Asian Americans feel a lack of belonging and safety, national surveys find

Four in five Asian Americans don’t feel they truly belong in the United States, while more than half don’t feel safe in public places, a national survey found.

Such sentiments are stirred by discrimination, a continuing rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, lingering stereotypes and a lack of representation in prominent places, respondents said, with many reporting they felt unsafe or didn’t truly belong in places ranging from their schools and workplaces to their own neighborhoods.

“To live in a country where you don’t feel like you belong and don’t feel safe is really concerning,” said Norman Chen, CEO of The Asian American Foundation, the Washington, D.C.-based organization that commissioned the survey, taken earlier this year.

Current events contribute to stress

The foundation’s STAATUS Index report, its third annual survey examining American attitudes about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, gathered responses from 5,235 U.S. residents aged 16 and older.

“Over the last several years, there have definitely been a lot of world events contributing to stressors for the Asian American and Pacific Islander community,” said Janie Jun, director of strategic initiatives for the blended therapy program at Lyra Health, based in Burlingame, California. “Disparities across all minority groups has become apparent, and cultural and systemic barriers are coming more to light. What’s different is that the AAPI community is being more vocal about it.”

Dallas police Chief Eddie Garcia, left, speaks to reporters about a recent shooting as senior corporal Soo Kim stands by during a news conference at police headquarters headquarters in Dallas, Tuesday, May 17, 2022. The girlfriend of a man arrested in Dallas in a shooting that wounded three women in a Koreatown hair salon told police he had been admitted to health facilities because he was having delusions about Asian Americans, according to an arrest warrant affidavit. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

The survey found 78% of Asian American respondents felt unaccepted or that they didn't completely belong in U.S. society. More than 75% of Black and Latino respondents felt the same way, compared to 43% of white respondents. Such feelings were more acute among young and female Asian Americans.

'Long-lasting issues that need to be addressed'

The survey also found 52% of Asian Americans feel unsafe because of their race or ethnicity, just shy of the portion of Blacks (53%) who felt the same but more than the 47% of Latino respondents and 28% of whites who responded similarly.

Asian Americans felt least safe on public transportation (29%), followed by their own neighborhood (19%), at school (19%) and their workplace (17%).

Stop AAPI Hate, a San Francisco-based group formed in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic to combat and gather data about anti-Asian hate, tallied more than 11,000 reports of such incidents between March 2020 and March 2022.

“The lack of a feeling of safety and belonging is not just something experienced during COVID and the previous (presidential) administration,” Chen said. “These are long-lasting issues that need to be addressed.”

An activist holds a sign after he marched to Chinatown from a “DC Rally for Collective Safety - Protect Asian/AAPI Communities,” hosted by OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates, at McPherson Square March 21, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Activists took part in the rally in response to the Atlanta, Georgia spa shootings that left eight people dead, including six Asian women, and the rising number of attacks against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.

The foundation’s findings echo those of a yearlong study conducted by New York’s Columbia University and Committee of 100, a nonprofit composed of prominent Chinese Americans.  The “State of Chinese Americans” national survey of nearly 6,500 people found that while most Chinese Americans felt they were part of American society, they also felt marginalized.

About 75% said they had experienced racial discrimination in the past year, and more than half feared hate crimes or harassment. Nearly one in 10 said they’d been physically intimidated or assaulted, and 20% had experienced multiple instances of racial slurs or harassment in person or online.

Fear, loneliness can impact mental health

Feeling that one’s identity is unsupported or unencouraged can impact mental health, especially among the young, Chen said, noting that suicide is the leading cause of death for Asian Americans aged 15 to 24. Chen himself recalled that as a youngster growing up in Maryland, he wasn’t particularly vocal about his Asian American identity.

“Many people will tell you they’re not especially proud to be Asian American,” he said. “I just wanted to be like everybody else. To not really be able to celebrate who you are is really painful, especially growing up.”

The lack of safe, supportive spaces can lead to a lonely existence, Jun said. At the same time, barriers including language, a lack of culturally competent providers and cultural stigmas around seeking mental health services can prevent many from getting needed help.

“People feel obligated to hide their pain because they don’t want to burden family and friends,” she said. “That can lead to a downward spiral of fear and isolation, which can be detrimental to one’s quality of life.”

Joy (Stephanie Hsu, left), Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and Gong Gong (James Hong) pay a visit to the IRS in "Everything Everywhere All at Once."

Chen cautioned that while many were buoyed by the Academy Award success of 2022’s “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once,” such results can be fleeting. He noted that the positivity generated by the 2018 romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians,” with its non-stereotypical story and all-Asian cast, was quashed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the hostility of the Trump administration.

"There was a nosedive in how people felt about the community,” he said. “Old stereotypes really linger in people’s minds, and it will take a whole generation to change that.”

Dig deeper:

  • Anti-Asian rhetoric only divides America
  • For Asian Americans, California shootings add to growing mental health crisis
  • District says teacher's racial, homophobic slurs can be a learning experience

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