Highsmith is one of a hundred Puget Sound undergraduate students who conducted research over the summer. She interviewed 29 Asian Americans living in eight states about their experience of xenophobia over the past year. She used the format of an ethnographic study for her research, a framework common in anthropology that centers the perspective of the culture being studied, rather than imposing an outsider’s viewpoint on the subjects.
The following is an excerpt from Highsmith’s final paper, titled “COVID-19 and Xenophobia: Reckoning With East Asian Identities in the United States.”
Generally, participants were not concerned for their own safety; however, the current wave of anti-Asian hate has still been traumatic and has led people to consider their identities and how they are perceived in American society. Women and younger people were much more likely to feel personally threatened with physical or verbal harassment.
Code-switching and Shapeshifting
Although most participants did not report having felt personally threatened, many still took measures to try to hide their identities as a result of increased anti-Asian sentiment. Overall, women and younger people were much more likely to report trying to conceal their identities or going out of their way to try to avoid harm. Measures taken to try to avoid harm ranged from code-switching in their everyday speech to wearing sunglasses to hide their faces.
The Struggle for Racial Justice
Many participants noted that the current racial reckoning in the United States is helping them unpack their identities and the country’s history of racism. Even so, some participants who supported movements like Black Lives Matter worried that other minority groups were being overshadowed in the push for racial justice for the African American community.
Reconsidering the Role of Faith
The unrest and uncertainty fueled by the pandemic also led many participants to question their faith. Overall, younger people tended to struggle more with faith throughout the pandemic, where for older people it was a pillar of their coping, both with anti-Asian hate and with their general anxiety about their health and safety. While there was no consensus, the majority of self-identified Christians in the sample said that their faith either did not change or became more important to them through the pandemic, as opposed to less.
Overall, participants who said their identities had changed during the pandemic all said that it was a positive change. They are now prouder of their identities and more curious about their heritage. There was not a single participant who identified less with being Asian than they did in early 2020. One participant even noted that they used xenophobia as a tool to feel empowered, saying, “[It] gives me an opportunity to stand up for myself, my family, and my peers.”
Anthropologist and writer Ruth Behar once said that “anthropology that doesn't break your heart just isn't worth doing anymore.” This quote has resonated with me throughout this project and has changed how I view my academic field. I want to continue to study this issue, but I also want to bring awareness to the surge of anti-Asian hate in our country, learn more about the history of discrimination against Asians, and advocate for anti-racist efforts that are inclusive of Asians and other less visible minority groups.
To learn more about how you can combat hate against Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, visit stopaapihate.org.