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Speaking Up Against Anti-Asian Racism and Violence | Don S. Dizon, MD and Gloria S. Huang, MD

DiversityInclusion & Health Equity
Apr 15, 2021

“I’ve been kind of scared,” my friend tells me, several months after having been punched by a stranger on the sidewalk near her office. She puts on a baseball cap and sunglasses when she walks outside her office. Her co-worker advised her she would be safer that way, by shielding her Asian-ness from view.

Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are not a monolithic group. Yet we share a common bond by our faces that mark us as “other” or “foreign” in the United States. To those harboring anti-Asian racism, it does not matter if we were born here and know only this country and its language as our home and native tongue. Our faces, and the stereotypes ascribed to our faces, make us vulnerable.

The issue of anti-AAPI racism has often been overlooked in the United States, in part due to the “model minority” stereotype that has been used to minimize or negate the impact of discrimination on the AAPI community. An important way this occurs is by masking the economic diversity of the community while minimizing the needs of its more vulnerable members, including those with lower income and newer immigrants. In addition, the “model minority” myth has been used as a wedge to pit minority groups against one another, for example, by purporting that evidence of success of some AAPI communities negates the existence of systemic anti-Black racism.

Although racism and violence directed against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) is not new, no one can deny the visible increase in incidence – and the hostility accompanying it – since the start of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. It started at the top, with political leaders proclaiming the virus as a “China virus “and “Kung-flu,” despite the World Health Organization’s recommendation against the use of geographic locations, cultures, or populations in the naming of novel infectious diseases. The impact of this divisive language is manifesting itself in blatant acts of xenophobia and striking fear into AAPI communities, both those long established and those who have recently immigrated. In the age of social media, we are now witness to AAPI people harassed and attacked- verbally and physically, and in some instances, fatally.

While national statistics are lacking, the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center received information on almost 3800 hate incidents since March 2020, with alarming trends: Over one in ten reports consisted of physical violence, women reported 2.3 times more incidents than men, and 35% of incidents reported businesses as the sites of discrimination.

We as physicians are not immune to this. Some of us are a part of the AAPI community, and face these potential risks, whether in the hospital, clinic, or the grocery store. Our white coats and education provide little protection from prejudice.

A friend who is an ER doctor and has saved countless lives, while risking his own life on the frontlines, was shouted at and called “coronavirus” by a patient. This has become commonplace and normalized. Results of a Pew Research Center Survey conducted in June 2020, showed that 3 in 10 Asian adults have been subject to slurs or jokes because of their race or ethnicity since the outbreak began, and 26% of Asian adults feared someone might threaten or physically attack them.

We worry about our parents and older relatives, following fatal attacks on elderly Asian-Americans in Oakland, San Francisco, and New York City.

What can we do? As clinicians, we must lead by example. We must be proactive in calling out bias, whether conscious or unconscious. In this pandemic, we cannot idly stand-by when SARS-CoV-2 is called the “China virus”; it has no nationality. We must ensure that in our conversations, it is referred to in its scientific term. We cannot be idle bystanders when our AAPI colleagues or patients are treated with disrespect–in the halls of a hospital, cafeteria line, operating room or clinic. In public spaces, we cannot stand idly by as one of our citizens is threatened with violence; there are skill sets that we can adopt for de-escalation and intervention. Finally, we must call out misinformation when we discover it, whether online, in print, or in person.

When my friend was punched by a stranger, a shopkeeper opened the door and walked toward where she and her attacker stood on the sidewalk, and the attacker left.  “Are you OK?” This action of not looking away and speaking up helped to protect her from more serious harm.

We cannot cure racism or xenophobia. However, we also cannot remain silent.


Resources and Training

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CrowdSourced Community Resources/AAPI Anti-Hate Community Resources

Documentary and Article

Don S. Dizon, MD, is the Director of Women’s Cancers, Lifespan Cancer Institute, Clinical Director, Gynecologic Medical Oncology and Director of Medical Oncology at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, RI. Gloria S. Huang, MD, is an Associate Professor in the Division of Gynecologic Oncology, Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, CT.

Diversity, Inclusion and Health Equity Committee member Ana I. Tergas, MD, contributed to the conceptualization, content and editing of this column.

This column is sponsored by an unrestricted grant from GSK. Sponsorship excludes editorial input. Content developed by the SGO Diversity, Inclusion & Health Equity Committee.