March 25, 2021

Asian hate: Understanding & Addressing the roots of Multigenerational Trauma.

“Hatred and fear blind us. We no longer see each other. We only see the faces of monsters, and that gives us the courage to destroy each other.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh


In the past month, many of us are starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel—vaccinations, warmer weather returning.

For others of us, it’s a continuation of fear and uncertainty.

Since the start of the pandemic, our Asian neighbors, friends, and families have been faced an uptick in racially motivated hate crimes.

My home state of New Jersey has shouldered its burden of these crimes. Since the coronavirus outbreak, there have been more than 40 cases of Asian hate crime, many directed at the elderly. New Jersey Congressman Andy Kim believes that the motivation underlying these crimes is the mistaken belief that Asian Americans are responsible for spreading coronavirus.

As a psychologist and observer of human behavior, I do believe that such misinformation is part of the answer. I have tried to understand the roots of hatred and violence through the lens of trauma, specifically multigenerational trauma. Multigenerational trauma is just what it sounds like: trauma that extends from one generation to the next.

One of the groups in which we see this most strongly is among our Viet Nam war vets. Years later, we often don’t think about how alive and well the Vietnam War remains. I work with several clients who fought in this war. For them, it could just as well be the 1970s. Their lives remain overshadowed by war.

PTSD, numerous physical problems due to exposure—which often go on acknowledged by our government systems—and family disruption are common and often occur in tandem. Many of the people who have served in Viet Nam are also in their so-called “called-in” years. As they try to live the remainder of their lives and enjoy their time left, they have been virtual prisoners of the lockdown. Many of us can relate to the mounting anger and fatigue we’ve all experienced as the months go by.

Due in large part to mischaracterizations of coronavirus as “the Asian flu,” I’ve watched their anger and frustration become misdirected toward Asian Americans. While I understand the frustration and acknowledge the unfairness of the lockdowns and social isolation, I try to redirect the anger.

While by no means a perfect solution, listening deeply and trying to understand perspectives different from our own does help. Some of my clients have been able to reach a place where they can express themselves in our sessions, but do it in a way that is respectful of all peoples. Being heard and validated has also led to some healing of war experiences.

But trauma does not stop with the people who are directly affected by it. It also affects generations after. While my father completed his military service prior to the start of the war, he was still influenced by the anti-Asian sentiments of that time.

Among the older generation, I notice both overt and covert prejudices, ranging from the tendency to label people by their ethnicity to discriminatory comments posted on social media.

My husband‘s father spent his childhood fighting for our country. Many kids at that time had fathers who served in the military, and it was difficult. So the next generation also had their trauma—of a missing parent and constant fears for their safety. The parent who returned from war was often very different than the father who left home.

It is important that we do not pass the legacy of hate to our children, and stop multigenerational trauma. In doing so we become allies. Some suggestions to support this include:

1. Check your own beliefs and prejudices. Do you believe that coronavirus is something other than an unfortunate situation? Do you hold one or more groups responsible? In addition to questioning these thoughts, be aware of privilege. For example, as a white woman, I don’t fear that my family members will be victims of violence. My Asian friends do have these fears.

2. Listen and try to understand; then educate. When you notice discriminatory practices or speech, ask about it in an objective way. For instance, you might say “I noticed you appeared angry at the Asian man in front of us in line. I wonder why?” Listen to the response. Only then can there be a dialogue and education.

3. Speak out. Do not allow things you notice and react to, to pass by without speaking up. If you hear someone making a discriminatory comment, speak up. This includes “jokes” about eye shape and speaking with an accent.

4. Assess sources of your own trauma. Are you a child of the 60s, 70s, and beyond? What sources of trauma might you be carrying? Might any of these be influencing your perceptions? If the answer is yes, you may benefit from therapy to address them.

5. Support your Asian friends and neighbors. Reach out by phone or text. Let them know you care and recognize that they may be affected by what is occurring. They will appreciate your caring.


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