Hate crimes against Asians in the United States more than doubled from 2019 to 2020. Last month, in one of the most conspicuous acts of violence against Asians in recent history, six Asian American women were shot dead in Georgia.
Racism against people of Asian descent is not a new problem, but it’s been exacerbated of late by politicians using racist rhetoric to describe the coronavirus. Asians in America are now facing a dual pandemic: a heightened fear of racist abuse, from verbal slurs to physical assault, on top of all the anxiety of living through COVID-19.
On the latest episode of The Dose podcast, Vivian Shaw and Susanna Park of the AAPI COVID-19 Project talk about the deep roots of anti-Asian bias, as well as their research into how the pandemic is affecting the lives of Asians in the U.S.
SUSANNA PARK: I could tell you a story about Lily, obviously not their real name, one of the participants who shared their experience of being a Korean American mother of two in their early 40s, recalling her young children’s fears of leaving the house to take walks around the neighborhood. So whenever they go out taking a walk, her kids are saying, “Mommy, what if people spit on us?” Because they saw that in the news. So then this participant talks about having to kind of calm them down and being very conscious of who’s drawing near them or coming next to them.
SHANOOR SEERVAI: Hi, everyone. Welcome to The Dose. I’m Shanoor Seervai, and today we’re going to be talking about how racism against Asian Americans has intensified in the wake of the pandemic. You just heard from Susanna Park, a Ph.D. candidate in global health at Oregon State University. She is joining me along with Vivian Shaw, a sociologist at Harvard University. They’ve been working together for this past year on the AAPI COVID-19 Project, investigating how the pandemic is impacting the lives of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Hate crimes against Asians more than doubled from 2019 to 2020. To add to a long list, just this past week, a 65-year-old Filipina woman was kicked in her stomach and head in Times Square. So on today’s show, we will take a closer look at the problem, the deep roots of anti-Asian bias, as well as what it’s like for Asians in the U.S. right now.
Vivian, Susanna, welcome to the show.
SUSANNA PARK: Thank you for having us.
VIVIAN SHAW: Thank you for having us.
SHANOOR SEERVAI: So let’s get started with talking about what feels like this dual pandemic: racism and COVID-19. Now of course, racism against Asian Americans is not a new problem, but can you talk about how this has heightened in the pandemic?
VIVIAN SHAW: Well, we’ve seen specifically a lot of incidents of very overt racism. Groups such as Stop AAPI Hate, which is a reporting database, have marked a dramatic increase in numbers of incidences and over 3,000 over the past year. Those incidents include things such as spitting on people, racial slurs, violence as well. And there have been some very prominent cases. In addition to Atlanta, there are also other cases of people being physically attacked and then dying afterwards. So those are some of the most conspicuous forms of racism that have intensified. But of course, our project is concerned not only with these very overt incidents of racism, but also the ways that racism affects Asian Americans in their daily lives in multiple ways.
SHANOOR SEERVAI: I want to talk more about your project, but can you first tell me why you think racism is on the rise this way?
VIVIAN SHAW: I mean, that’s a very complicated question. It’s something that I’ve looked at in my research for my current book project. So disasters were once thought as being moments in time that brought people together because they created a shared experience of suffering and damage. But sociologists who have studied disasters for the past several decades have found that disasters actually intensify inequalities. And so you have these material pressures that people are dealing with. And then what we’re seeing at the same time are these social and cultural shifts as well that can then be moments in which on one hand, scapegoating of marginalized communities intensifies, but then also maybe discourse around antidiscrimination and antiracism also come to the forefront more.
So I think these are just very typical dynamics within the context of disasters. And then you add to that former president Trump was saying a lot of rhetoric that specifically put blame on Asian communities, specifically China for creating the virus, which is kind of what his framing was. So I think you put these all together, you put that in the context of intensifying nationalism over several years, and perhaps over a decade, and then it just creates a perfect storm.
SUSANNA PARK: I agree. And I think in the public health sphere, very similar conversations are happening interestingly with the pandemic. And we had the murder of George Floyd happening last year, and then this added layer of anti-Asian racism. And so in the public health sphere, we’re talking a lot about declaring racism as a public health issue, which hasn’t really been done before.
SHANOOR SEERVAI: That’s interesting. So looking at Asian Americans . . . And obviously Asian Americans are not a monolithic group. They come from many different countries. There are socioeconomic divides. But keeping that in mind, what are you hearing from your research as well as your personal experience of what it’s like to be Asian American in the U.S., and in your case, Asian American women?
VIVIAN SHAW: Oftentimes we’ll see discussions about how we need to support frontline workers. We’ll see all these pictures about who these frontline workers are. Asian Americans are also frontline workers, and yet at the same time that they are negotiating some really challenging situations in terms of work and family life, in terms of the physical risks that they’re dealing with, they are also dealing with anti-Asian racism on top of that. And so we have some stories that we can share about that.
Yeah. So I think one story that I found especially profound was with a young person working at a well-resourced research hospital in Massachusetts. He had initially been assigned to work in this research position doing research on chronic illness, and then because of the increased demands for workers to help out with COVID patients and monitoring ventilators, he then got “voluntold,” in his words, to then work in ICU and monitor some of the patients.
And so he was all of a sudden going from this work, maybe in a laboratory or at a desk, and then being put into a very kind of physically vulnerable situation because he was only a few feet away from COVID patients. What he did was he ended up . . . In taking on this really risky work, he ended up having to separate himself from his girlfriend and his family where he stopped seeing them. And he just really kind of isolated himself because he was worried that he was putting them at risk. And then at the same time, he was having the experience of being on the receiving end of racist harassment on the way to work.
SHANOOR SEERVAI: That sounds really awful. And so that’s the frontline for health care workers. That’s an example of a health care worker on the frontlines. But one of the aspects of this pandemic is that there are a lot of other people on the frontlines, people bagging groceries, people driving buses, who are also at risk. And I wonder if you can talk about Asian Americans in these positions facing these sorts of occupational hazards.
SUSANNA PARK: Sure. So we have, again, another example is Jennifer. Again, these aren’t real names. Jennifer, she’s a Vietnamese American graduate student in her early 20s. And she was talking about how she’s worried about her parents because they own a small grocery store selling Asian and African goods in their local neighborhood. And in her words, she says, “I know my mom, especially, they haven’t implemented mask policies. Like they aren’t making their customers wear masks because my mom’s heard of a lot of stories where things go wrong. Customers don’t want to wear masks and they fight or even worse.” So regardless of whether they are scared of getting COVID or not, they are negotiating not wearing the mask or wearing the mask for themselves and not reinforcing it for the customers because of the fear that there will be some retaliation from having that requirement to enter the store.
SHANOOR SEERVAI: So it’s like you’re being asked to make an impossible choice, which is protect yourself from COVID or protect yourself against racist harassment. I also wanted to talk about gender identity, and women of color experience racism in a way that’s different from men. Can you talk about what Asian American women are going through in this pandemic?
SUSANNA PARK: I think that’s a difficult question, but one very recent and obvious example that people have been talking about is the Georgia incident where six Asian women were murdered. And I think that incident is very complex, and we have to be very intentional and careful about how we talk about the Georgia incident and the context of the six Asian women’s lives that were taken. And so at the very forefront of this news breaking out, there were press releases and news already being published about these women being Asian sex workers, and all these conversations about what that means and the protection of sex workers, et cetera.
So number one, overall, the sexualization of Asian women has a deep-rooted history. It’s not something that happened because of COVID. It’s always been here. It’s rooted in U.S. imperialism, this idea of Orientalism. And so we see a very real example of that with the Georgia shootings because the assumption that was heard when people heard massage parlors, they heard, “Oh, it’s Asian women sex workers,” which wasn’t even a confirmed fact or anything, but that was the assumption and things were already being published about it.
And so that’s a problem, right? This immediate assumption that Asian women, if they’re working in some kind of capacity that’s a massage parlor or some kind of salon, it’s automatically tied into this very sexualized work. At the same time, I don’t want to disregard and dismiss the importance of sex work and how many Asian women are in sex work spaces. And they face a lot of very unique and distinct oppression regarding from that as an Asian woman also working in a sex workspace.
VIVIAN SHAW: When we talk about Asian American women, we need to contextualize it. So socioeconomic status, citizenship status, sexuality, what types of jobs people have. Because I am an Asian American woman. I am cis, but I do work at home, right? And so that’s very different from the experience of somebody who is public-facing. And it’s consistent with a lot of research that we’ve had, particularly coming out of 9/11 and the Islamophobic backlash after 9/11. Also just research on minoritized communities who run businesses, right?
In general, in any type of situation, even during “normal times,” public-facing businesses that are run by people of color or in other countries people who are minoritized ethnically or racially, those are going to be more vulnerable to certain types of risks, right? And so then you add on the dimension of gender onto that, and the fact that the majority of incidents of anti-Asian racism have targeted women. And then you have this mix, right, where you can see disparities in terms of who ends up getting targeted.
SHANOOR SEERVAI: Vivian started the AAPI COVID-19 Project last year, even before we were using the word pandemic or living in lockdown. But she was beginning to hear stories about people avoiding Asian neighborhoods and Chinatowns. So she decided to investigate.
VIVIAN SHAW: So I put out a call on Twitter just to see what types of stories existed. And the types of responses I received really showed a very broad array of experiences that people were having. I heard from parents who were concerned about their children dealing with abuse from other kids as well as from other parents, right? I heard about people experiencing discrimination on gay dating websites. So just seeing the breadth of all these different types of stories, I realized that this was work that would be far too much for one person to do. And so I decided to put together a team. And so right now we have two active studies going on using mixed methods. And basically our two studies are looking at experiences of work as well as experiences of home and social relationships related to the family.
SHANOOR SEERVAI: And what’s the story that you hope you’ll be able to tell from this research?
VIVIAN SHAW: A lot of times, people say that there are two pandemics. They say there is the biological pandemic. There is racism. I think that on one hand, it’s all one pandemic as well as multiple pandemics, because you can also think about economic instability as being part of that, mental health as being part of that. But what happens is that if you look at past research, many of these things compound each other and are risk factors for each other, right? So as far as, for instance, intimate partner violence. Having experiences of racism and also having experiences of financial instability, those are risk factors for domestic violence, right? So I think that we need to really think about how these different phenomena are converging and then what are some of the really difficult consequences of that. And so that’s really my goal for the research.
SHANOOR SEERVAI: So as you’re describing, many of our social problems are interconnected. Could we talk about how the pandemic connects to the past? How have Asian Americans historically been blamed for disease?
SUSANNA PARK: Yes. So there’s a long history of that, and COVID is just another repetition of that, right? The disease changes, but the stigma stays the same. And as someone who’s in public health, I think it’s not a surprise then that we see the stigma against Chinese and the xenophobia that comes out from COVID-19. And so some examples that we see in history was the quarantining of Chinatowns, particularly in S.F. and in Hawaii because of the stigma about the bubonic plague. And so there was a death of a person in a Chinatown — I believe it was San Francisco — and this death, we don’t know if it was from the bubonic plague, but word got out. And then, because the Chinese were blamed for stealing jobs, these dirty immigrants are coming here and taking all our jobs and our spaces. And so they’re dirty. They bring diseases.
And that kind of rhetoric really stirred up a lot of hatred towards them in the community. And then the Board of Public Health at the time, they were like, “Okay, we’re going to quarantine this whole Chinatown.” That actually led to a court case where Jew Ho took it to court and he was like, “This is not right. This is racism.” And after that it was pretty much said that public health orders can’t just be based on discrimination. You can’t just do it without having any substantial evidence for it.
SHANOOR SEERVAI: So we’ve mentioned Pacific Islanders, and your project is called the AAPI, Asian American and Pacific Islander COVID-19 Project. And so I want to acknowledge that we’ve been talking so far really about Asian Americans, even though they are sometimes grouped together with Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. Can we just spend a little bit of time talking about the very specific challenges that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are experiencing in the pandemic?
SUSANNA PARK: Well, they have very high mortality rates. And actually, before I want to say that, that’s a very important question, Shanoor, but I think I also want to be careful as someone who isn’t Pacific Islander. And it’s something that, again, when we’re talking about positionality and especially as researchers, we don’t want to speak for the Pacific Islander community members, and they’re not a monolith either. They have a very diverse group. And so when we’re talking about NHPIs, there are articles or statistics or even comments from community members themselves to talk about the struggles that they face. And so some of those things include very high mortality rates. A lot of the community efforts to inform about COVID and get the vaccine, they’ve been largely just community-led because not a lot of resources are going towards them, period.
VIVIAN SHAW: Since we’ve kind of . . . This discussion has been a lot about anti-Asian racism. We really need to be careful and not assume that Pacific Islanders are experiencing this particular xenophobic form of anti-Asian racism in the same way that say other communities are, right? So we can see how anti-Asian racism, which is connected to this sort of politics of how Trump has described China, and that type of critique of China, how that can still affect people who are not Chinese, right? So for instance, some of the more prominent victims in the Bay Area were Thai, right?
But I think that even while understanding that people who are not Chinese are still experiencing the repercussions of this form of racism, I think we still need to be careful and not just simply assume that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are experiencing this all in the same way.
SHANOOR SEERVAI: So as we’re wrapping up and we think about how this pandemic will hopefully ultimately end, are you concerned that these incidents of heightened racism are here to stay?
VIVIAN SHAW: I don’t think they really ever go away. I think that in general, I mean, not only in terms of how racism impacts Asian Americans, I mean, in general, we can think of racism as enduring, as adaptive. For instance, in the late 19th century, early 20th century, racism was really thought about in biological terms, right? So people were measuring the size of skulls. People were saying that certain groups were superior to others, right?
But things have shifted. And now there’s more discussion in terms of cultural differences. So I do think that as people who may be less-well-versed in this type of discussion retire, and then kind of more people who are more comfortable with having an analysis of systemic racism kind of come into positions of influence, hopefully we can have a better structure for dealing with this.
I also think that education really needs to improve too, because the way that racism has been taught in probably most public schools in the U.S. is not very comprehensive, not very informative. I’m hoping that we can kind of move things forward a little bit, but I think it’s always going to kind of be this dance of back and forth, right, where maybe one step forward, two steps back, two steps forward.
SHANOOR SEERVAI: And I guess, again, as we’re looking at the end of the pandemic and the fact that there is a vaccine, when we talk about the vaccine and race, there’s a lot about why black communities don’t trust the vaccine or rather why a history of discrimination has led to a lack of trust in black communities. What can you say about the ways in which Asian Americans view the vaccine?
SUSANNA PARK: From the latest report I saw through the Kaiser Family Foundation, Asians are actually getting vaccinated at a pretty high rate. I think though — and I can’t really say for sure, because I need to look back at the reports that are coming out about this — but I think we have to be aware, again, health care workers were the first to get vaccinated, right? And there are a lot of Asian folks who are health care workers.
And then we have essential workers. Again, a lot of Asian folks are in essential working positions, front-facing. And so as more people get vaccinated in those communities, they would perhaps be getting vaccinated as well. And I would be interested as we continue our project, what this means again, when they are doing their risk assessment and making these decisions for their families and for their businesses, what it means for them to get the vaccine. But again, when we talk about the exacerbation of social inequalities, those same people who are the most vulnerable, the same people who are often left behind, I bet you we’re probably seeing the same thing with regards to vaccinations.
VIVIAN SHAW: Yeah. Just one thing to add to that. Anecdotally we have heard about how fear of racial harassment also impacts people’s feelings of comfort in terms of leaving their homes, right? That’s affected seeking out of health care. And so we can anticipate that could also affect people seeking out vaccines as well.
SHANOOR SEERVAI: Thank you both so much for joining me today.
SUSANNA PARK: Thank you.
VIVIAN SHAW: Thank you. Yeah. Thank you.
SHANOOR SEERVAI: The Dose is hosted by me, Shanoor Seervai. I produce this show for the Commonwealth Fund along with Andrea Muraskin, Naomi Leibowitz, and Joshua Tallman. Special thanks to Barry Scholl for editorial support, Jen Wilson and Rose Wong for our art and design, and Paul Frame for web support. Our theme music is “Arizona Moon” by Blue Dot Sessions, with additional music from Podington Bear. Our website is thedose.show. There you’ll find show notes and other resources. That’s it for The Dose. Thanks for listening.