It’s Time for “The Talk” about Anti-Asian Racism
By Audri Lu-Uhlken
My back leaned against a heavy, steel door to the entrance of an elementary school, propping it open as I smiled and waved at children making their way inside. As the newest staff member of the school building, I had been advised by the principal to stand at the front door to get to know students and families better.
It was March 2020. I had been working for the school district only for two weeks, yet the morning routine became familiar. The still-frigid late-winter weather seemed to motivate students to pick up their pace; some trotting instead of their normal straggle, others running in a full-on sprint. High-fives and side-hugs were exchanged as the sunrise scattered between the early morning clouds. The heater roared inside the atrium, muffling the echo of yawns and greetings; “Good morning,” “Great to see you,” “Have a fun day!”
A group of fifth-graders crossed the street and made their way to school. One student pointed at the door and said something. Everyone chuckled.
“Eww, it’s the coronavirus,” shouted the student as he ran past me. His friends followed, snickering. Confused, I looked around to see to whom he was referring.
There were no other students around. The invective was aimed at me.
My hands touched my belly, which was finally beginning to show at 6 months of pregnancy. My mind went from puzzled to offended, then saddened, because this child had already learned to be racist and bold about it to an adult – an Asian and a staff member. Then what was happening to Asian students in the classrooms?
The Stop A.A.P.I. Hate Youth Campaign interviewed 990 Asian-American young adults across the United States about their experiences during the COVID -19 pandemic. It found that one in four had reported experiencing racism in some way. Asian youths who had been bullied were physically harassed or had racial slurs shouted at them, similar to what I had experienced as an Asian adult.
The campaign was cited in an article by Heidi Shin in the New York Times in March 2021. It featured Dr. Juliana Chen, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Mass General Brigham, who said that children who experience this kind of racism may stop going to school or speaking up in class. They might start acting out, feel unwell, have trouble sleeping or struggle with depression.
As a soon-to-be mother and a Lao-Taidam Asian American raised by immigrant and refugee parents in Iowa, I began processing how I was going to equip my future biracial children for this reality. My childhood was chock-full of moments like this: people pulling back their eyes and calling me gook, chink, or ching-chong; or asking me where I came from and commenting on my ability to speak English even though I was born in the Midwest. The constant jab of racial aggressions was commonplace for Asian and Pacific Islander children and families growing up in the 70s, 80s and 90s, decades before future U.S. administration casually referred to a global pandemic as “kung flu” and “China virus” in 2020.
I recently asked my mother why we did not talk about anti-Asian racism growing up. She said it was best to not know the truth. “The less you knew, the better it was,” she said. Like many Asian mothers, she was hopeful her children would not have to bear the painful experiences she faced living as an Asian immigrant in America. Unfortunately, we still did – and still do.
Shin’s article quotes Tiffany Yip, a developmental psychologist at Fordham University, pointing out that a child who is targeted by a racist remark as hearing this: “You don’t belong. You’re other. You’re different.” Yip said children begin to develop a sense of racial identity by age 3 or 4. Once they enter grade school, they hear about race and racism from peers and the media they consume.
“By not talking about race” and what they’re hearing, Yip said, “you run the risk of intensifying stereotypes.”
Added Chen in the article: “We think we’re protecting our kids by not talking about racist incidents, but actually not talking about it is not helping,” Building their racial identity is what helps children feel safe, the article stated.
According to data released by William James College in Boston, Asian parents were least likely to have conversations about discrimination or inequality with their children among all non-White racial/ethnic groups. The study shows adolescents who receive fewer messages about race and ethnicity from parents are most at risk for psychological distress if they have experienced racism.
For younger Asian children in primary school, here is what parents could to do help engage in conversation on racism, as originally posted in the New York Times:
- Read books, watch movies and consume media with racially diverse characters. Read with your children or talk with them about what they’re reading
- Be proactive in bringing up conversations about race with your kids. Ask them what they are hearing and experiencing
- Kids will know what’s happening in the news. Discuss it with them in an age-appropriate way
- Role play what to do when you see a racist incident. Talk to your children if a racist incident occurs involving other children or in your community
- When a racist incident happens to your child, don’t jump into trying to solve the problem. First ask your child how they feel, and listen. Tell them you don’t know all the answers, but you can find solutions together
- Explore additional resources on talking about race with younger children, such as Embrace Race and PBS Kids for Parents
For Asian teenagers, here is what parents could do to help foster family conversations on racism:
- A valuable parenting guide for parents of Asian-American teens: How are you and your children talking about racism?
- Share resources from the M.G.H. Center for Cross-Cultural Student Emotional Wellness with your kids
In a radio show, “All things Considered” hosted by Audie Cornish on NPR, Nicole Chung, an author and advice columnist for Slate magazine, and Christine Koh, a neuroscientist and co-author of a book on parenting, discussed additional ways to help talk to Asian teenagers:
- Find an environment where conversations could be low-pressure and youths are not forced to make eye contact — this could be before bed, while cooking/baking or in the car
- Be open to making mistakes. You do not have to have the correct language or answers to be effective in the conversation. Allow for awkward silence
- Give plenty of opportunities for kids to share their own feelings, experiences and fears
- Reflect back what kids say so they feel heard and validated through affirmation of their emotions, making room for questions and providing explanations with context
- If your child was targeted, assure them that they were not the cause and that they are loved for who they are
- When kids are ready, incorporate ways to discuss how to respond to racism and challenge racism as a family
While Asians residing in the United States are largely clumped into a uniform group, the cultures and histories of each Asian ethnic group are widely different. Yet, society’s tight grip on the image of a submissive, compliant group of homogenous foreigners allow for a shared American experience that often means unchecked or discounted violence against varying Asian and Pacific Islander communities. The invisibility of anti-Asian racism in the United States has been long overlooked and is due for an awakening.
A 2019 Pew Research Center survey reported that Asian households rarely had frank discussions about race and racism because the topic was taboo and held cultural, linguistic and intergenerational barriers. The survey revealed only 13 percent of Asian adults said race came up “often” in conversations with family and friends, compared with 27 percent of Black adults. When discussed with my own family, the response was that there were “more important” things to talk about rather than race.
Yet, reports of racism against Asian and Pacific Islanders continue to rise. Most recently, an 18-year-old student at Indiana University was stabbed on a city transit bus earlier this month, allegedly because her Asian identity. It’s time for parents of Asian children residing in the United States to learn from other communities of color and begin having uncomfortable conversations with family and friends around what it truly means to be Asian living in a predominately White American society. Because if not us, then who? And if not now, then when?
“COVID-19 Has Driven Racism And Violence Against Asian Americans: Perspectives from 12 National Polls”, Health Affairs Forefront, April 12, 2022.