Anti-Asian violence is tremendously intertwined with the fetishization of Asian identity. Fetishization of Asian people in the US shows itself in misogynistic stereotypes, the model minority myth, and at its worst, racially-driven violence. These phenomena, in turn, can cause racial trauma and deeply affect mental health.
In this article, I would like to discuss how fetishization can drive Anti-Asian sentiments, hate, and violence. More importantly, I hope to clarify how exactly these attitudes directly and indirectly harm Asian diaspora emotional health.
A personal perspective
On March 17th, 2021, I received a text message from a friend in one of the POC group chats I’m in. Countless other fellow Asian folks might have gotten similar messages that day.
“My Asian peeps, please be extra careful and safe.” Soon after, I learned that there was a shooting spree that day, at three massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia. Six out of the eight dead were Asian women.
The police stated that the gunman, Robert Aaron Long, a white 21 year old male, was having “a really bad day.” The shooter “apparently [had] an issue, what he considers a sex addiction,” and he considered the massage parlors “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”
The authorities did not call it a hate crime, which minimized the terror it drove through Asian communities. However, this tragedy clearly confirmed that the fetishization of Asian women easily leads to misogynist and racist violence. How can women living under these threats be expected to feel emotionally whole and safe?
Racial trauma among the Asian diaspora
I was so heartbroken and depressed by the news. It brought me back to the countless flashbacks of harassment and violence I had experienced. Additionally, my family was so anxious that they told me not to go out in public alone.
Hearing the news that day was, evidently, a traumatic moment for many Asian folks.
What is racial trauma?
The recently increasing anti-Asian sentiments and violence since the pandemic definitely contribute to the racial violence that can induce racial trauma for the peoples of the asian diaspora. Racial trauma can come from racism, ethnic discrimination, or xenophobia.
According to Mental Health America, “Racial trauma, or race-based traumatic stress (RBTS), refers to the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes. Any individual that has experienced an emotionally painful, sudden, and uncontrollable racist encounter is at risk of suffering from a race-based traumatic stress injury.”
How is racial trauma different from other traumas?
Unlike traditional forms of trauma and PTSD, racial trauma is more likely to occur vicariously. This means that a person can experience racial trauma even just by witnessing these forms of aggression.
Another key distinction is that racial traumas are inseparable from the larger socio-political landscapes in which we live. The resolution of racial trauma doesn’t lie only in the individual’s psyche, nor in their immediate environment. To understand racial trauma, we must understand how racism works and manifests itself in the world.
The faces of racism: more than meets the eye
Racism doesn’t only consist of blatant hate or violence towards an individual from another individual. There is also casual racism and implicit bias. Unexamined prejudices can come from social structures and common attitudes we may not even notice.
There is also institutional and systemic racism, which get in the way of wellbeing. Daily microaggressions and white privilege can additionally perpetuate the trauma from these various levels and types of racism.
The above is true for all people of color. But in this article, I want to specifically discuss racial trauma for members of the Asian diaspora.
The Asian diaspora has suffered a distinct type of racism and trauma compared to other peoples of color. The unique racialization of different groups in the US has shaped our collective psyches differently: historically, culturally, socially, and politically. For instance, Black and Indigenous populations suffered slavery and genocide, which has sent ripple effects through to the present day. Similarly, various Asian populations around the world suffered imperialism, foreign interference, and the destruction of homelands. This spurred migration to the United States, and shaped how Asian immigrants have been received by American culture.
Racial Triangulation Theory and the model minority myth
According to the Racial Rriangulation Theory by Claire Jean Kim, Asian Americans are perpetually seen as foreigners and aliens. Yet simultaneously, Asian Americans are expected to be grateful for this opportunity to be perpetual foreigners. They are expected to assimilate into American values and expectations, even though effective assimilation doesn’t put an end to prejudice. This expectation of Asian assimilation lies at the root of the infamous model minority myth.
Asians are seen as successful and stoic. But this is just a racial stereotype that the model minority myth has created. “The lie that Asians have it good is so insidious that even now as I write, I’m shadowed by the thought that I didn’t have it bad compared to others. But racial trauma is not a competitive sport,” writes Carthy Park Hong in her book Minor Feelings.
And she is right. The disparity between being considered alien, yet being expected to behave how others want, causes all kinds of cognitive dissonance.
So why haven’t Asians talked much about racial trauma until now?
Due to a cultural aversion to addressing mental health, Asians don’t often discuss their own racial trauma in public. But increased anti-Asian sentiments and violence since the outbreak of COVID have forced many of us to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
Receiving xenophobic hate for being foreigners and not belonging is one thing. Many could ignore these more insidious forms of violence. But few can ignore the recent hate for not being complacent and docile in response to blame for “causing trouble” by “bringing this virus into the country.”
Fear, depression, anxiety, and a sense of vigilance and suspicion across various Asian diaspora communities have skyrocketed. Violence has brought distress and awareness of racial trauma to the front of our minds.
But how does fetishization of Asian identity relate to racist violence and racial trauma?
What underlies these racist stereotypes of Asian people being complacent outsiders? My answer: the fetishization of Asian identity. This crucial issue shows itself in the Atlanta shootings as well.
Racial fetishization is the act or thought of making a certain race or ethnicity the object of desire. However, many people fail to grasp that fetishization extends to the realm of any desire, not just sexual desire. You can desire someone sexually, as we usually think of the word. But you can also desire that they do something for you. You can also desire that they act a certain way.
Varied expectations toward Asian identity, such as Asian people being reliable workers, or Asian women being docile and submissive, all fall into the category of fetishization.
Fetishization = objectification
The problem with fetishizing people of color, is that it involves seeing people as objects. These objects can either succeed or fail at serving a purpose.
Everyone knows that people are not objects and should not be treated as objects. But the fetishization and resulting objectification of Asian people is so rooted in history, that it often goes unrecognized.
In the case of Asians, especially Asian women, fetishization traces back to Orientalist fantasy and imperialist history. The notion of being a permanent outsider comes from the notion of Asia as exotic and unknown to the West. As Asia has historically aroused both fear and the fantasy of material gain, Western folks have come to see Asian folks in this light. By viewing Asians as permanent foreigners, this fantasy continues unchecked by empathy and open curiosity in racist pockets of the US.
Additionally, the wars and US military aggression in Asian countries have contributed to the fetishization of Asian identity. Many local people have turned to sex work during war, and the Western perception of local peoples as hypersexualized commodities has become normalized.
These histories have shaped the fetishization of Asian identity tremendously and linger in the form of racist stereotypes to this day.
Example of race-based fetishization
For example, a white guy called me a “cute anime girl” as a ‘compliment,’ but it was a fetishizing and objectifying comment. On the surface level, this seems like a compliment. But this language implied I fit into the stereotypes: a submissive model minority, a hypersexualized image from the media, a mere fantasy.
When I told the guy about the issue, he didn’t admit that it did, or even that it could, make me feel uncomfortable. A lot of times, these kinds of microaggressions masquerade as jokes, compliments, or just nothing serious. The people who have to deal with these comments develop reputations for being “too sensitive,” “too serious,” or “no fun” when they speak out.
Such dismissiveness in the culture of microaggression, fetishization, and racist stereotypes is a form of systematic gaslighting. It is traumatizing to deal with racist behavior and words on a daily basis, but even more traumatizing to be considered crazy or unreasonable for defending your reaction to those things.
How fetishization can lead to violence
Seeing Asian people as objects of desire allows them to become targets of racist violence.
When people assume you’ll play a certain role in their lives, and you don’t, they may feel permission to let out their bigotry and violent feelings. And when the fetishization of Asian identity is done at systemic, cultural, social, and political scale, the permission for violent feelings is done in the same scale as well. “When Asian women are eroticized on a mass scale and deprived of their humanity, it puts them at risk on a systemic level,” writes Sara Li for Cosmopolitan.
The Atlanta shootings resulted from this systemic risk. The shooter was considered to have “a sex addiction,” which led him to choose the Asian massage parlors, spaces where hypersexualized fantasies could run wild. When those fantasies never played out, and were shown to be just fantasies, the shooter lashed out.
The effects of fetishization and violence on the mental health of Asian people
This fetishization to violence pipeline is so harmful to the mental health of Asian Americans. Microaggression and racist stereotypes are everywhere in our everyday life, but we don’t realize their seriousness or insidiousness until something really bad like the shootings happen.
The unrecognized fetishization leads to the internalization of these various patterns of racism by the perpetrators and even by the Asian Americans ourselves. This could cause doubt and hatred in self worth or self image.
Hardship from the community
In many Asian American communities, a misunderstanding of mental health creates hardship on top of what you’re already going through. Convention holds that emotional struggles are some kind of immature weakness that needs to be overcome by someone not who is currently “not strong enough.”
We are told to be thankful no matter what. Someone else always has it so much worse. And seeking a therapist or psychiatrist equates to admitting your own “craziness.”
In such circumstances, it is even harder to talk about racial trauma and the emotional effects of fetishization and racist violence. And that truth is tragic, because these are not just personal misfortunes, but systemic problems that need to be discussed more openly.
For those who need convincing: racist discrimination and violence cause significant physical and emotional distress. That distress reached its peak around the outbreak of COVID-19. In a spring 2020 survey of 410 Asian Americans, 29% of participants reported an increase in discrimination. Those who faced discrimination were more likely to have problems with anxiety, depression, and sleep than those who did not. Lower levels of social support also correlated with worse physical and mental health.
Heightened racial distress becomes more complicated when combined with the fact that Asian Americans are less likely to seek mental health treatment. As Richelle Concepcion, PsyD, MPH, president of the Asian American Psychological Association (AAPA) states in a recent article: “There’s a tendency to either underreport or not report at all and just hold onto those events, never having a chance to process them.”
Reinforcement of racial trauma
The model minority myth and fetishization contributes to this hardship again. We’re always successful and adjusting great into the American society. We are desired, in some kind of a exotic fantasy. But this is not true. And due to these facts, trying to talk about mental health alone could inflict hate and more disdain: “why are you complaining when you have it so good?” “why are you stressed out by just some compliments and jokes?”
Such a response reinforces and perpetuates racial trauma for Asian Americans. It is clear that racist violence and microaggressions from fetishizing Asian identity exist, and that they do harm to our mental health. So many Asian Americans, even just by looking at those I know, struggle from depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health issues because of such violence and dismissal of ignoring such facts.
How it feels to be fetishized
I talked to a friend of mine, who is Asian and Black, about these issues for more personal context. Her name has not been shared, for anonymity. She stressed that her racial identity plays a significant role in many of her social interactions.
My friend shared that she can often sense the underlying fetishization of her Asian and Black identity, which affects her physical and mental health significantly: “All of my work and all of my social interactions are mediated through race. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have an interaction like this (fetishizing, racist microaggression, or violence) almost every day.”
I concur: it feels exhausting to be categorized. It feels exhausting to know that my Asian identity actively affects how others perceive me.
How can you cope with and lessen the emotional impact, without compromising?
Even slight and mild microaggressions build up over time, and their effects accumulate throughout our entire lives. Racial fetishization and violence undoubtedly create mental health struggles, on top of magnifying any preexisting difficulties we already had.
That said, how can an individual cope with or lessen the emotional impact of experiencing or witnessing such fetishization and violence?
Many of my peers have agreed that due to the difficulty of seeking help and support from the family and the community despite apparent hardships and racial trauma we experience, it is easy to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. These mechanisms may consist of various types of addictions and unhealthy expressions of bottled up emotions.
Luckily, I was able to speak with an expert in the matter, who had some suggestions for healthier coping mechanisms.
Expert suggestion: healing circles
Dr. Jennifer R. Jones-Damis, a psychologist at Rutgers University, has held multiple classes and workshops on racial trauma. In an article written by Barbara Goldberg and Sharon Bernstein, Dr. Jones-Damis is quoted, saying: “To help people cope with stress, the Association of Black Psychologists organized online group therapy ‘healing circles’ during the trial of the former policeman who killed Floyd.”
Dr. Jones stresses that this type of “healing circle” could help Asian Americans cope with racial trauma in the face of increasing anti-Asian violence. Sharing experiences and feeling validated by peers with similar struggles is a first-line step for coping with the emotional impact of racial fetishization and violence.
Suggestions from peers
I continued talking with the friend about more specific ways to cope. Just like Dr. Jones said, most of us feel that it is crucial to have spaces and environments where we can talk about our struggles and difficulties – specifically, to fellow Asians and people of color – without being judged. If your family can’t be too supportive, having friends who understand and value our experiences can provide necessary relief and comfort.
On a more individual level, looking for professional help can enable you to find the courage to overcome social stigma. Effective medications can help some people as well.
It is an especially difficult process to find the courage to overcome our cultural context. But the process is worthwhile, and can free us from the cycle of violence.
A lot of fetishization and microaggression happens without the perpetrator and even the perpetrated realizing it is a problem. When we can openly discuss these matters and make people more aware of such issues, we can prevent the perpetuation of violence and trauma.
Writing this article has been a way for me and my peers to cope and process, without compromising our perspective. I hope my fellow Asian Americans feel validated. I also hope they know that they are not overreacting for feeling the weight of fetishization, violence, and race-based judgement.
The world is full of injustice, but we must persevere and survive. There are people working to mend these social wounds. And when you feel ready, you can help mend them, too. Please take care of yourself and do not be afraid to reach out for help.