Racism and Asian Americans

For the last two decades Asian Americans as a racial group have represented one of the fastest growing populations. Sometimes, the Model Minority stereotype is used to suggest that Asian Americans do not experience racism. However, racism against Asian Americans can be documented over more than 200 years of U.S. history. Some examples of racism include anti-immigration laws that restricted different Asian ethnic groups from immigrating to the United States between the 1880s and 1940s, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Members of many racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. can be targets of racism, and Asian Americans are certainly no exception.

What Is Racism?

Racism refers to the denigration or subordination of a group based on its racial or cultural characteristics (Uba, 1994). A racist perspective allows members of the dominant group to feel superior over members of denigrated groups and to justify disproportionate distribution of power and resources. Racism may subject members of the denigrated group to a pervasive sense of powerlessness and inferiority, which may discourage them from fighting against the racism.

This, in turn, can enforce racism. Racism can occur in various levels (Jones, 1972). Individual racism refers to one’s personal attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that his or her race or ethnicity is superior to others’ race or ethnicity. Institutional racism refers to the implicit and explicit manipulation in social policies, laws, and regulations to ensure and sustain the political, economic, and social advantage of the racial or ethnic group in power. Cultural racism involves society beliefs and customs that assume that various parameters of the dominant culture, such as language, traditions, and appearance, are superior to other cultures.

Racism is certainly not uncommon in college settings, especially in those where student body is composed by diverse ethnicities. Minority students, such as those of Asian descent, can experience all levels of racism listed above. Sometime one might not even know that s/he is a victim of racism because racism can be very subtle. It does not matter how, when, why, or to whom– the experience of being a target of racism is always a negative one. It can be particularly grueling when racism is experienced at a time when a minority student is seeking acceptance and support from peers and campus. The encountered racism can be even more difficult if it occurs at an institutional or cultural level. Furthermore, with interpersonal harmony being an important value for many Asian Americans (Lin, 2003), when encountering racism Asian Americans can face a dilemma between wanting to remain quiet and walking away from the racism and fighting against it by making their voice heard. Naturally, either way, this subjects many Asian Americans to unduly stress and can result in their feeling helplessness, hopelessness, powerlessness, loneliness, alienation, frustration, anger, and various adjustment and academic difficulties. Many Asian Americans may then cope with racism through denial.

How to Cope with Racism

There are many ways to cope with racism. The most effective way of dealing with racism is to confront the false beliefs and attitudes of that one’s race and ethnicity is inferior to other races/ethnicities. As mentioned above, certain traditional Asian values may discourage Asian Americans from confronting the sources of racism and may make the decision to take such action a difficult one. Many factors can sway this decision one way or the other, such as one’s personality, conflict-solving style, available support, and the surrounding environment. Whether or not one chooses to take action, this decision should be respected. One can argue that leaving racism unchallenged can send a false message, implying that racism is “allowed” or “acceptable”, which further perpetuates racism. Nonetheless, confronting racism can further subject the individual to unduly tension or hostility which can cause harm and danger. Decisions therefore should be made at the individual’s comfort level and with caution.
Being authentic, assertive, and proud of one’s ethnicity and culture can be helpful in dealing with racism. Under some circumstances many may choose to “brush off” the racist comments or mistreatment through disengagement, seeing the sources of the comments as ignorant or insensitive, and continue to be proud of and authentic towards their own cultural heritage. Such a stance not only increases one’s inner strength but also reduces the unnecessary stress.
Finding support is another effective coping in the face of racism. Many venues of support can be found either on campus or online to seek support or to address this issue effectively. Many units in Student Affairs, such as Asian American Cultural Center, Counseling Center, Minority Student Affairs, Office of Dean of the Students are all reliable resources to provide immediate support and necessary intervention.

Need Additional Help?

Should you feel you would like more suggestions for coping with racism, the Counseling Center offers individual and group counseling. For more information, contact the Counseling Center at the University of Illinois (217) 333-3704.