COMMENTARY

To Fight Anti-Asian Hate, We Must Talk About It

Krysti Lan Chi Vo, MD

May 05, 2021

Words matter. So, hear me when I say: I am Asian. I am American. I am a woman. I am not COVID-19. I did not create this virus. I did not place it in my pocket and bring it to the world, sprinkling it like pixie dust, along each path I've crossed.

Dr Krysti Lan Chi Vo

My words create a story, and not just those of one psychiatrist reaching out to others. It's the story of how the powerful use of words throughout my life inflicted racism upon me, even when unacknowledged by my conscious self. I share my story to let you know you are not alone in your journey of unwinding the cumulative systemic racist words and actions that might have affected your self-identification and self-love. I hope you channel that renewed sense of discovery to empower you to use your own words to create a positive impact for yourself and others – whether it is for your patients, friends, or community.

Currently, I serve as a physician and an advocate. I lead telehealth and developed software that screens for suicide risk (with support of a digital health grant). I also joined friends to develop a by-clinician, for-clinician telemental health platform.

Outside of my Hippocratic Oath, my mission, at its core, was to destigmatize mental illness through cultivating thoughtful conversations. But I am also so much more; aren't we all? I am a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend, and an American. I am working hard to create a life I love – the embodiment of the American Dream. If you meet me face to face, no curriculum vitae, no email, I'm Vietnamese. However, I am not the color of my skin or the shape of my eyes. I am no more defined by my lingering Vietnamese accent than I am by its Texan counterpart. Yet, throughout my life, my Vietnamese ethnicity has been a marker that others have used to define and objectify me.

Trauma Emerges on National Stage

I never thought it would happen to me, but as a resident physician, one of my most traumatic experiences of abusive power was when Donald Trump was running for president in 2016. He was using words and rhetoric that objectified women by classifying and quantifying their "attractiveness." This culminated in a scandal surrounding a recording in which he said he would grab women by the $%&#@ ... and had been allowed to do so because he was a celebrity. That episode affected me profoundly, maybe more than most. As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I knew the impact those words could have on future generations, and, as a woman and an aunt, I was appalled. But then, the effect turned to assault. Words matter.

I was living in New York City and as I made my nightly walk home on the Upper East Side, a man followed me. When I walked up the stairs to my building, he actually grabbed me...by the $%&#@. He did this with the same casual manner that one might greet a coworker with a high-five. He then turned and walked away, laughing.

I was overcome with shock; shocked that I could be so violated and yet thankful that he hadn't taken any more aggressive liberties. He didn't run away. He walked out as calmly as he had walked in, despite violating a most private piece of my femininity. And he laughed. As much as it jilted me, angered me, and made me feel demeaned and less-than, I know it's a blessing that the story ended there; so often attacks against women end so much worse.

I questioned: "Why?" Why would this man do this to me? To anyone? I don't know the answer, but I do know this: The things we normalize through the words we hear in the world, on the news, and at our dinner tables become action. It happened. This man didn't skulk off into the alleyway. He didn't hide. He laughed because he felt entitled. That's because words matter.

My journey is paved with words that mattered. I was born in Vietnam; my family legally immigrated to the United States when I was 5 years old. Throughout grade school, I began to realize the power of spoken words, especially when I was frequently told to go back to where I came from. Questions flew at me like bullets, and whether innocent or borne of curiosity, were hurtful reminders that, through no choice of my own, I was an unwelcome foreigner. "Where are you from?"..."No, where are you really, really from?" I felt eyes peering through me when my mother packed for me our culture's traditional foods for lunch. "Ew, what's that?" ... "That's gross it smells." How I longed for the cloak of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and blonde hair.

As I approached high school, college, and postgraduate work, the "where are you from?" questions didn't stop but took on a new connotation, as if I were some exotic pet that men had seen walking down the street. "Ooh, what is that?" While history is riddled with the objectification of women, rarely would any woman expect to have a stranger approach her and objectify her with a statement such as: "I only date girls with breast implants." For Asian women, however, experiencing verbal objectification has become the norm. Each approach I faced was followed by a story about Asian girlfriends of their past and a request for my phone number that felt more like a demand.

What these men probably meant as flirtation, I internalized as inescapable concerns of whether or not they had true desire to get to know me as a person. I became used to unsolicited words and attention from men who objectified me as an exotic fetish. I tried to pretend it was okay, but why? Objectifying Asian women is racism. Their words remind me, and I still hear them, that America has a long history of hypersexualizing Asian women. These words — at their core — dehumanize Asian women, and as we have seen, lead to violence.

Over the past few weeks, there's been discourse about the mass shooting in Atlanta. We need to pause and remember that the victims, like us, were human. These women killed in Atlanta had husbands, children, siblings, parents, and communities that they were taken away from, senselessly, based solely on their outward appearance. Whether or not this act was perpetrated by someone with a sexual addiction doesn't matter. What happened is rooted in the systemic racism that has stereotyped Asian women as sexual objects. The perpetrator targeted a group of people because of the systemic racism ingrained in him, plain and simple.

Everybody, no matter how evolved one's thinking, is influenced by words. You don't have to have mental illness or malicious intent to fall for propaganda — that's what makes it so scary, it works so well. Even among my own friends and family, some of the most compassionate people I know, I've heard disparaging remarks against Chinese people, from other Asians, repeating the same rhetoric they've seen in American newspapers and Asian media outlets, echoing the former president's coronavirus references to the "Chinese virus."

But what makes something systemic? What feeds this virus of hate and gives these practices their longevity? Pointing out problems doesn't make them go away; we have to cultivate conversation based around solutions. And that's our next step. What can we do to make a positive impact?

Words have affected my life, and my words have given me power. I encourage others to engage in activities where they too can feel empowered. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I've leveraged my leadership position with the American Psychiatric Association's Caucus of Asian American Psychiatrists and used my words to promote advocacy. I've also used my voice to raise national attention to the anti-Asian hate activities.

Motivated by my own desire to seek a supportive space with others to reflect on our racial identities, I've also launched various free support groups for Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) professionals and health care providers. I want to feel a sense of connection with others who share my experiences, as I never underestimate the phenomenal force of comforting words from a healing community.

Clinicians need their own space for processing, too. It is vitally important for us to take care of ourselves, because our patients' words can affect our own mental health. My colleagues are shocked by the amount of AAPI patients who are reaching out to them for care. Most of them have not worked with AAPI patients before, because so many people of AAPI descent do not often seek treatment.

Many of our patients are dealing with anxiety surrounding their own health and wellness, coupled with financial uncertainties and social unrest. In particular, AAPI clinicians may start to experience bystander trauma, because, for the first time, they are thinking: "It could have been me." AAPI clinicians are in a unique situation where they have the extra burden of providing a safe space for processing clients' trauma while also processing their own. We may have experiences of discrimination or racially motivated assaults and can reexperience this trauma through our work. Before we can help others, we have to do a self-check and reflect on how we are doing and seek our own support.

If you are able to take care of yourself and feel empowered to make a difference, there are many ways to help fight against anti-Asian sentiment, both on a personal and more global scale.

We have to check our biases and those of our family, friends, and colleagues. Everyone, even mental health professionals, has biases and is affected by disinformation. We have to dig deep into our own unconscious biases, reflect on them, and commit to changing the biases around us. Do we, or our families, have unconscious biases against a particular minority group? If so, discuss it.

No one is to blame. This is systemic, and no one is at fault. White men are not to be vilified. Conservative Republicans are not our enemy. Each of us is human, with our own flaws that can influence our own conscious and unconscious thoughts and actions. Let's discuss racial issues with our family and friends. Whenever someone says something hateful or discriminatory toward another ethnic group or racial background, we have to call it out, and help them realize their biases and change them.

If you are able, use your words to write to your elected representatives. Send them a short email, no need to be fancy. For example, you can send a note of support for legislation that is similar to the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which passed the Senate on Thursday, April 22, with 94:1 bipartisan support. This kind of legislation is a step in the right direction, but there is still more we must do much to do to stop anti-Asian biases and hate. There is empowerment and healing through making your own voice heard. I hope that these tragic incidents will lead to impactful policy changes.

The next step in this journey of empowerment is speaking about your lived experiences publicly and promoting the voices of others. I dedicated a section of my social media platforms to amplifying Asian voices, sharing news, and updating my hashtags to support the #StopAsianHate movement. I made it a point to form relationships with other advocates, AAPI mental health professionals and those personally affected by anti-Asian hate.

Speaking up and speaking out didn't take away my worries, but it did remind me that I'm powerful and that I am not alone. I can take action and demand action. I do not have to hide in the shadows but can stand in the light, using my voice like a megaphone to call out injustice and intolerance.

I hope that, for AAPI clinicians who may be affected by these current events, this validates your experiences. You are not alone. This is a reminder to treat yourself with empathy as you would your patients. For others, I hope this helps you to learn the plight of many AAPI community members in this country. Together, we can use words to create better neighborhoods, a better country, and safe spaces for all communities, especially the marginalized. As we know, words matter.

Vo is a board-certified psychiatrist and is the medical director of telehealth for the department of child and adolescent psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She is also a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, also in Philadelphia. She conducts digital health research focused on using automation and artificial intelligence for suicide risk screening and connecting patients to mental health care services. She disclosed serving as cofounder of telemental health software, Orchid, that eliminates burdensome administrative tasks so that clinicians can focus on their patients and have time for their loved ones.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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