What are the key factors that perpetuate the othering and xenophobia of Asian Americans, and how can we dismantle these harmful narratives?

From marginalisation to resilience: Understanding the “Otherness” journey of Asian Americans in the United States

What are the key factors that perpetuate the othering and xenophobia of Asian Americans, and how can we dismantle these harmful narratives?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted and stigmatised minorities and immigrants, with Asian Americans in the United States facing racist tropes, xenophobic attacks, and hate crimes. This discrimination is rooted in historical, social, political, and cultural structures perpetuating inequality.

Video Article Summary

Acts of violence, such as the massage parlour shooting in March 2021, highlight the ongoing xenophobia faced by Asian Americans, particularly Asian women who have long endured sexual violence. It delves into the marginalisation of Asian Americans as the “other” and explores their portrayal as model minorities. Specifically, the study focuses on perpetuating disease-related stereotypes and the impact of labour and immigration policies on this community. By highlighting these factors, the study aims to shed light on the historical context and systemic issues that contribute to the marginalisation of Asian Americans.

Labour related xenophobia

The labour-related xenophobia and its impact on immigration policies in the United States can be traced back to the 19th century. The ban on the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 1808 led to the search for cheap labour from Asia. Chinese immigrants arrived during the Gold Rush but faced economic hardship, racial resentment, and violence due to job competition. Chinatowns were stigmatised, and the “yellow peril” stereotype emerged. California implemented immigration policies to exclude Chinese labourers, and the Chinese Massacre 1871 exemplified the violent targeting of Chinese immigrants.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 halted Chinese immigration, and subsequent laws further restricted their rights. Japanese, Koreans, and Hindus also faced discrimination and exclusion. The Magnuson Act of 1943 repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act aimed to abolish the national-origin quotas, shifting U.S. immigration policy towards family reunification and occupational skills. However, xenophobia persisted, and the concept of “Asian Americans” emerged, followed by the model minority myth in the late 1960s. 

Credit. Midjourney

The term “model minority” emerged during the Civil Rights movement to describe the success of Japanese Americans, but it has been criticised for perpetuating stereotypes. Asian Americans have been positioned as both high achievers and perpetual foreigners. The positive perception of Asians in the mid-20th century led to the Immigration Act of 1965, which further reinforced the image of the model minority by favouring high-skilled and privileged immigrants from certain Asian countries. While some scholars argue for the flexibility of Asian assimilation, others emphasise the enduring perception of Asians as foreigners, even though they may have some degree of social “whitening” compared to Black Americans.

Carriers of diseases

The stereotype of Asian Americans as carriers of diseases can be traced back to the 19th century when unfounded claims blamed Chinese immigrants for spreading diseases like cholera and yellow fever. These baseless accusations were used as a pretext to justify discriminatory policies, notably the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese labourers from entering the country. Asian Americans in the United States have faced a long and troubling history of being treated as outsiders, experiencing discrimination, and enduring xenophobic sentiments.

The “yellow peril” stereotype emerged during the early 20th century, fueled by the Bubonic Plague outbreak in Boston. Chinese residents in Chinatown were targeted, arrested, and portrayed as unclean and unfit to be in the US. Similar discrimination occurred in San Francisco, where Chinese residents were quarantined and subjected to mandatory vaccinations. The SARS outbreak in the early 2000s exacerbated xenophobia and discrimination against Asian Americans, leading to fears of forced quarantine and economic losses for Asian-owned businesses.

Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic brought renewed xenophobia and racism towards Asian Americans. Former President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and references to the virus as the “Chinese or the Kung flu virus” furthered the rise in hate crimes and violence against Asian Americans, reflecting anti-China or anti-immigrant sentiments. The passing of the COVID-19 Hate Crime Act in 2021 aimed to address these hate crimes and facilitate reporting.

The US’s historical, political, and cultural underpinnings have perpetuated xenophobia and the stereotype of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners. Past epidemics, such as smallpox, H1N1, Ebola, MERS, and COVID-19, have led to racist scapegoating of ethnic minorities and immigrants. Despite being perceived as the model minority, they are constantly reminded of their foreignness and face limitations in accessing the privileges afforded to White Americans. Asians consistently encounter widespread discrimination, from the “yellow peril” era to the present COVID-19 pandemic. They are seen as perpetual foreigners, which undermines the idea of racial colour blindness in America.

Way forward!

In summary, Asian Americans have experienced a history of otherness, discrimination, and xenophobia in the United States, with the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbating these issues. Xenophobia is often fueled by the “othering” framework, where dominant groups marginalise non-dominant groups through power dynamics. The pandemic is not the first health crisis to produce stigma and xenophobia, as seen in previous instances like the Ebola epidemic.

The concept of “yellow peril” and the fear of Asian dominance has deep historical roots and contributes to the anti-Asian sentiment. The association of the virus with Asians reflects the othering, xenophobia, and racist sentiment that persists despite the perception of Asian Americans as a model minority. However, this depiction ignores the diversity and differences among Asian groups. Public administration has primarily overlooked the challenges faced by Asian Americans and the need to uproot racism and oppression.

To combat systemic racism, educating and mobilising people for change is crucial. Public administration must also examine historical injustices and their impact on current policies and practices to address prejudice, bias, and discrimination in our institutions. Incorporating an intersectional lens and decolonising research and pedagogy are necessary to address social inequities experienced by Asian Americans and other marginalised populations.


Journal reference

Sabharwal, M., Becerra, A., & Oh, S. (2022). From the Chinese Exclusion Act to the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Historical Analysis of “Otherness” Experienced by Asian Americans in the United States. Public Integrity24(6), 535-549. https://doi.org/10.1080/10999922.2022.2120292

Dr. Meghna Sabharwal is a professor in the Public and Nonprofit Management Program at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her research focuses on public human resources management, specifically diversity, equity, and inclusion. She has published three books and over 70 peer-reviewed journal articles and chapters and is the recipient of five Best Paper Awards. Dr. Sabharwal is the Associate Editor of the Review of Public Personnel Administration and Public Integrity and serves on the editorial boards of leading public administration journals. She received the 2021 Outstanding Public HR Scholar Award from the Section on Personnel Administration and Labor Relations (SPALR) of the American Society of Public Administration.

Aurora is a student of the Master of Public Affairs degree within the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences (EPPS). Recently, she co-authored her first manuscript in Public Integrity titled, "From the Chinese Exclusion Act to the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Historical Analysis of Racism Experienced by Asian Americans in the U.S." and won the Best Paper award at the COMPA Conference 2022. Aurora holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in Theatre and Latin American Studies from Smith College and a Master of Education in English as a Second Language (ESL) and Bilingual Studies from SMU's Caldwell School of Education, acquired while working in global programming for Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business.

Seongdeok Oh, a doctoral student in Public and Nonprofit Management at the University of Texas at Dallas, recently co-authored a published article titled "From the Chinese Exclusion Act to the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Historical Analysis of Racism Experienced by Asian Americans in the U.S." in Public Integrity. His research focuses on the relationship between innovative behavior, organizational performance, public service motivation, and organizational culture. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Public Administration and a dual Bachelor's degree in Journalism & Mass Communication from Korea University in South Korea, along with a Master's degree in Public Policy from the same institution.