The Disturbing Psychology Behind Anti-Asian Racism, According To A Behavioral Scientist

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Stop AAPI Hate

As Asian-Americans continue to live in fear of racially-motivated attacks, the horrifying and unjustifiable motives behind this violence continuously go unaddressed.

From the recent Atlanta spa shootings to the Bay area attacks, hate crimes against the Asian community are having fatal consequences.

But as we continue to sensationalize these stories by making them sexually motivated, or considering them to be purely a horrific part of the pandemic, we neglect to realize that anti-Asian racism is laced into the fabric of society.

It is not new. And it is enabled through countless psychological ideas that are in desperate need of repair.

We spoke to Dr. Janet Ahn, an Asian-American behavioral scientist about how anti-Asian hate is perpetuated and the impact it has.

Ahn is the chief behavioral science officer for MindGym, a behavior change company that uses data and science to explore the motives behind individual behaviors. Her lived and professional experience has afforded her a deep insight into how anti-Asian racism manifests and what aftermath it creates.

She explains that the model minority myth is used as a racial wedge.

Often the biases predicated against Asian-Americans are rooted in so-called "positive" stereotypes. Asians are seen as highly educated and assumed to be of higher socioeconomic status — despite the fact that Asian-Americans have the largest racial income gap in the US.

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This is largely used as an excuse to stop governments from intervening in the socioeconomic disparities between racial and ethnic groups — but it also infringes on how Asian-Americans react to their own lived experiences of racism.

“As a model minority, what that means is that you’re the 'good' minority that does really well by keeping your head down and doing the work,” Ahn tells us.

Asians feel reluctant to “rock the boat” by addressing racism, but they are also pressured to attain a level of success that is often inaccessible in the face of racial discrimination.

“You’re expected to perform at a higher level, at the same or even greater than whites,” Ahn says. “Research has shown that this is very detrimental to performance and psychological health.”

The model minority myth produces feelings of inadequacy and pressure to perform which consistently deflects blame onto Asian-Americans instead of addressing the obstacles this group faces.

Psychological motives for anti-Asian racism are complex.

“It starts with the fear of others. That’s what we do know in psychology,” Ahn tells us.

We all naturally associate ourselves with particular in-groups or people we identify with sociologically and psychologically.

Often, Asians find themselves placed in social out-groups. They are seen as the “other” and made to be an adversary.

“There’s a natural disassociation with out-group members. And that is where it gets tricky because where Asians are viewed as this perpetual foreigner, you’re constantly viewed as this outside member,” says Ahn, breaking down the reality that Asians are constantly excluded from social standards.

Disassociating from the Asian-American communities creates a psychological detachment from their needs which allows racism to manifest explicitly and implicitly.

“There is less trust towards them, there is fear of them, there is a derogation of them, there is condescension of them,” Ahn tells us.

So how do we go from simply not relating to someone in a different community to causing deliberate and grievous harm to this group?

“On the extreme level of viewing someone as an out-group member is dehumanization,” Ahn says. "The more distance you feel towards that out-group member and the higher amounts of hostility you have accrued and developed, there is a dehumanization of who they are as a person.”

“Whether they are harmed, whether they are hurt really doesn’t matter to you because you’re not viewing them as human. That is where it gets dangerous.”

Upbringing, media, education, and context can inform how we view those in out-groups but the dynamics of this kind of psychology is highly convoluted and, in truth, there is no real or valid explanation for why one perpetrates racist violence.

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Equally, our attempts to rationalize or explain the actions of someone like Robert Aaron Long, the shooter in the Atlanta attacks, further detach us from his victims.

Ahn tells us that this focus can unintentionally celebrate attackers over victims and enable a copycat mentality in others.

“What I’d love the media to do more is celebrate the lives of the victims who were deceased,” says Ahn. “That is so lacking in our society.”

She tells us the Asian community has made an effort to commemorate Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Daoyou Feng, and Xiaojie Tan, women who were among Long’s victims.

However, these women and their families continue to be given little attention by the media and often the attention perpetuates the problem.

Equating massage parlor employees to sex workers and focusing on the shooter’s alleged sex addiction feeds into the perception that Asian women are submissive, sexual objects.

“Asian women have been hypersexualized. It is part of the stereotyping and understanding of who women are,” Ahn tells us.

She explains that considering the attack to be sexually motivated rather than labeling it a hate crime ignores the reality that hypersexualization is part of anti-Asian hate.

Ahn stresses to us throughout our conversation that anti-Asian racism is not new. Asians in America have encountered it throughout their lives — but the pandemic has added a new layer to this already damaging issue.

Anti-Asian racism that preexisted the pandemic was given a new foothold as Asians are being blamed for the spread of Covid-19.

Though the parameters of racism during this pandemic are new, the phenomenon of scapegoating is not.

Just like many people attempt to blame Jewish people for the Holocaust and Black people for racial segregation and slavery, casting blame on Asian people — specifically Chinese people — is used as a means of making sense of crises.

Believing that someone deserves to be attacked or targeted becomes much easier to handle than the reality that violence can be unjustified.

Ahn mentions a psychological fallacy called just-world theory that lies at the root of this mindset.

“What that means is that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people,” she explains. “People feel that this is happening because it is deserved.”

This prevents people from truly interrogating and disputing the justifications of these attacks.

Labeling the pandemic the “China virus” allows people to wrongfully justify their anti-Asian violence; labeling victims in Atlanta “sex workers” allows people to feel less empathy for their deaths.

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Asians are not a monolith.

In order to tackle anti-Asian racism, we must also be aware of the nuances between different Asian identities and how they experience racism.

Asia is the largest and most populated continent in the world, yet Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants are typically painted with one brush that pays no respect to the nuances of racial identity.

Ahn tells us that typically all Asians are viewed as Chinese and become targets of anti-Chinese racism irrespective of their own identity.

“This has been a microaggression for our entire lives, I think every Asian has experienced it. But certainly during the pandemic, it has been surfacing a whole lot more,” she says.

Ahn is a Korean-American raised entirely in the US and says her experience is completely different from another Asian who has migrated here.

The lack of awareness of these nuances means we fail to provide resources for the specific needs of different Asian groups.

One way this has manifested is in the underreporting of anti-Asian hate crimes. Lawmakers and advocates believe the actual number of hate crimes experienced by Asians is significantly higher than the number of reports.

Ahn has a possible explanation for this.

“The underreporting within the Asian community is probably coming a lot from those who are just emigrated and can’t speak the language," she says. "They feel uncomfortable going to a police precinct and reporting because there is not an appropriate translator at all times.”

By failing to appropriately provide for and address different Asian identities, we perpetuate anti-Asian racism.

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The psychological impacts of anti-Asian racism are numerous.

For Ahn, and countless other Asians in America, the recent attacks weigh heavily on the consciousness of the community.

Ahn tells us that she is not getting on the subway in New York City for fear of what might happen. Her parents usually go for walks around their neighborhood but now avoid doing so.

These behavioral impacts create damaging levels of fear and isolation. This is then passed to children who are raised being afraid to go to the playground or to school.

“It is causing trauma at a psychological and physical level, and not only that but at a widespread communal level,” Ahn says.

A sense of PTSD and intergenerational trauma is already becoming visible, but we don’t yet know the exact outcomes.

Ahn tells us the Asian community is desperately waiting to see if vaccines and the end of the pandemic will change the landscape in which anti-Asian racism is produced.

But has long-term psychological damage already been created? Ahn tells us that the Asian community holds on to hope for change.

“We have to have hope. If we don’t have hope, how will we survive?”

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Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment.