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Large and Small Dehumanizations

Anti-Asian violence and the voice of the perpetual foreigner.

Key points

  • The Stop AAPI Hate reporting center received reports of 3,795 hate incidents against AAPI since March 19, 2020, with women experiencing 2.3x more incidents than men.
  • The model minority myth has placed value on assimilation and deference in the AAPI community, hindering the recognition of and fight against racism.
  • The March 16th Atlanta-area spa shootings were a terrible manifestation of the dehumanization of Asian women, echoing historic trends of fetishization and exoticization.
  • AAPI voices belong in the conversation about equity in our country.

by Nicole Azores-Gococo, PhD on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates

Jessica Irani/Unsplash
Source: Jessica Irani/Unsplash

My work as an outpatient forensic psychologist sometimes takes me to rural Georgia jails for competency and insanity evaluations. Last spring, I went to such a jail for my first in-person evaluation of the COVID-19 pandemic—the first evaluation wearing a mask and speaking through the plexiglass barrier of a visitation booth. The evaluee and I both had difficulty hearing through the barrier. He attributed this difficulty not to the physical barrier, but to a perceived language barrier, explaining to me that he was only fluent in English and not in my “foreign” language. I informed him that I was speaking English, but he continued to allude to my race and gender throughout the interview, calling my voice “soft and feminine,” telling me that men could do the same jobs as “immigrant women” and that there was no reason for me to write my notes vertically (which I was not doing, but which I interpreted as a reference to how some Asian languages are written).

His comments, none of which were hostile or overtly insulting, were versions of remarks I’ve heard all my life, remarks at which I’ve learned to laugh. They didn’t seem like hate. Plus, he had a psychotic disorder, was of an older generation, and maybe hadn’t encountered many Asians throughout his life. But I couldn’t help wondering what role the pandemic played in his perception of and assumptions about me. And the March 16, 2021, murders of eight people, including six Asian women, at Asian spas in Atlanta and nearby Acworth, have me further wondering — what roles did racism, sexism, and the pandemic play in these acts and in increasing anti-Asian sentiment across the country?

I was born in the U.S. to Filipino immigrants. I spoke English and Tagalog as a child, but my private school kindergarten teacher discouraged my parents from speaking Tagalog in the home, for fear of “confusing” me. They resisted, but I suppose I didn’t resist hard enough, as my Tagalog is now far from fluent. I was the only student of Asian ethnicity, and one of few POC, in my class for most of elementary and high school. Jokes about my race were a regular occurrence—I received a Bruce Lee VHS as a Secret Santa present despite expressing and having no interest in martial arts movies— but they seemed harmless enough. And in truth, I reaped enormous benefit from the model minority stereotype, internalizing it to focus on my academic performance.

I describe my history in part to acknowledge my privilege and in part to raise questions about the insidious nature of racism against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). Though I acquiesced to make my school years easier, the model minority myth has not benefited the AAPI community. Rather, it has placed value on assimilation and deference, to the detriment of those with less privilege than me, those who don’t have the same luxury of laughing off the racism.

The small body of psychological literature on the topic suggests that racism, especially racist microaggressions, are a substantial source of stress for AAPI, but that avoidance, minimization, and emotion-focused coping are used commonly to reduce such stress (Alvarez, Juang, & Liang, 2006; Concepcion, Kohatsu, & Yeh, 2012; Liang et al., 2007; Liu & Suyemoto, 2016). These studies also discuss the perpetual foreigner stereotype— the misconception that all AAPI are immigrants and therefore “other.” It’s hard for me to grasp how this sentiment pervades the West Coast, where Chinese immigrants have lived since the mid-1800s, yet where some of the most highly publicized attacks on elderly AAPI have occurred.

Does violence against AAPI in the time of COVID-19 stem from this perpetual “otherness?" The Stop AAPI Hate reporting center received reports of 3,795 hate incidents against AAPI from March 19, 2020, to February 28, 2021. Across the U.S. and in Georgia, verbal harassment and shunning have been the most common forms of discrimination, though physical assaults involving fists, cars, pepper spray, and Lysol have not been uncommon. Did the pandemic turn us from foreigners to foreign threats? Is this a reckoning for those of us who believed the model minority myth protected us?

And what about the particular vulnerability of AAPI women? Per Stop AAPI Hate, women reported 2.3 times more hate incidents than men. Do everyday, racially flavored catcalls come from a feeling of entitlement to AAPI women? Does that entitlement, consciously or unconsciously, disinhibit those who commit violent acts? In an NPR interview about the March 16th shootings, sociology professor Nancy Wang Yuen connected the dehumanization of Asian women to historic trends of fetishization and exoticization, saying of the shooter: “[H]e completely dehumanized these women. He labeled them as temptations to be excised, to be eliminated.” For those who question whether race and misogyny were motivating factors in the spa murders, AAPI women have been asking themselves these questions about everyday acts of dehumanization for a long time. These victims were not “temptations.” They were humans, with histories, names, and voices that have now been silenced.

I ask readers to recognize that, for the AAPI community, the murders in the context of increased hate incidents are hurtful, and it’s a complicated hurt. American society has come a long way since the Chinese Exclusion Act, with just one example being the increased, nuanced representation of AAPI in film and television. It is unnerving to now increasingly see our community’s faces as real-life victims. Many of us have hesitated to speak up about anti-AAPI sentiment for various reasons—culture, coping, comparison of our oppression to horrific oppression of other POC communities. But our ability to fight racism depends upon the ability of AAPI and others to recognize it in its overt and covert forms.

I am proud of us for now speaking out and hopeful that others are hearing us. As Yuen said in her NPR interview, we owe much to the Black Lives Matter movement’s call to a broader awareness of racism, sexism, and intersectionality. AAPI voices belong in the conversation about equity in our country. We cannot be understood if we are seen and heard as foreign threats.


Alvarez, A.A., Juang, L., & Liang, C.T.H. (2006). Asian Americans and racism: When bad things happen to “model minorities.” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 12(3): 477-492.

Chang, A. (2021, March 19). For Asian American Women, Misogyny And Racism Are Inseparable, Sociologist Says. National Public Radio.…

Concepcion, W.R., Kohatsu, E.L., & Yeh, C.J. (2012). Using racial identity and acculturation to analyze experiences of racism among Asian Americans. Asian American Journal of Psychology 4(2): 136-142.

Liang, C.T.H., Alvarez, A.N., Juang, L.P., & Liang, M.X. (2007). The role of coping in the relationship between perceived racism and racism-related stress for Asian Americans: Gender differences. Journal of Counseling Psychology 54(2): 132-141.

Liu, C.M. & Suyemoto, K.L. (2016). The effects of racism-related stress on Asian Americans: Anxiety and depression among different generations. Asian American Journal of Psychology 7(2): 137-146.

Jeung, R., Yellow Horse,, A., Popovic, T., & Lim, R. (2021). Stop AAPI hate national report: 3/19/20—2/28/21. Stop AAPI Hate.…

Stop AAPI Hate (2021). Georgia report: 3/20/20—10/28/20. Stop AAPI Hate.…

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