Stay Proud: Being Asian American Is a Good Thing
Positive ethnic identity in the face of racism.
Posted May 06, 2020
My first explicit memory of racism happened in a movie theatre parking lot in the 1980s. My dad and I were about to enjoy one of our favorite pastimes for father-daughter weekends—a movie, popcorn, and of course our shared delight of bonbons. A car of young men drove by and yelled out a racial slur at us and told us to "Go back home!" A nine-year-old girl, I asked my dad what the term meant. My dad, who uses humor as a weapon to defeat challenging situations, explained it was a negative word for an Asian ethnic group. He then laughed it off with an air of intelligence, saying that we were called the wrong derogatory name for our Filipino heritage. There was no yelling, there was no anger (at least in the parking lot), and there were no tears. Instead, we both walked into the movies and continued with our weekend ritual. What's more American than that?
Thirty years later, I remember this incident rather clearly. I was startled by the experience. I also found it confusing. Both my father and I were born in California. Our experience is what is now called "the perpetual foreigner" stereotype. No matter how long Asian and Pacific Americans live in the United States, they are seen as "other" and not belonging. This type of racism has unfortunately ramped up yet again with the pandemic.
While my confrontation with racism came at that point in my life, many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders experience their "first" encounter even earlier and in even more traumatic ways. This racism is both explicit, manifested in being blamed for COVID-19 starting and spreading, being yelled at in public, spat on, followed on the street, and even being subjected to physical violence. The racism is also implicit, such as being stared at with suspicion and fear. It breaks my heart reading about Asian American children who hear from their classmates that they are to blame for COVID-19. Unfortunately, even prior to the pandemic, Asian American youth experienced the highest rates of bullying when compared to other racial groups.
When being treated negatively for the way one looks, Asian Americans may want to try and blend in and distance themselves from what they feel makes them different. Discrimination and racism can lead to self-hatred and a belief that we are less than other people. Adults, parents, caregivers, teachers: We must help Asian American children stay connected to the core belief that they are loved for who they are, that it is good to be Asian, and that they do not need to change what they look like even if they are being persecuted for it.
Research shows that having a positive racial and ethnic identity can buffer stress, and is overall connected to good health outcomes. This is a rough time, but don't give up hope. Self-acceptance is a core ingredient for high self-esteem. Pride in one's cultural roots can be a tool for resiliency for ourselves and our children.
Many Asian Americans serve as essential workers, including doctors, nurses, mail carriers, grocery store clerks, and restaurant workers. We can also be proud of our fellow Asian Pacific American community members doing brave, self-sacrificing work that allows us to receive health care, feed ourselves, and preserve our way of life as much possible during this challenging time.
In this time of distress, lean into your cultural pride. Acknowledge that racism is out there. Racism hurts, and it is dangerous. However, pretending to be someone we are not won't protect us. During Asian Pacific American Heritage month, let us raise our heads high and take joy in our roots. And when this is all over, let's go to the movies, too.
Chang, D. & Gallardo, M. (2020) COVID-19 and Asian Communities: Where Racism and Bigotry Are Also a Health Hazard
Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9780470594155