With anti-Asian hate in U.S. rising, parents grapple over whether to talk to their children

March 30, 2021 - 10:32 AM
People hold placards as they gather to protest against anti-Asian hate crimes, racism and vandalism, outside City Hall in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, March 28, 2021. (REUTERS/Kyaw Soe Oo

NEW YORK — After eight people were killed in this month’s shootings at three Atlanta-area spas, including six women of Asian descent, Stefany Stuber sat down to talk to her seven-year-old daughter, Olivia.

“I really felt like this was a time for me to speak up and address the situation, address the fact that this has been happening forever, forever and a day,” said bartender Stuber, a 40-year-old Korean-American who lives in Philadelphia.

Olivia was attentive and receptive, her mother recalled, and as children often do, peppered her with difficult questions.

“She asked me why somebody would hurt people just because they were Asian,” Stuber said. “Would somebody want to hurt me just because the way that I look?”

Across the United States, Asian-Americans and Asians reeled at the news of the shooting spree, said the 21-year-old white male suspect told them he had a sex addiction and that the attacks may not have had a racist motivation.

But after a year in which reports of hate crimes against Asians, regardless of their national origin, skyrocketed, the bloodshed caused more outrage, fear and demands. 

Rights advocates say the surge, against the background of a long history of discrimination, is largely the result of Asian– Americans being blamed for the coronavirus pandemic, which was first identified in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. Former U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “China Virus” and “kung flu,” rhetoric that some said inflamed anti-Asian sentiment.

Difficult conversations 

Stuber was adopted by a white couple and grew up in the predominantly white, conservative suburb of Ivyland in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Exposure to Asian cultures was minimal if not completely absent, she said.

Although she never doubted her family’s love, Stuber said she became accustomed to compartmentalizing comments and experiences that left a deep impact. Among the instances that stuck with her were what she described as the “pet names” she was given by some extended family members, among them “Ching Wong” and “little konichiwa.”

“I do understand the underlying intentions behind it, but I also understand the ignorance behind it, and I understand how it made me feel,” Stuber said.

As a parent, she has strived to celebrate her and her daughter’s Korean heritage but also be open with Olivia about racism and discrimination.

“I want her to understand things because I think, at least for me, understanding things is the first step to coming up with solutions,” Stuber said.

Dr. Michi Fu, a Los Angeles-based psychologist and professor, said it is natural for parents to try to hold off discussing difficult topics “because they feel like they don’t have the right tools or they feel like they have to say something perfect.”

The trauma of racism, whether experienced personally or witnessed directly or indirectly, can have dire repercussions on a person’s physical and mental wellbeing, Fu said.

“If our caregivers can just role model by speaking up, that can send a very clear message.”

While providing a new catalyst for anti-Asian sentiment, the isolation brought on by the pandemic might have sheltered some children from directly experiencing it while confined mostly to their homes and not going to school.

Yoko Kobayashi said she and her husband might discuss the rise in anti-Asian hate and some of the events of the past year with their 11-year-old son as part of a broader back-to-school conversation. He is likely to resume in-person learning at the end of August.

“In context of that we will probably bring up that issue that over this past year there’s been these things happening,” said Kobayashi, a Japanese national who lives in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington.

In the small town of Floral Park, New York, Annie Lee has been struggling. Lee wants her four-and-a-half and nine-year-old sons to be aware of potential threats. But she is wary of scaring them at such young ages.

“I want them to have a normal childhood and not have to worry about certain things,” said the 40-year-old Taiwanese-American. “But at the same time I want them to protect themselves should anything happen.”

The extent to which their children should be aware of the discrimination they might face has been a topic of discussion between Lee and her husband Kenji. He was regularly the target of bullying and racial slurs growing up.

“Now that we have two boys, it’s something that’s very, very prominent in his thinking… How to teach our kids and how to protect themselves. We do definitely have different views on it,” said Lee, who with other mothers of Asian descent approached their school district about raising awareness of the increase in attacks and discrimination. —Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Hannah Beier in Philadelphia, Editing by Donna Bryson and Grant McCool