How to Help Survivors- AAPI Edition
Before anything. A note. AAPIs arent a monolith. Including how much we realize or don't realize about abusive family dynamics. I didn't realize for years since it was so normalized! Others assume it's just their ¨crazy family¨. Others don't realize at all. Some are complicit. Either because they assume roles of abusers/accomplices as a survival mechanism, or that's how they were raised. We we need to begin with this.
One of the biggest challenges for AAPI allies, including us allies who were also AAPI survivors, is recognizing the behavior that constitutes abuse. In AAPI families, control, manipulation can easily be disguised as love. Gaslighting is hidden as ¨don't be disrespectful¨.
A good first step as an ally is recognizing abusive behaviors we have internalized as normal. Recognizing the behaviors that we need to be allies against. We need to make sure we aren't mistaking control and manipulation for love.
Also, we need to recognize if we have been complicit in abusive dynamics in the past. This can happen from...
Not being taught about gaslighting. Here's an example: I buy a purse. It smells like mothballs. My mom says ¨Ariel you smell bad¨. I say ¨it's the purse¨. Mom says ¨not it's you, how dare you, launches into a lecture about how I don't care for myself and I'm so lazy while Grandma sits nearby nodding in approval.
What would you have done if you are in that room? Likely sat and said nothing.
These are the situations we need to push back on.
First step is recognizing it.
When in doubt ask yourself. Am I trying to control this person's behavior? Have they said, or have they hinted verbally or through body language, they are uncomfortable with a choice/situation? Am I ignoring these signs and trying to push what I want? Am I saying or doing things to make them feel bad? How would I feel if someone did this to me?
Doesn't matter if its how you were raised, or what you have always done. Abuse becomes normalized. Start unlearning any abusive behaviors you may have internalized from your family dynamics.
Not that this is easy! It can take time for you to unlearn internalized abuse, just like unlearning internalized misogyny. You can still be an ally even if you are early or beginning your journey.
Let's pivot to how.
When in doubt, validate always. The first part of this is to validate positive attributes to help a survivor build self esteem, confidence, and sense of self. We do not want to reaffirm their abusers' abuse. For example, if a survivor has been emotionally abused for years, they may commonly tear themselves down out of habit from years of their abuser doing the same thing. It may even be subtle things like ¨wow I am so dumb¨, ¨I always mess things up¨, ¨I deserve to lose this opportunity¨. If you experience this, try to combat it with sayings such as ¨you are smart, everyone makes mistakes¨, ¨I mess up all the time, it's normal!¨, or ¨this does not reflect on you as a person, it just happened¨. Individuals who have been beaten down and suffer from low self esteem and confidence can be easier to further abuse. We want to help build survivor's up after abuse has torn them down.
The second type of validation comes up whenever a survivor is brave enough to ask for help or share their story. When this happens, support them sharing and reaffirm that they do not deserve to be abused. Phrases like ¨that sounds so hard¨ and ¨I'm so sorry you are going through this¨ are two of my favorites. Even if the survivor has not yet said , ¨I am being abused¨ and instead share stories that sound like they could be experiencing abuse or toxic behavior, lean towards saying things like ¨I am so sorry, that sound so hard¨ and ¨I am here for you¨ instead of ¨well that doesn't sound that bad¨.
Especially in the AAPI community, cultural standards of parenting are viewed differently than by Western standards. The survivor may think what is happening is normal, and likely doesn't know what is happening is ¨domestic violence¨. Be aware that a survivor may share as a way to vent their frustration at their abuse, their families control, their feelings of hurt without realizing what is happening is abuse. Also keep in mind that they may not be in a place where they want to do anything but express their feelings. So, be ready with a ¨ I'm sorry you're going through this¨ and accept if that is all that happens at that moment.
Along with validation, here are some guidelines to help you be the best ally possible, especially within the AAPI community.
Due to concepts of saving face, much toxic behavior and abuse is normalized or burried or denied. In fact, according to NAMI, AAPI survivors are the least likely to reach out for mental health issues due to stigma and culture.(2) Identify these mental health issues and try to point them out when you experience them
This can include asking the individual, ¨how are you feeling about that?¨, or saying, ¨that was not ok¨. Checking in when toxic or abusive behavior has just occurred can demonstrate to the survivor that what happened is not normal or acceptable.
Normalize through actions that communicating about these issues is not taboo or ¨disturbing harmony¨ but healthy. If you are in a healthy space, you may choose to share similar abusive experiences you have experienced in your own life. Sharing experiences, if you are emotionally available, can demonstrate to the survivor that they are not isolated.
Whatever the survivor´s reaction is (denial, anger, etc) reaffirm you support them regardless of what they decide to do.
When a survivor chooses to confide in you, reaffirm that the survivor is not ¨weak¨ or ¨shameful¨ for sharing.
If they set boundaries, respect these even if you don't agree. Obvious exceptions are if the survivor is threatening self harm or suicide, or is threatening to hurt others.
Demonstrate by setting your own boundaries. Allies to survivors are at risk of developing PTSD and mental health issues. Take time for yourself if you need to.
Affirm self care and positive self love
In many AAPI cultures, individuals are taught that they represent their family and community.
Many AAPI individuals learn that self sacrifice and people pleasing behaviors are expected and laudable
On top of this, many AAPI individuals don't receive positive affirmation, compliments, etc. from their families which can lead to low self esteem and confidence. Therefore, self care and self love may be difficult for AAPI survivors.
Start small, maybe encouraging them to sit for a cup of tea or a walk in a nice area, then build up. Reaffirm this is necessary for mental and physical health. Give positive feedback and compliments.
Demonstrate by sharing your self care routine. Show your routines and how they make you feel. Compliment yourself in front of them.
If there is a language barrier, you can help look for resources or offer to call a helpline together.
Even if there is no language barrier, you can offer to be their support if they want to contact an advocate/call a helpline but are afraid or nervous.
Most importantly, respect whatever they choose to do (as long as they are not harming themselves or anyone else). Even if we do not agree with choices survivors make, we must respect their decisions and support them where they are in their journey.
As a non AAPI Ally
Everything listed above is a great place to start, and I highly recommend reading through it, but we also need to remember that AAPIs face cultural differences that make their situation unique. And as one of our special guests and Chinese advocate Yi Lam stated before, many AAPI survivors who see anti-Asian racism in America will feel they cannot ask for help as a result. It's important to be especially open to past incidents where you may have said or assumed something or internalized an anti AAPI stereotype because that's what our culture demonstrated.
We all make mistakes, but what is critical as an ally is that you do not become defensive, minimize or gaslight the AAPI survivor when they try to share their experience. This can be challenging if their experiences touch on a past action in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. Be open to feedback and self reflection and be prepared to do some research to save them the emotional labor of explaining it to you. (In general this is advised for interacting with any survivor.) Even if we weren't speaking about AAPi survivors specifically, any survivor of domestic violence can face internalized biases that make it difficult to seek help. Barriers for survivors include stereotypes about how survivors ¨should act¨ and the myth of the ¨perfect¨ survivor. With AAPI survivors, we also encounter an additional layer of cultural background that can be challenging for a non AAPI ally to understand. And irregardless, you still do not have the lived experience of that survivor. Be ready to listen.
As an example, respect for elders is a common theme in AAPI families. Abusive AAPI parents can be unwilling to receive feedback or critique from their children, and it's uncommon for AAPI parents to apologize even for abusive behaviors. More likely, when the child attempts to talk about a behavior that was hurtful, the parent is going to become defensive and justify their actions or blame the child (gaslighting). My mother did this to me growing up. Eventually I learned not to try to call her out and ask for an apology because it just made things worse for me. Despite this, the first time I told a non AAPI friend about a fight with my mom, they told me the solution was to ¨talk it out¨. When I tried to explain why this would not work, they reassured me ¨Of course it will¨. Any attempts to explain why it would likely not work got me branded as ¨difficult¨. Another theme in AAPI families is to criticize and pick apart appearances, and if this is between an elder and a youth, you don't talk back unless you're ready for them to get upset and defensive with you. I remember complaining to my non AAPI friends that one of my relatives greeted me by exclaiming in a shocked tone that my eyebrows were different shapes and sizes and what was wrong with my face? Their instant reaction was ¨why did you let her say that¨. I felt even stupider… like it was all my fault I was abused in the first place and should have known no one would take me seriously. I never tried to talk about my abuse with them again.
Yes, it is hard. And yes, it will feel uncomfortable. However, as with survivors outside the AAPI community, the best we can do for allies within the AAPI community is to listen. Actively listen and absorb and understand where they come from and what they need. Even if that means unlearning biases from your past experiences. Like with my well meaning non-AAPI friends in the stories from before, they may have had good intentions but their lack of knowledge of my cultural background and inability to listen made it impossible for them to be allies.
Allyship is especially important in light of the recent public displays, mass shootings, and elder attacks on AAPI individuals following the Covid 19 pandemic. During the pandemic, I also experienced harassment often. Masked, unmasked, alone, or in a group, I would be harassed and bullied. Even among people I thought were friends, I experienced hurtful biases that they previously had hidden. Things like ¨well aren't Chinese restaurants super dirty?¨ ¨Don't you guys eat dogs?¨ ¨I don't think what you are experiencing is racism, i think people are stressed.¨ Once I experience anti-Asian biases from someone, there is no way I would trust them to hold space for me as an AAPI survivor.
So what now? A good place to start is to answer and research the following questions to get an idea of anti-Asian stereotypes as well as a place to start internally reflecting on unconscious biases.
Have you ever asked an AAPI person ¨Where are you really from?¨, or ¨What are you?¨ Do you understand why these questions are offensive?
Have you complimented an AAPI person on their English… when they are a Native English Speaker?
Do you believe the Model Minority myth?
Do you believe all Asians are rich?
Do you assume Chinese restaurants are dirty?
Do you joke about AAPI eating cats/dogs?
Do you use the term ¨oriental¨
Do you jokingly mimic Chinese languages
Do you fetishise Asian women, or use terms like ¨geisha¨ ¨china doll¨¨
Do you think all Asians look alike?
Do you understand what is wrong with the Fox Eye trend?
Do you know the history of America invading and massacring in Asian countries including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, etc?
Do you know what the Page Law is?
Once you have examined yourself for internal bias, here are some more guidelines to consider when being an ally to AAPI survivors.
Don't assume anything because ¨oh that how they do it¨
Ex. He beats his wife? Well isn't that how ¨they¨ do it?
Recognize norms in the AAPI community such as people-pleasing, self sacrifice, and perseverance. Keep in mind the importance of respecting elders can go to a toxic level and abusive parents can expect obedience and not allow or tolerate push back from kids, even about abuse/harmful/toxic behavior
Just saying ¨oh you can just tell them/talk to them¨ doesn't work the way you will think
If an AAPI survivor doesn't take your suggestion because they say ¨oh that will not work¨ try not to become upset. Remember, we are here to support the survivor whatever they decide is best and that means their choosing what advice, or not, to take.
Because many AAPI survivors can struggle with boundaries or communication, your allyship can be demonstrating boundary setting and respecting survivors where they are.
Above all else, as a non AAPI ally, listen to what the survivor is saying. Actively listen, and understand what they are saying is happening and what they need. Examine yourself for internal biases you may not even realize you have. Do some research on AAPI cultures to remove some of the emotional labor from the survivor having to explain the nuances. Finally, as with any survivors, validate their positive emotions and experiences.
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