Anti-Asian Violence Shows That Socioeconomic Status Doesn’t Protect From Racism

stephen chen
Author  Carine Tarazi ’03
Published on 

The rise in anti-Asian violence and the stories of the Asian and Asian American women who were killed in Atlanta underscore Asian Americans’ complicated relations with social status in the United States. Assistant Professor of Psychology Stephen Chen’s research speaks to some of these issues of race, social status, and Asian American mental health. Here he shares his thoughts on the experience of discrimination, socioeconomic divides, and more.

You teach a course called Asian American Psychology. Asia spans a huge portion of the globe. Does that present complications, or does the experience of discrimination for Asians in America tend to be similar?

I’d say it does both: it brings out both distinct and shared elements of Asian Americans’ experiences. One of the topics we tackle from day one in this course is the diversity of the Asian American experience and the challenges of defining who Asian Americans are. Yet one of the common threads shared across Asian American groups is the experience of stereotyping and discrimination.

One of these shared experiences is the perception of being a “forever-foreigner”—that no matter how many generations one’s family may have been in the United States, Asian features are interpreted by others as a signal that we don’t belong here. We've struggled with that for generations now in American history, and we’re unfortunately seeing similar rhetoric accompanying the recent acts of anti-Asian violence.

There's a very long history of anti-Asian and anti-Asian American discrimination and violence in this country. The number of hate crimes against Asian Americans has skyrocketed in the past year. Can you talk a bit about the psychological effects of such discrimination?

We’re seeing emerging research linking anti-Asian discrimination and violence with a wide range of mental health problems, from specific symptoms of depression and PTSD to general concerns for physical safety. The Asian American Psychological Association recently provided a written testimony for the House Judiciary Committee on Discrimination and Violence Against Asian Americans, which was held earlier this month. It’s a very useful resource that summarizes much of this emerging data.

My own research focuses on Asian Americans’ experiences with social status and its effects on their development and mental health. And the events from Atlanta and the rise in anti-Asian violence over the past year both underscore how important it is to distinguish between more objective indicators of socioeconomic status—levels of education, income, or the general prestige of one’s occupation—and perceived, relative social status, where we see ourselves relative to others in a social context.

From Atlanta, we’re seeing a spotlight on stories of immigration and social mobility that clash with the stereotypes of Asian Americans as highly educated, high-income “model minorities.” I’ve found similar socioeconomic divides in my work with Chinese American immigrant families: in our samples, we typically find that the percentage of adults with graduate degrees is roughly the same as the percentage of adults who only have a high school level of education.

Over the past year, though, all these incidents of anti-Asian violence and racism show us all the ways that socioeconomic status doesn't matter: A high income and a graduate degree don’t protect you against racism and discrimination. That’s why it’s so critical to consider how these experiences shape Asian Americans’ perceptions of where they stand relative to others in the United States. In our research, we found that even when Chinese Americans experienced an upward shift in actual socioeconomic status after immigrating to the United States, they often felt that their relative status in the U.S. was lower than it was in Asia. And it was these perceptions of lower relative social status that were associated with more symptoms of depression among adults and more experiences of loneliness and social isolation for kids, even after controlling for their actual socioeconomic status.

What about the perception that if you immigrate to Europe, you’re always associated with your country of origin—but if you come to America, you’re American, no matter what?

I think it’s critical to distinguish between our own perceptions and the perceptions of others. As we’ve seen, so many of these acts of anti-Asian violence are rooted in how Asian Americans aren’t perceived as American.

And of course, there are variations in the ways that we perceive ourselves: Are we Asians living in the United States, Asian Americans, or just Americans? One of the things I love about our Asian American Psychology class is that it brings together students who identify as Asian American, international students from Asia, and students who identify as neither Asian nor Asian American. So it’s always an interesting discussion when we tackle the classic “Where are you from?” microaggression: To what extent does it depend on how we perceive ourselves? To what extent does it depend on the person asking the question and how they perceive us?

Any final thoughts?

As difficult as these times are, I’m encouraged by the growing attention to these issues, particularly as we look ahead to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Heritage Month in May. I’m also encouraged by the mobilization that we’re seeing in AAPI communities, but my hope is that it isn’t contained there. We have a critical opportunity to stand alongside other marginalized communities, rather than simply looking out for our own.