The Rise of Anti-Asian Racism & The Mental Health Crisis Forging in the Workplace

Having grown up in a small midwest town, I haven’t always felt connected to the Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPIs) community.Perhaps it was the fact that I was raised in a primarily Caucasian city with little knowledge of the Asian diaspora outside of my Sikh/Punjabi/Indian links. In any case, the recent surge in AAPI crime has highlighted the shared struggles of being a visible minority, as well as the importance of institutions to ensure psychological safety for those affected.

The recent targeted, but indiscriminate, violence against AAPIs — a Filipino man’s face was slashed in New York City; a Thai elder was murdered in San Francisco; and six AAPI women were murdered in Atlanta — sends a resounding message not only to myself, but also to AAPI professionals and the community at large. You may be “quiet,” “assimilated,” or part of the ostensibly picturesque “model minority.” It makes no difference if you or I are connected to our culture. In their eyes, we are indeed “those Asians.”

It’s convenient for businesses to claim “not us,” citing their AAPI Heritage Month events or “diversity” in the workplace as proof of equity. However, companies accounted for 38 percent of the 3,800 anti-Asian hate crimes identified by the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate since the outbreak began.

Erasure has been a part of AAPI tradition, not only on a social and economic level, but also in the workplace and in the increasing conversation around mental health. Workplaces and advocates for mental wellbeing must shift from performative allyship to demonstrative activism. With that comes a deeper awareness of our community’s struggles of racism, erasure, and a looming mental health crisis for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Anti-Asian hate crimes in New York City increased by 1900% in 2020.
Anti-Asian hate crimes in New York City increased by 1900% in 2020. STRF/STAR MAX/IPX STRF/STAR MAX/IPX STRF/STAR MAX/
A Brief History Of AAPI “Success” And Inequity Elimination
Anti-Asian rhetoric erases the pervasive inequities and anti-Asian sentiments that still exist today and affect mental health, from the “Yellow Peril” in the mid-1800s to AAPIs’ “success” as a “model minority.” AAPIs are among the following:

Most people were affected by the COVID-19-related unemployment surge, which increased by 450 percent.
To be sure, bigotry towards AAPIs did not increase during the pandemic; rather, it was facilitated. Even before the pandemic, one-third of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) said they had been subjected to racist actions such as racial slurs and derogatory remarks. These anti-Asian sentiments hit new heights in 2020, fuelled by the previous administration’s “China Virus” and “Kung Flu” rhetoric. As a result, from 2019 to 2020, hate crimes against AAPIs increased by 150 percent in the United States.

And so, these crimes go almost unnoticed. In an article for NBC News, Stewart Kwoh, president emeritus of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, wrote, “[AAPIs] have had a tougher time proving racism.” “In large part because, in general, people are still unaware of Asian Americans’ culture and struggles. That is the colossal dilemma we as a society must address.”

In Mental Health And The Workplace, AAPI Erasure
The corporate conversation around mental wellbeing has long been skewed toward mental “wellness,” with much less focus on more difficult experiences and the intersection of mental health, equity, and traditionally underrepresented groups.

However, how historical erasure of AAPI voices relates to this community’s mental health experiences has received little attention. “Metaphors (e.g. tigers), assumptions (model minority), or symbols (bamboo ceiling) in discussions at work both marginalize this community and discourage talking about mental wellbeing,” says Gordon Shen, Assistant Professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center.

Rather than being viewed as a result of a complex and diverse cultural experience that has dealt with immigration, alienation, racism, and erasure, our society is presented as one of “high stigma,” as inherently detrimental to our own well-being.

Vy (Jessica) Ngo, Data Informatics Analyst at Adobe, shares, “I grew up in a poor community with immigrant parents, so I was told that as long as I worked hard, that would be enough.” “Now that I’m a working adult, I’ve struggled to strike a balance between what I wanted to do with my career, what my parents felt I should be doing with my career, and what I thought my career required of me — and my mental wellbeing has suffered as a result.”

Despite the diversity of mental health experiences among racial and ethnic groups, discrimination has a strong and negative effect on mental health in all populations, regardless of coping style, social support, or ethnic group identity. Anti-Asian activities, on the other hand, have only increased in number over the course of the pandemic, and it wasn’t until recently that the outright violent acts received sufficient exposure and publicity.

“Harassment was definitely witnessed by many [of our API ERG, Asians@] participants who were luckily not specifically targeted by violent attacks,” says Trisha Todman, Airbnb’s diversity and belonging business partner. “Just knowing that people who share your ethnic identity are subjected to abuse and bigotry is enough to trigger racial trauma.”

Among white-collar workers, AAPIs have the lowest chance of being promoted to management.
Actions for AAPIs in the Workplace to Improve Equity and Mental Health
In a recent LinkedIn post, DEI expert and author Lily Zheng wrote, “Right now, the biggest corporations are continuing to use high-profile representational wins and DEI initiatives as a shield while aggressively pressuring lawmakers to continue tearing down regulations and finding excuses to underpay workers.” “The term ‘performative diversity’ is just too sweet. That is a miscarriage of justice.”

Companies, colleagues, and mental health advocates must all work harder to campaign for all traditionally marginalized identities and cultures, not just AAPIs. Here’s how to do it:

For those in positions of leadership. Join leaders including PayPal’s president and CEO Dan Schulman in the near future. Declare your support for the AAPI community and encourage others in your business, industry, and community to do the same. The greatest influence, however, will come from doubling down on your commitment in inclusive recruitment, hiring, and inclusion practices in the future. There is no ideal solution, so look beyond awareness months and inclusion programs to consider how equity plays out in the company on a day-to-day, hour-by-hour basis.

For HR and people management executives. Ascertain that all workers have fair and affordable access to culturally appropriate mental health services. Consider extending these services in the event of a major event, such as the recent terrorist attacks. Take the time to learn about your staff, including AAPIs, LGBTQ+ people, and people of all backgrounds. Their experiences differ from the averages found in national surveys and studies.

Employee resource groups (ERGs) and related positions for DEI experts. In the past year, several groups have experienced significant obstacles and traumas. Both of them are entitled to their own advocacy channels. In order to establish a cohesive movement for change, consider deliberate community-building through communities. “In the last year, the empathy between our Black and API ERGs at Airbnb has grown exponentially, particularly in deep reflection and acknowledgment of the racial trauma each group experiences,” Todman says. “This is the kind of help the API group needs right now: people who are articulate, steadfast, and intentional about raising their voices and intervening when they are mistreated.”

This is for everyone. Consider what you can do with your special abilities to help build a more equitable future. Share AAPI mental health services and contribute to AAPI organizations that are making a difference in the city. Our jobs aren’t to be specialists in each other’s intersectional identities and societies’ experiences. Our job is to genuinely listen to them, believe in their stories, and fight for the equity that we all deserve.

Passionate about learning and sharing. Currently exploring: technology, finance, and racial outcomes. Connect with me:

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