Racial discrimination and health: The Asian American story

Racial bias against Asian Americans is seldom the subject of research. Sara Waters and SuYeon Lee say that has to change.

The signs you see everywhere during the COVID-19 pandemic proclaiming “We’re all in this together” don’t ring true for Asian Americans. Because some of the first cases were reported in China, there has been a tendency (even by the U.S. President) to blame the Chinese people for its worldwide spread.

SuYeon Lee, PhD student

The blame has been extended to all Asian Americans, many of whom say they have experienced more discrimination and disparagement since people first became aware of the reach of the disease. And there are numbers to back this up. A Pew Research Center survey (2020) showed that 58% of Asian Americans hear racist views more often than before the coronavirus outbreak, and nearly 40% have had adverse experiences themselves because of their ethnicity, such as slurs, jokes or fears of confrontation. In a recent Ipsos poll, 60% of Asian Americans said they had seen someone blame themselves or other Asian Americans for the outbreak. Verbal attacks sometimes escalate into harassment or even physical violence. In California, the situation has led activists to call for more state funding to fight the bias.

SuYeon Lee, a doctoral student in prevention science at WSU Vancouver, was hearing from other immigrant students about the stress they were experiencing since the beginning of the pandemic. Their stories inspired her to look deeper into how discrimination was affecting their mental and physical health. She and Sara Waters, assistant professor of human development at WSU Vancouver, developed a research project and obtained funding via the WSU Vancouver research office, supplemented by some of Lee’s fellowship funds.

Sara Waters, PhD

Their study, “Racial Discrimination and Health during COVID-19,” based on research conducted in May and June 2020, is “the first to examine the impacts of experiencing racial discriminatory behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic on Asians’ mental and physical health,” Lee and Waters write in a paper that is under review for publication.

There is little research on Asian Americans and racial bias, in part because Asian Americans are often perceived as a “model minority” that doesn’t experience racism as Blacks do. “Especially during the pandemic, but even before, people were not appreciating that this is another group who is experiencing discrimination and its effects, even if they don’t fall into that category of ‘people of color’ in many people’s minds,” Waters said.

The study sought to determine to what extent Asians and Asian Americans living in the United States have experienced discrimination and microaggressions during the pandemic and whether there have been health consequences. The 416 respondents ranged in age from 19 to their early 60s and represented a diversity of income levels and occupations. 

Approximately 29% said they’d seen an increase in racial discrimination since the beginning of the pandemic. Health consequences such as increased anxiety (41%), depression (53%) and sleep problems (43%) had also increased. Although not all had encountered discrimination personally (many were quarantined at home), some reported that hearing about discrimination on the news or from friends was stressful.

The survey also sought to determine the effects of social support, and, as expected, found that social support moderated the effect of perceived discrimination on depression and marginally on physical health.

Many respondents provided examples about being avoided or treated suspiciously in public—getting dirty looks, being conspicuously avoided in stores and on the street. Others wrote about verbal attacks, along the lines of “You caused the virus; go back to where you came from.” 

“As expected, people who’d experienced more discrimination and microaggression also experienced more mental and physical health problems,” Waters said. Anxiety and depression were particularly high, especially in women, while aches and pains and sleep problems were also statistically significant.

The study’s goal is to better understand the experiences of racial discrimination and health outcomes of Asian Americans that may help lead to prevention strategies and more culturally sensitive mental health care.“A lot of good research shows that discrimination is bad for our health,” Waters said. “Most of this research is not with Asians and Asian Americans, so there’s not as much work to base ours on. That’s really an oversight in the field.”

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