In mid-February, at Lunar New Year, hundreds of volunteers organized to escort older Asian Americans to keep them safe during the holiday. While the support was a testament to the best of us, the reason it was needed was almost unspeakable: Attacks on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) had become overt, violent, and often particularly targeting older AAPI women.
The sickening rise in violence toward the vulnerable may be in part attributable to myths, foolishness, and some outright lies about the source of COVID-19 (and it bears repeating that there is not yet any clear scientific evidence pinpointing the start of the outbreak).
But a look at U.S. history shows such violence is neither sudden nor unique to this time.
Dr. Keith Tsz-Kit Chan, LMSW, PhD, is an assistant professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, City University of New York. He also serves as a Congressional Fellow in the U.S. House Committee on Ways & Means and as an NIH/NIA-funded Asian Resource Center on Minority Aging Research (RCMAR) Scientist. He came to New York City with his family when he was 9 and was a first-generation college student on a full scholarship—and his mother worked for a decade as an in-home caregiver.
Recently, he and colleagues in social work and aging gathered to give a webinar on the issue, tracing its roots and looking at ways to raise awareness and preserve the safety and freedom of older adults.
Q. In the webinar, you spoke of the many groups and cultures meant when we talk about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Can you go into some of that?
A. Speaking broadly, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is a term that’s been used to include more than 30 distinct ethnic groups who speak more than 100 languages. AAPIs are by no means a monolithic group.
However, there is a broader historical context, dating back to the 19th century, which points to structural racism and violence that continues to shape the everyday lives of AAPI people in the United States. In the 1960s, the term Asian American really became a collective identity, as part of the Asian American movement, which was actually in solidarity with the civil rights movement of the time.
I think there’s always this kind of ebb and flow in terms of about what constitutes the Asian American and Pacific Islander identity—to be able to acknowledge the differences, but also to see the broader context as to how we can advance the social justice agenda.
Q. Can you explain the “model minority” myth, and why it’s a problem, even though it might appear to some to be a positive image?
A. Beginning in the 1970s, Asians were referred to—controversially—as the “model minority.” This was used to justify inadequate access and low utilization of social- and health-related services among Asians. But perhaps most insidiously, the model minority narrative reifies the claim of egalitarianism as a triumph over exclusions, while justifying social differences and inequalities.
The problem with the model minority narrative is that it conflates the immigrant success story with racist undertones. It’s a positive thing to celebrate an immigrant’s success—just as it is positive to celebrate minority success or working-class success. Some Asians have done very well. And this is a good thing. The challenge is in holding space for the realities of people who are also vulnerable because of systemic oppression—and to not forget that racism still exists in our country, and we still have work to do in addressing systemic racism.
Q. What is the effect when more than one type of bias acts on a person such as being AAPI and an older adult?
A. We see these compounding especially on Asian American elderly women. Oftentimes, we talk about how race, age, gender, immigration status, and social class are often intertwined. The cumulative effect we observe is from racism, ageism, and sexism all working together.
But what AAPI older adults want is protection and safety. So perhaps the most important question here is, what are some of the ways that those of us in the community and those of us who work in the system can provide that for them.
Q. Do you have any suggestions on how to talk about this without causing more damage?
A. I think the problem that we’ve had throughout the years is that people didn’t want to talk about it—that it seemed like it wasn’t really a topic that should be discussed at all. Unfortunately, not talking about it doesn’t make it go away.
One of the biggest things that allies can do is to learn about the history of anti-Asian racism and oppression.
From a very practical standpoint, allies can work together to provide safety and support to their AAPI neighbors, who may not know who they can trust right now, especially in light of the overt racism.
Allies can confront anti-Asian racism by speaking out and letting their Asian American and Pacific Islander neighbors know that they’re not alone—that they have people they can turn to and who can be a resource for them.
The Asian & Pacific Islanders Social Work Educators Association is an organization where I’m vice president, and we’re working on resources and knowledge sharing. I suspect that (senior living) community managers won’t have to go very far to access resources—we’re here, we want to speak, and we want to be part of the dialogue and bring this forward.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
The Stop AAPI Hate (stopaapihate.org) website offers current news and opinion pieces, a place to report an incident, safety tips in multiple languages, information and historical context—and this list of some of the ways to help.
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