for its own sake — far from that.
But to Park, as she interpreted it, racial justice meant something related to the Black American experience and civil rights issues. The teachings and meetings she attended taught her that different Asian American groups in the U.S. have undergone their own brand of discrimination and struggle as they tried to reap the benefits of opportunity.
Park’s shift is not unique. Other Asian American scholars are seeing their work differently after experiencing attacks against Asian communities, coming from local groups and individuals on up to the White House.
Academics and activists mobilizing against anti-Asian hate say that for their movement to bear fruit, academics must help tear down harmful stereotypes through more nuanced research about Asian communities in the U.S.
First Step: Dismantle The Myth Of The Model Minority
The myth of the “model minority” originated in the 1960s. This myth, promulgated in popular media, advertising, and opinion essays in newspapers and magazines, set out to lump Asian Americans into one group that’s been able to overcome racism by protecting the family structure and through hard work. If this minority can be a model — the myth suggests — why can’t others? The myth has been used as a wedge to shame Black and other communities as less than adequate.
“If you're being harassed, and you're a Chinese American lawyer, do people think, Well, you're a person that needs help? Or are we going to say, Oh, you're fine,” said Edward Dunbar, a professor of psychology at UCLA who studies the psychology of hate.
And so, he added, the myth perpetuates the idea that people who are a “model minority” don’t struggle with social, health or economic disparities and therefore don’t merit scholarly research.
Dunbar described a lesson he learned about the impact of research: early in his career, he and other researchers in Hawaii met with state elected officials to describe what their research found about why people in Asian American communities were reluctant to go to hospitals or clinics when they needed medical attention. The briefing they provided to the elected leaders led to policy changes.
But the “model minority” myth is alive and well among academic researchers.
“Why are you caring about the Asian population? … They're the model minority, they're just as good as the white population,” is something that UCLA social welfare doctoral student Jianchao Lai says she’s heard a lot in academia.
Lai is co-leading the Double Jeopardy study, along with Park.
The study takes apart the assumption that Asian international students at the University of California’s 10 campuses are only slightly affected by sexual violence. Lai said that a review of existing research turned up little on the topic.
However, the recent scandal involving alleged sexual abuse of students by a former University of Southern California gynecologist suggests that female Asian international students are more often targets of sexual violence than the official data reveals. USC was told that the gynecologist targeted Asian students.
By exploring the impact on sexual violence on this subgroup, Lai and Park hope to show what kind of support Asian international students need, and how these students have coped with sexual violence. The researchers hope their work can bring about change through university reforms and new programs.
“This is not just for the sake of some people getting an academic job and having it forever,” Dunbar said about this kind of scholarly work.
There's a real direct pipeline of good social science and behavioral science research into people who write laws, legislation, review programs, fund programs… it's essential to have this kind of research.
Violence Against Asian International Students
These researchers say there is little academic research about specific Asian American communities in the United States. And there’s even less about the nearly half a million international students from Southeast Asian countries enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities. The vast majority of this group, 372,000, are from China.
“Even within China ... there's a lot of diversity, different cultures and a lot of different dynamics,” said Nox Yang, a UCLA undergraduate who came from China to study sociology in 2018. “When it comes to Chinese international students, it's also a very diverse community.”
The rising hateful rhetoric during the pandemic against China, its citizens, and Chinese Americans shook her.
“My thought was that my community, our community, has been misrepresented in the mainstream, Western society,” said Yang, who is also a documentary filmmaker.
So she tapped into her network of Chinese international students across the United States and different parts of the world and asked people to share video of how they are coping with the pandemic in general, and hate speech in particular. She’s received dozens of replies.
The documentary is self-produced. It’s now in post-production, Yang said, and she plans on finishing it in June.
In one video, a Chinese international student in the United Kingdom describes in Mandarin how high school students coughed at her as she passed by wearing a face covering. Another shows a Chinese student in a parking lot in Rome giving away hospital masks to grateful hospital workers, who say “grazie.”
Yang’s working title is “Behind the Mask.”
“Why don't we just tell our story, right? Like, represent ourselves, give ourselves a voice,” she said, in order to show school administrators the experience of Chinese international students during the pandemic.
“And hopefully, that would make the policymakers realize that and ... pay more attention to how we are going to change the situation.”
Lai and Park, the UCLA researchers leading the Double Jeopardy study, learned of Yang’s project and have enlisted her to join them for a subsequent phase of the project. They want to use photos, voice recordings, and videos to make their findings more dynamic so that they don’t exist only in the pages of a research paper.
The researchers plan to contact 320 East Asian international students at all 10 UC campuses to ask how they’ve experienced xenophobia during the pandemic, as well as their experiences with sexual violence.
One sample survey question: “Since you came to UC, has anyone made remarks about your appearance, body, or sexual activities that made you uncomfortable?”
Research Goes Hand In Hand With Social Change
Ask Asian American activists and scholars what kind of academic research they’d like to see and invariably you’ll hear the word “disaggregated.” What they mean is they want details, not stereotypes. Data that shows the top health care needs of urban Filipino Americans, for example, or education gaps among recent Chinese immigrants in rural parts of the country.
The home page of the national “Stop AAPI Hate” campaign website makes a statement about the diversity of Asian communities by showing five faces that are all different, apparently in ethnicity, while all being of Asian descent.
The effort to combat old stereotypes that have often reduced people of Asian descent to caricatures has endured a long and painful path in the U.S., activists say.
“I think the process of changing hearts and minds such that drives policy, and the acceptance of policy … there has to be an intellectual basis for that,” said Bay Area lawyer Donald Tamaki.
And that intellectual basis comes from new research, which came into play in one of this country’s most important civil rights cases.
In Korematsu v. U.S., Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American, challenged his incarceration that was carried out after President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans in many U.S. communities during World War II.
The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices in 1944 upheld the president’s order.
Tamaki was on the legal team that challenged that decision in 1983, and which found memos by U.S. officials “which basically admitted that there was no reason to lock these Americans up,” he said.
“I don't think professors necessarily view themselves as change agents. But in fact, I think they are."
So basically, Tamaki said, the fact that the U.S. government knew Japanese Americans didn’t present a threat to the war effort was brought to larger awareness by, that’s right, academics.
“I don't think professors necessarily view themselves as change agents, Tamaki said. "But in fact, I think they are." -
That role, he said, is key when it comes to the civil rights of marginalized people. Current anti-Asian hate incidents are testing the United States’ guarantee that residents can live in this country and participate in public and private life free of discrimination and repression.
DISAGGREGATION IS KEY
Among those pushing for disaggregated research data are Cambodian Americans. Long Beach, California is home to the largest Cambodian American population in the U.S. Soon after the Atlanta killings community leaders spoke out against the shootings and urged Cambodian Americans to report hate incidents.
The chair of the National Cambodian American Organization said she wants to see more nuanced information about her community’s socio-economics.
“This is the assumption, that Cambodians may be doing really well, when you lump us all up as an Asian group,” said NCAO board chair Connie Mom-Chhing, who lives in Vancouver, Washington. “I think that there's a significant barrier in terms of education, achievement, healthcare, employment.”
Concerned over how the anti-Asian environment is affecting Cambodian Americans’ mental health, Mom-Chhing's group organized a summit earlier this month.
“These challenging times call for our collective action,” the flyer for the summit read.
Her group is an example of the connection between community activists and academic researchers: the group asked UC Berkeley professor Khatharya Um to facilitate the event. Um is a professor of Asian American studies and herself a Cambodian American who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s.
Addressing the message conveyed during the summit, Um said: “We stand, certainly, side by side with many vulnerable communities that are facing systemic racism, that are facing structural barriers, that are struggling ... on all the same issues with regards to equitable access to critical resources — be it healthcare, or education, or what not.”
Because of the “model minority” myth, Um said, “there has been comparatively [few] studies on Asian Americans in general, particularly as it relates to issues of access, equity and inclusion.”
Mom-Chhing credits Um with helping teach members of her group how to respond to the current wave of anti-Asian hate.
“We grew up in a culture that ... promotes accommodation, being modest, and being silent,” she said. “So we can't be silent anymore.”