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COVID-19, The Atlanta Spa Shootings Put Anti-Asian Bias Front & Center — But It Isn't New

Protesters hold signs saying "Stop Asian Hate" during a rally.
Steven Senne
Protesters Dana Liu, center front, and Kexin Huang, right, both of Newton, Mass., display placards during a rally held to support Stop Asian Hate on March 21. A gunman has been charged with killing eight people at three Atlanta-area massage parlors in an attack Tuesday, March 16. Seven of the eight people killed in the attacks were women, six were of Asian descent.

SMU professor Priscilla Lui talked about allyship and the effects that fetishization and discrimination have had on Asian American communities, particularly women.

Anti-Asian hate crimes have been on the rise in the U.S. Priscilla Lui is a professor of psychology at SMU who specializes in racial discrimination. She talked with KERA's Justin Martin, and this is the second of two interviews. Read the first one here.

Justin Martin: It's important to note that anti-Asian discrimination isn't new in the United States. It's been going on for a long time.

Priscilla Lui: Yes, absolutely. I think any of the events that we're hearing these days, particularly in the last year since the COVID pandemic and also in the past several years, it always had kind of the racism and historical mistreatment of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the backdrop. So I think there is probably just more of a resurgence and kind of reiteration in more recent events.

Martin: Is there research out there on how to engage with aggressors?

Lui: There is a large body of research on anti-racism and allyship. So my lab, we recently completed a study looking at who engages in these bystander interventions or behaviors that are what we call anti-racist pro-social actions amid the pandemic and in response to witnessing or maybe just hearing about anti-Asian hate incidents. So in addition to individuals coping with these incidents and seeking social support, maybe from their family members and from friends, bystanders can actually have a really large impact.

Martin: Following the killings at the spas in Georgia, there's been talk about the fetishization of Asian women in the United States. What explains that and what kind of psychological impact does that have on women?

Lui: I think the impact can be multiple. So the one that we know for sure is it dehumanizes Asian American women, and they're seen as an object. So kind of the exotic image of them really de-individualizes people's humanity. Just being seen as a sex symbol in a lot of ways can be detrimental to people's self-esteem and also shapes how they might interact with other people in their social network.

Martin: What's the mental health toll of discrimination, violence on Asian-Americans? How does it change how people function in society? And I'm also curious if there's any research that shows the levels of stress, anxiety and depression for example.

Lui: They (Asian Americans) do experience heightened levels of psychological distress and a sense of uncertainty. Even anecdotally, I think the interesting thing is actually there might be two sides of a coin. On the one hand, people feel stressed and then they kind of feel like the pandemic just never ends. It's not only the COVID pandemic, but it's the racism pandemic and it's one thing after the other.

On the other hand, I do see some positives that come out of these recent incidents is within the Asian American communities, I think parents and kids and even older kids and their elderly parents are now increasingly having conversations about racism, what it means to be Asian American in the U.S. and how they navigate mainstream American society. This is what we call racial socialization in my field. More conversations are being had about how do you anticipate stressors like this and how do you protect yourself.

Got a tip? Email Justin Martin at You can follow Justin on Twitter @MisterJMart.

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