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A guide to combating anti-Asian racism — from relationships to the workplace

Tough conversations about racism with people you care about can start with a simple line like, “Have you experienced something like this?”

By Kimmy Yam, Sakshi Venkatraman and Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil
Illustrations by Nhung Le for NBC News
May 7, 2021

As anti-Asian violence and hate crimes rise, community, mental health and family experts say it’s incumbent on everyone to start talking about anti-Asian racism and the ways to combat it. 

Exclusion, racist jokes and subtle discrimination can be a difficult topic to tackle among friends, romantic partners, children and co-workers, but these can snowball into bigger issues if they go unchecked. 

NBC Asian America put together a guide of expert advice to navigate these conversations in several areas of life, for non-Asians looking for ways to be better allies and for Asian Americans looking to protect themselves and deconstruct stereotypes.

Illustration of a child sitting alone at a table with her lunchbox as dark quote bubbles loom.

How parents and educators can talk to kids

Realize it’s never too early.

Experts point to research showing that infants as young as 3 months old can start to recognize — and respond to — differences in skin color and facial features. “There’s a lot of hesitancy to introduce this topic to kids young, but they’re sponges, they’re already aware of it before we know,” Yuki Yamazaki, a psychotherapist studying Asian Americans and colorism at Fordham University, said. 

Sonia Smith-Kang, president of Multiracial Americans of Southern California, said children don’t always have the words to explain what they’re seeing or feeling, so parents and educators have to be proactive in starting conversations. “Kids see color and learn to become silent or attribute negative connotations to it when parents are silent, so it’s imperative to discuss race early and often,” she said. 

Don’t rush to get an uncomfortable conversation over with, because it can send a message.

Yamazaki said it’s important to stay calm and neutral during these conversations, even if they cover difficult and uncomfortable topics. Children can easily pick up on whether an adult is anxious, nervous, stressed or wants to end a talk quickly, “and that’s setting a behavioral frame about how we treat conversations about race,” she said. “But we know these continued dialogues are where we can make changes and impact, so modeling is really important.”

Use age-appropriate language and these scripted suggestions.

Yamazaki said explaining racism should be age-appropriate and draw on language already used in the home or classroom. For younger children, she suggests starting with, “People are being hurt because of the way they look,” and as they get older, parents can add more detail and specificity like, “People are being judged based on the color of their skin.” Language also depends on the race of the child. Particularly for white children, she said, it’s important to talk about how some people look differently but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to treat them differently.

Smith-Kang said that these conversations can start with things children see everyday.

“As you read books, watch TV or observe what is going on around you, talk to your children about who’s left out and who’s included,” she said. “How are they being treated when they are included? Are the characters diverse? Are there BIPOC characters?” she said, referring to Black, Indigenous or people of color.

Belinda Lei, managing director of Act to Change, a nonprofit dedicated to combating anti-AAPI bullying in schools, said parents and teachers can also help kids identify what racism looks like in the real world, which can include picking on, insulting, excluding or being aggressive to someone because of their race; calling someone names or using racial slurs in person or online; or making fun of someone’s name, hair, clothing or food in a way that’s connected to their race or religion.

Ask open-ended questions. Here are some examples:

Another strategy, especially for older kids, is to ask open-ended questions about what they know about race and racism or what’s happening in the news. Yamazaki suggested questions like, “Have you ever experienced something like this?” or “How does hearing about this make you feel?” This gives parents a sense of where their children are starting in terms of race and can be an easier way to start conversations since it gives children the opportunity to lead.

Lei said it’s important for parents and teachers to welcome this kind of dialogue. “The best ways to approach these conversations are being open to questions for your kids, to build their trust in you, even if you don’t have all the answers,” she said.

For teachers, be aware of these microaggressions, which you might unknowingly enact.

According to Act to Change surveys, Asian American children are less likely than their peers to report being bullied, so adults need to be proactive in starting these conversations, Lei said. Teachers must also be mindful of their own words and behavior in the classroom.

“There’s a lot of microaggressions, too, that an educator can have,” she said.

Learning to pronounce names correctly can make Asian American students feel more welcome in the classroom. And when a child comes forward saying another student has bullied or teased them, it’s important to take it seriously. Affirm them, let them know you support them, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“Encourage them in being able to safely stand up,” Lei said.

Talk to all students about racism and bystander intervention.

Lei said teachers should remember it’s not just Asian American students who need a lesson in protecting themselves and coming forward. Talking to all students about bullying and racism is important, and every child should know what to do if they’re a bystander. For instance, she said if a child hears a slur directed at them or someone else, the child should state that the slur is hurtful, and then tell an adult present, if it’s safe to do so. If the child doesn’t feel safe, they should find an adult they trust and tell them. If the person using the slur is a friend, Lei said, the child can advocate for themselves and ask the friend about their intention behind what they said and help them understand that it’s hurtful and inappropriate.

Empower, don’t victimize.

Smith-Kang said one of the most important things adults can do for young kids is to teach them to love and celebrate themselves and their heritage despite anything they might face at school. Be an example of an anti-racist and your kids will follow. “Demonstrate kindness and stand up for every person's right to be treated with dignity and respect,” she said.

It’s also important to balance difficult conversations about racism with positive portrayals of diverse people in books, music and TV, Yamazaki said. This shows kids that “we can also talk about the beautiful, wonderful things about diversity and religion,” she said. “That models that this is a big aspect of people and our lives and the world, but it’s not always because of bad things.”

Illustration of a woman overhearing her friends speak with dark quote bubbles.

How to talk to friends and romantic partners

Use recent news events as an entryway to discussing personal experiences and thoughts. 

Serious discussions don’t have to start abruptly, and many conversations around current events can lead to deeper dialogue. Richelle Concepcion, president of the Asian American Psychological Association, recommended using the recent news to discuss what Asian Americans may be feeling amid Covid-related hate incidents and the recent shootings in Atlanta and Indianapolis. She suggested that Asian Americans could tell their loved ones that they’ve been concerned about racism in our communities before detailing their personal experiences with discrimination and their thoughts on their own safety, particularly amid the pandemic. 

Don’t let the “It’s just a joke” excuse slide, and realize you have a right to bring up past comments.

Just because racist comments or jokes made by loved ones have gone unchecked in the past doesn’t mean the window of opportunity to speak up has closed. 

Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the nonprofit National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, said Asian Americans should feel empowered to point out if a comment is inappropriate, but it shouldn’t be done in a way that is combative or makes loved ones feel overly attacked. 

Choimorrow recommended asking the person, “What did you mean by that?” Usually people respond in one of two ways, she said. One is that the person continues to be racist, which gives you permission to directly tell them that what they said isn’t OK. But usually, she said, the person says, “Did I offend you?” or “Did I say something wrong?’ and it becomes a learning moment.

Avoid the “My Asian girlfriend” pitfall: Allies should do the work, too.

Not all the work should fall on Asian Americans to stand up for themselves or educate those around them. Choimorrow said the onus is also on allies to step in when appropriate. This can include taking the effort to learn about the struggles of people of Asian descent — beyond just consuming their food and culture — correcting others when their Asian American loved one is misidentified or assumed to be Chinese or Japanese, or reframing language so that they’re not referred to as “the Asian wife” or “the Asian girlfriend.” 

“There should be a red flag if somebody is describing you, and the adjective they use to describe you before calling you their significant other, is your race,” Choimorrow said. “We really encourage our partners and our friends to speak about us in a human way versus this objectified way.”

Illustration of a woman with her head in her hands sitting at her work laptop as dark quote bubbles loom behind her.

What co-workers and managers can do to fight anti-Asian racism

You can initiate the need for action, then lean on human resources and employee resources groups to help. 

To build a culture in which employees of historically marginalized communities feel safe, seen and heard, workplaces have an obligation to facilitate difficult conversations on anti-Asian racism, Yang said. 

“Too many Asian American employees feel as if they do not have a safe space to speak up and share the realities of their day-to-day life,” Yang said. “And as a result, employers may not know that there are changes that need to be made to better protect employees of color in the workplace.”

Yang recommends reaching out to the human resources department to come up with a plan to create a company-wide discussion. He added that some businesses have employee resource groups that may be able to help and frame the conversation. 

When framing the dialogue to corporate, Yang said it’s important to note that such tough conversations will not only help Asian Americans but the organization as a whole as it will ensure a safer work environment. 

Understand common insensitivities and misunderstandings that can crop up in workplaces.

Though structural discussions about racism and the Asian American experience are necessary in creating an inclusive work environment, Concepcion explained that there are strategies to fight back against insensitivities that often crop up in the workplace. 

Some common microaggressions include comments around one’s command of English, Concepcion said, or an assumption that workers of Asian descent were not born in the U.S., a symptom of the perpetual foreigner syndrome. Jokes about Asian stereotypes also frequently make their way into the workplace. She explained that the best way to combat these comments is simply challenging the speaker to explain themselves by asking, “What do you mean by that?” 

“This can evolve in a discussion/educational moment about the impropriety of making such comments,” she said. 

Encourage diverse leadership styles. 

Asian Americans — particularly Asian women — are often up against stereotypes that they’re quiet, subservient and good workers but not adept leaders, so companies should assess their own workplace culture. For many women, there’s a delicate balance between being too bold and not bold enough, Choimorrow said, and this can hold them back at work.  

“If we're quiet and have a more passive approach to leadership, then we’re assumed to not really be a leader, and we don't really know what we're doing,” Choimorrow said. “Then if we have more of an opinionated and vocal sort of leadership style, then we're seen as tiger moms and people that are just irritating and annoying. We're never seen as a positive leadership type, even though me being assertive and opinionated and direct is exactly what white men do.”

She said companies should assess if their organizational culture allows for diverse styles of leadership and that they should be intentional and create a plan in ensuring Asian Americans don’t get left out of leadership.