Anti-Asian Racism and AAPI Experiences in Higher Education

From recent reports coming out of New York to last year’s tragic string of deaths in Georgia, racism against Asian Americans – especially women – has risen sharply since the pandemic (Gover et al., 2020). Although this rise may make anti-Asian racism feel new, it is important to remember that anti-Asian racism has a long history in the United States (Leong & Kuo, 2021). Throughout this post, we use “Asian (American) Pacific Islander” or “AAPI” as a broad umbrella term for Asian people in the U.S. However, AAPI does not relay the immense diversity under this umbrella, so we encourage you to learn about the many rich Asian cultures in the U.S. We discuss how orientalism influences anti-Asian racism, AAPI experiences in higher education, and how to support AAPI in higher education.

Reflect: What is the relationship between Orientalism and Racism?

Situated in a broader structure of racial hegemony in the United States, anti-Asian racism is influenced by Orientalism – a colonial view of the “Orient” (i.e., Asian) as exotic and barbaric, and the “Occident” (i.e., European) as normal and rational (Said, 1978) – which has led to specific kinds of racism and stereotypes. One example we saw during the pandemic is “Yellow Peril”, which positions Asian people as foreigners who are scapegoats for things like disease and economic competition (Ho, 2020). Another stereotype is the “model minority”, which erases anti-Asian racism by arguing that Asian Americans “overcame” racism through a cultural ethic of hard work, and also simultaneously reinforces anti-Black attitudes by blaming those communities for not “overcoming” racism (Poon et al., 2016). , the intersection of sexism and anti-Asian racism portray Asian women as demure and submissive (Shimizu, 2007), removing their agency through hypersexual objectification. Consider the effect that being simultaneously situated as a “perpetual foreigner” and a “model minority” would have on manifestations of anti-Asian racism? How might it influence the educational and professional experience of AAPI people in higher education?


  • Recognize and Challenge the Limitations of “Model Minority” Critique: Because racism and white supremacy thrive on oversimplification and creating competition between racial groups, conversations about racism directed at AAPI students, faculty, and staff have been limited. Many have attempted to combat stereotypes like the “model minority” by invoking limiting, essentializing logics of high and low achievement, while also improperly addressing how this stereotype serves to reify anti-Blackness (Poon et al., 2016). Rather than falling into the trap of simply addressing stereotypes by making arguments about who AAPI people are not, emphasize counternarratives that highlight the complexity and diversity that comprises who AAPI students, faculty, and staff are. Encourage complex conversations about the ways that white supremacy leverages communities of color (e.g., AAPI) to hurt other communities, while discussing the specific racism (and intersecting oppressions) that perpetuates anti-Asian violence and inequity.
  • Encourage AAPI Women Success: Asian women are severely underrepresented in leadership roles in higher education (Roy, 2019), a symptom of larger issues of professional growth that face Asian women. You can help by incorporating the perspectives and work of a variety of AAPI scholars and professionals, particularly AAPI women, in your research, in talks given to classes, or as speakers in your office. When you incorporate these perspectives, also make sure that you do not tokenize them as the Asian woman voice in your office or class that you only include to speak for that experience, rather than as a holistic expert. Not only will promoting the work of AAPI women increase their chances for promotion, it will create an environment where AAPI students can see themselves as succeeding within academia.
  • Promote Support Networks: While promoting material success of AAPI women students, faculty, and staff is important, it is equally important to create understanding and supportive environments. The overwhelming force of white supremacy in the U.S. forces assimilation into a very specific way of thinking and being to ensure survival, which often requires the suppression of one’s identity. For example, mentorship, particularly advocacy-oriented mentorship (Lim et al., 2021), is instrumental to combating the intersecting stressors of gendered racism throughout higher education and increasing satisfaction (Maton et al., 2011). Support networks also include direct efforts to reach out to colleagues or peers and create authentic friendships beyond your formal association. These relationships, formal/informal and vertical/horizontal, should be spaces where AAPI people are valued and recognized as complex people.

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