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ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: How educators can respond to anti-Asian racism

By Tomoko Wakabayashi, Gabrielle Lai, Tzu-Fen Chang and Sunah Hyun
June 2021

James is excited to go back to school after months of remote learning due to COVID-19. After his father drops him off at school the first morning, he notices other classmates approaching. One of them yells, “Can you go home? Actually, go back to where you came from! Are you trying to kill us again?” He looks around, wondering who they’re talking to. Then he notices that he is the only Asian American in the vicinity. Other students are watching, but no one steps in to help.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in March 2020 in the United States, Asian American and Pacific Islander children have faced increased levels of racial discrimination like the incident described above (Wakabayashi et al., 2020).

Emerging empirical research documents disturbing trends. One survey of 543 Chinese American parents and 230 children ages 10-18 found that 31.7% of the parents and 45.7% of children have been victims of anti-Asian racism online since the start of the pandemic, and over half of parents (50.9%) and children (50.2%) reported having direct in-person experiences of COVID-19-related anti-Asian racism (Cheah et al., 2020). Even higher proportions (88.5% of parents and 91.9% of children) have witnessed such incidents.

Whether direct or vicarious, youth who report experiencing bias‐based discrimination are at high risk for academic, mental health, and substance abuse problems (Russell et al., 2012). In addition, discriminatory experiences can have negative effects on cross‐ethnic relations (Yip & Douglass, 2011).

Whether direct or vicarious, youth who report experiencing bias‐based discrimination are at high risk for academic, mental health, & substance abuse problems (Russell et al., 2012). #TheLearningPro Click To Tweet

Research specifically suggests that bystanders can be helpful in instances of intergroup bullying or discrimination, such as ethnic name calling (Aboud & Joong, 2008). But Aboud and Joong (2008) found that, in 44% of incidents of race-based bullying at school, some or all of the bystanders did nothing (either watched or left the scene). Twenty-five percent encouraged the bullying by laughing or provoking the bully. When someone intervened, the bullying stopped within 10 seconds (Hawkins et al., 2001).

What can school administrators, teachers, parents, and peers do to protect individuals from anti-Asian racism? What can we all do to ensure that racism is not normalized in our schools and communities?

What can school administrators, teachers, parents, and peers do to protect individuals from anti-Asian racism? #TheLearningPro Click To Tweet

In this article, we provide case studies that illustrate what anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander racism may look like in schools, during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by discussion questions and recommended actions to address and prevent such discrimination. We hope that the cases we provide, most of them based on true incidents, encourage conversations and explorations amongst groups of staff, parents, and students.

Case studies illustrate overt and covert forms of anti-Asian racism and recommend actions to address and prevent them. #TheLearningPro Click To Tweet

As you review and discuss these case studies, we invite you to think about how these students’ experiences embody three issues pertinent to anti-Asian racism:

Diversity. Asians are a diverse group of people consisting of those with a variety of national origins, education, income, and reasons for coming to the United States. Nevertheless, there is often a misconception that Asians are a homogenous group.

Model minority myth. Given the diversity of the Asian American and Pacific Islander group, the model minority is a myth. In many cases, the myth hurts our children and youths, often leading to the stress of overachieving while diminishing accomplishments that may have resulted from efforts (Shih et al., 2019).

Perpetual foreigner syndrome. There is a tendency for the larger community to view Asian American and Pacific Islander individuals as non-American or less American than white people, as seen in James’s story. Verbal assaults, such as “go back to your country,” are commonplace. Japanese Americans may still be told that they are “enemies of the United States,” despite the racist and unjust incarceration that they experienced during World War II. Such perceptions and comments enable blaming and othering of Asian American and Pacific Islander people (e.g. Yogeeswaran & Dasgupta, 2010).

Direct discrimination. Some discrimination directly targets Asian American and Pacific Islander students, such as situations like James’s or another common scenario of peers teasing a child about the “weird” traditional food she brings for lunch. Direct discriminations can be displayed through verbal harassment and physical assault (Jeung et al., 2021).

The following is a case of verbal harassment that occurred in a Zoom classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an example of a common manifestation of the model minority myth: the assumption that Asian Americans are excellent in mathematics and science (Shih et al., 2019).

Jason is a Chinese American 7th grader. One day during his remote math class, his teacher, Mr. Patrick, asks him a question: A herd of 14 horses has 4 white and some black horses. What is the ratio of black horses to white horses? Jason does not know how to answer the question and remains silent. His classmate, John, unmutes his microphone and says, “I can’t believe that you’re an Asian. You should know the answer since Asians are good at math. You may be a fake Asian.”

Microagressions

Not all racism is as direct or obvious as Jason’s situation. Many incidents are covert and even unintentional microaggressions stemming from implicit biases, like the following two cases.

Hana is a fifth-generation Japanese American. She tells her mother that a new science teacher, Mr. Smith, stands by his classroom door and, between classes, greets students in the hallway as they walk by. When he sees an East Asian-looking student, he cheerfully greets them with, “Nihao!,” Chinese for hello. On multiple occasions, Hana responds to Mr. Smith that she is not Chinese, to which, Mr. Smith replies, “Then what are you?” Hana feels increasingly distressed by Mr. Smith’s action and starts avoiding Mr. Smith’s hallway to get to her classes. When Hana confides to her mother that she is barely getting to her classes on time, her mother decides it is time to email the school counselor.

Dr. Stork, the assistant superintendent of curriculum in the district, meets with a student’s parents who are refusing to have their daughter, a new transfer student, take the English proficiency test. The family is originally from India, although Ambika, who is a high school sophomore, was born and raised in the United States. In the home language survey, required to be filled out at the time of registration, the family indicated that Ambika speaks Hindi at home, which triggered the state requirement for English language proficiency screening. But Ambika has never lived outside of the United States and has attended and excelled in American public schools since kindergarten. Her parents inform Dr. Stork that Ambika is upset and perceives this test requirement as discrimination.

Vicarious discriminations

Children and youth can also experience discrimination vicariously when they witness direct discrimination of others. Vicarious discrimination could be experienced in person, but also on social media and other virtual means. For example, during COVID-19, social media posts of assault against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community increased. While many were posted by non-Asian individuals with hateful intent (e.g. non-Asian youths making fun of a younger Asian boy about his slanted eyes), others were made to advocate for increased awareness of Asian American issues. Regardless of intent, such videos increased youths’ exposure to vicarious discrimination (Nguyen, 2021).

The following is an example of vicarious discrimination:

Sonia, 13, and her father, who are Hmong Americans, are shopping at a local mall. Suddenly, they hear someone yell, “Get away, you Chinese virus!” Sonia and her father look around and see an East Asian family hurry to exit the mall. Sonia’s father is shocked. However, he is even more concerned when Sonia says, “That’s just so weird, calling COVID ‘this Chinese virus.’ People have been saying that all over the internet and making jokes about it. You know how they also now call it ‘Kung Flu’? I don’t know what’s funny, but some of my classmates have been reposting about it on Instagram and Facebook.”

Such race‐based humor, which occurs frequently (Ford & Ferguson, 2004), causes stress and anxiety for adolescents (Edwards & Romero, 2008; Douglass, 2013). Sonia’s story also shows how virtual platforms can spread disinformation, increase discrimination, and motivate hateful acts. In fact, Croucher et al. (2020) found that individuals who are not frequent users of Facebook during the COVID-19 pandemic were less likely to consider Asians as causing COVID-19.

Facilitating discussions

The cases described above can be used in educator professional learning. As you review the cases, think about the issues from the perspectives of an administrator, teacher, parent, and peer.

The cases will likely provoke various reactions, including disbelief, empathy, and feeling triggered because of similar experiences. We recommend the following discussion questions to allow participants to freely and actively explore their perspectives on Asian American and Pacific Islander racism through the content in the case

  • What can school leaders, teachers, parents, and peers do to protect or support the student victim?
  •  What should be the next steps for school leaders, teachers, parents, and peers?
  • What can this school do to prevent similar incidents from recurring?
  • How serious do you think this incident is and why? For example, what may be the potential impact on students’ socioemotional well-being?

 

After case-specific discussions, we encourage participants to go a step further and reflect on how the cases connect to their own context, including their roles and responsibilities. Here are some questions that could help connect the cases to real situations.

  • What does your school’s Asian American and Pacific Islander population look like? What national origins are represented in your Asian American and Pacific Islander student population? What other types of diversity have you noticed in your Asian American and Pacific Islander student population?
  •  Do you know whether similar incidents are occurring at your school?
  • What can your school do to prevent similar incidents from occurring?
  •  How can teachers and other staff talk to the perpetrators? To the victims and families?
  • What do you do to ensure that children and youth are provided with equitable support and access to resources regardless of race?
  • Are direct and vicarious discriminations addressed equally seriously by teachers and administrators at your school?

 

Recommended Actions

Our hope is that the case studies will help adults better identify what discrimination against Asian American and Pacific Islander students and families may look like and plan for next steps. We encourage proactive approaches with a focus on prevention.

One such approach is the confronting prejudiced responses model, which can be applied at an individual level and across a range of settings. This model describes organizational processes involved in addressing bystander action in the workplace, including requiring professional learning to develop employees’ understanding of racism; communicating that any form of racism, no matter how minor or jovial, is unacceptable; and outlining clear expectations and norms for employees to contribute to an inclusive, nondiscriminatory organizational culture.

To prevent and address direct discrimination students experience, we recommend that schools provide:

  • Teacher training on how to handle racial discriminatory behaviors that specifically address Asian American and Pacific Islander issues, such as those addressed in this article or cases that have happened in your community.
  • Students, families, and community members with opportunities for diversity, equity, and inclusion discussions that increase awareness of Asian American and Pacific Islander issues.
  • Staff, students, and families with information about mental health services in your schools and community to minimize potential psychological problems that are triggered by discrimination.
  • Safe and welcoming environment in which families are encouraged to partner with schools to monitor discriminatory behaviors and educate the community on Asian American and Pacific Islander issues.

 

If a discriminatory incident happens in your school, publicly acknowledge this and intervene immediately. Inform staff, students, and families that there is zero tolerance for discriminatory behaviors based on individuals’ racial or ethnic backgrounds. Follow up with victims and perpetrators to ensure they have received relevant support, training, and resources.

In addition, we recommend that schools address vicarious discrimination in the following ways:

  • Encourage staff, students, and families to report discriminatory and bullying incidents when they witness such incidents. Ensure that any reporting mechanisms are kept confidential, and protect against retaliation. Staff, students, and families who report should also be commended for their actions.
  • Reach out to the student(s) who experienced the incidents, as well as those who incited the discrimination, and provide them with the support previously mentioned for the case of direct discrimination.
  • Provide staff, students, families, and community members with bystander training specific to Asian American and Pacific Islander incidents.

 

An openness to learn about and address racism and discrimination against Asian American and Pacific Islander people can open our eyes and broaden our perspectives. The case studies shared here can help with that process. This is a first but important step toward dismantling systemic racism. The additional action steps described here can help you take that awareness to the next level and put antiracism into action.


References

Aboud, F.E. & Joong, A. (2008). Intergroup name‐calling and conditions for creating assertive bystanders. In S. Levy & M. Killen (Eds.), Intergroup attitudes and relations in childhood through adulthood (pp. 249-260). Oxford University Press.

Cheah, C.S.L., Wang, C., Ren, H., Zong, X., Cho, H.S., & Xue, X. (2020). COVID-19 racism and mental health in Chinese American families. Pediatrics, e2020021816. doi.org/10.1542/peds.2020-021816

Croucher, S.M., Nguyen, T., & Rahmani, D. (2020). Prejudice toward Asian Americans in the COVID-19 pandemic: The effects of social media use in the United States. Frontiers in Communication, 5(39), 1-12. doi.org/10.3389/fcomm.2020.00039

Douglass, S. (2013). Capacity and perspective in racial/ethnic teasing: A daily diary study examining personal and interpersonal experiences among adolescents and emerging adults. ETD Collection for Fordham University. research.library.fordham.edu/dissertations/AAI3588211

Edwards, L.M., & Romero, A.J. (2008). Coping with discrimination among Mexican descent adolescents. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 30(1), 24-39. doi.org/10.1177/0739986307311431

Ford, T.E. & Ferguson, M.A. (2004). Social consequences of disparagement humor: A prejudiced norm theory. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8(1), 79-94. doi.org/10.1207/S15327957PSPR0801_4

Hawkins, D.L., Pepler, D.J., & Craig, W.M. (2001). Naturalistic observations of peer interventions in bullying. Social Development, 10, 512-527. doi.org/10.1111/1467-9507.00178

Jeung, R., Yellow Horse, A.J., & Cayanan, C. (2021, May 6). Stop AAPI hate national report. Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council. stopaapihate.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Stop-AAPI-Hate-Report-National-210506.pdf

Nguyen, T. (2021). The spectacle of anti-Asian violence on Instagram. www.vox.com/22374175/anti-asian-violence-images-instagram

Russell, S.T., Sinclair, K.O., Poteat, V.P. & Koenig, B.W. (2012). Adolescent health and harassment based on discriminatory bias. American Journal of Public Health, 102, 493-495. doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2011.300430

Shih, K.Y., Chang, T.F., & Chen, S.Y. (2019). Impacts of the model minority myth on Asian American individuals and families: Social justice and critical race feminist perspectives. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 11(3), 412-428. doi/full/10.1111/jftr.12342

Wakabayashi, T., Cheah, C.S.L., Chang, T-F., Lai, G., Subrahmanyam, K., Chaudhary, N., Hyun, S., & Patel, P. (2020). Addressing inequities in education: Considerations for Asian American children and youth in the era of COVID-19. Society of Research in Child Development. www.srcd.org/research/addressing-inequities-education-considerations-asian-american-children-and-youth-era-covid.

Yip, T. & Douglass, S. (2011). Ethnic/racial identity and peer relationships across elementary, middle, and high schools. In X. Chen & K.H. Rubin (Eds.), Social emotional development in cultural context.

Yogeeswaran, K. & Dasgupta, N. (2010). Will the “real” American please stand up? The effect of implicit national prototypes on discriminatory behavior and judgments. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(10), 1332-1345. doi.org/10.1177/0146167210380928


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Tomoko Wakabayashi is associate professor and coordinator of the early childhood Ph.D. program at the Department of Human Development and Child Studies at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

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Gabrielle Lai is lecturer at the Center for Applied Behavioral and Social Sciences at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore.

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Tzu-Fen Chang is assistant professor in the Department of Child, Adolescent, and Family Studies at California State University in Bakersfield, California.

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Sunah Hyun is post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Pediatric Newborn Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts.


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