Social Issues: Philadelphia’s Asian American Women Talk Mental Health, Community Support as Anti-Asian Violence Rises

In the wake of rising anti-Asian violence across the country, four Asian American women reflect on racism, sexism and the importance of self-care.

Story by Rjaa Ahmed

Hannah Chinn, a Chinese American reporter at WHYY, recalled feeling incredibly down the day of the Atlanta mass shootings which killed six women of Asian descent on March 16. Chinn had to report the following day on the reaction of local communities to the incident but felt drained and shaken, she said. 

“I remember that night I had trouble sleeping,” she said. “I slept, like, two hours that night.”

Following the story filled Chinn with anxiety. 

“I just remember that feeling like it was stressful and painful,” she said. “And, eventually I could have been really lonely because I’m in my apartment, kind of without support. Even though I think it is an important story, it was so stressful for me personally.”

However, Chinn felt relief and support when fellow board members of the Philadelphia chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association reached out to her and offered to go out for dinner. 

“All of that I think was really, really helpful in revitalizing when I was feeling down and lonely,” she said.

Chinn serves as a secretary for AAJA Philadelphia.

“A lot of my time is spent wondering how we can support our members,” she said. “But for me specifically, like that was a real moment of AAJA coming through for me and being a space where I felt seen and I felt helped.”

Over the past few months, several incidents of racial bias against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) individuals have surfaced in and around Philadelphia, as well as nationally. In February, a text chain containing anti-Asian hate speech surfaced on social media in the Lower Moreland School District in Montgomery County, Chinn reported for WHYY. In March, a woman of Asian descent was hospitalized after being assaulted by a man in Chinatown, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. 

Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition recording reports of racism and prejudice against Asian American and Pacific Islanders, received nearly 3,800 complaints nationally from March 19, 2020 to February 28, 2021. Women made up 68% of the complaints, reporting acts of racially motivated crime at a rate nearly twice as high as men. 

Protesters prepare signs at a recent vigil protesting violence Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (Rjaa Ahmed/PN).

Chinn is not alone in her anxiety and exhaustion. Several community organizers said they feel increasingly anxious about this rising wave of racial violence against AAPI.

Sarah Min, a Korean American community organizer with Penn Community for Justice and the Woori Center, feels overwhelmed by the barrage of anti-AAPI violence over the past few months. 

“It’s been difficult to stay on top of everything going on the past few weeks, from vigils for victims of anti-Asian violence to rallies to demand justice for Christian Hall,” Min said. 

Protests erupted in Philadelphia after the Monroe County District Attorney Office announced police officers were justified in shooting at Christian Hall, a 19-year-old Chinese American adoptee experiencing a suicidal episode. 

Min feels like Asian women are in a particularly precarious position due to the intersection of racism and sexism. However, their stories are either entirely missing from the national spotlight or lack any holistic contextual background of Asian fetishization, Min said. 

“Racism and misogyny are deeply intertwined,” Min said. “There is so much danger and harm that comes with Asian women being hypersexualized or objectified in the media and in our cultures.”

Chinn said anxieties have risen in journalists and fellow Asian Americans like herself who not only have to reel with the trauma of their community hurting, but also have to constantly engage with the news cycle in order to report on such incidents. Community support has been indispensable, she said. 

“Journalism specifically can often be emotionally taxing and draining in ways that are not just professional but deeply personal,” Chinn said. “We can’t just finish a story and leave it at work, that’s not what it’s like for us so this community of people who understand what it’s like has been really important for me, particularly in the past few months.”

Women of color in professional fields are especially prone to stress, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy, according to Krysti Vo, a psychiatrist and a leader of the American Psychiatric Association’s Caucus of Asian American Psychiatrists. They deal with workplace misogyny, mansplaining, and microaggressions she said. 

Asian women are the least likely to hold executive positions among all racial and gender groups, according to a report by the Ascend Foundation. Furthermore, a 2015 study of Google’s search algorithm by RacismReview revealed that Asian women were least likely to be perceived as leaders and most likely to be infantilized in professional spaces.

Vo stressed that racism needs to be clearly called out and confronted instead of being brushed under the rug. Having open conversations with others can also help individuals hold others and themselves accountable for any hidden biases they may harbor, she said. 

“I think the more discussions we have about race-based issues, the more normalized the conversation becomes,” Vo said. “Progress is made when we all realize that biases are systemic and often unconscious. You have to check your actions, and check your behavior, and tell yourself the opposite of what you may think.”

The spa shootings in Atlanta follow a troubling pattern of AAPI women, specifically sex workers, being objectified and dehumanized by white men, Min said. 

“If we truly want to build solidarity in the pursuit of racial, economic, and gender justice in our Asian communities, then we must protect and advocate for our most vulnerable groups — poor, immigrant women and Asian sex workers,” Min said, stressing the need for an intersectional approach toward dismantling anti-Asian and Pacific Islander bias. 

To raise awareness and provide an inclusive space for the Asian community to come together, Asian Americans United held vigils for victims of AAPI violence, as well as rallies, teach-ins, and town halls to raise awareness about systemic racism. 

“Our community needed a space to come together immediately to begin to process and mourn, and to give a voice to the fight that we’ve been having for quite a long time and appoint direction for our community,” Alix Webb, AAU’s executive director, said. 

Her staff also encouraged community members to seek mental health support and practice emotional well-being in the wake of the Atlanta mass shooting. 

“We need mental health resources that are language appropriate and culturally aware,” she said. 

Vo echoed the importance of finding a community of like-minded individuals to mitigate the harmful emotional impact of being exposed to racial violence. Especially with the decline of in-person communication resulting from social distancing protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Interacting with strangers online through virtual gatherings can actually be beneficial and healthy for shy people as there is less chance of people running into each other in the real world, allowing for more honest conversations, Vo said. 

For Min, community is an integral part of her life. However, she also emphasized the importance of self care, taking a step back, and taking frequent breaks to avoid becoming overwhelmed. 

“In this current season of grieving, I’m learning how to slow down, listen to my body, and prioritize self-care and healing,” she said. “When opportunities arise, I try to uplift the groups actively organizing and share their direct actions. I’m learning what it means to stay connected with myself and my community since we all need each other for the long haul.”

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