Bringing Clinical Health Justice to the AAPI Community Through Intersectionality and Awareness

May 25, 2023

The Asian American Pacific Islander community faces its own set of unique social and mental health challenges. But these have been given little attention––obscured by the “model minority” myth that depicts AAPI individuals as more successful than other minority groups. On May 10, an interdisciplinary panel of experts set out to break down these issues in an event organized by the Columbia Department of Psychiatry and cosponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute.

Senior Medical Director of CUIMC and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at VP&S Adrian Jacques Ambrose opened the event, titled “Clinical Health Justice: Mental Health Equity and Cultural Intersectionality in the Age of #AsianHate, Transphobia, Racism, and Model Minority.” He encouraged the audience to reconsider AAPI through an intersectional perspective.

One of the most “destructive and insidious” concepts to deconstruct, Ambrose said, is “how we talk about the structural and systematic way in which inequity and racism hierarchize us and divide us among minorities.” The refrain about Asian Americans as a “model minority” is one such example.

According to panelist Warren Y.K. Ng, President of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent (AACAP), Medical Director at New York Presbyterian/CUIMC, and Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia VP&S, the AAPI community is the racial or ethnic group with the largest income disparity. The ethnic groups with the highest and lowest income brackets in the US fall within the AAPI label. Despite this massive gap in wealth, mental health struggles “do not discriminate,” Ng said. He noted the spate of anti-Asian hate incidents, and cited a study that subsequently found widespread anxiety and concern within the Asian American community. Ng added that mental health challenges may be further exacerbated by cultural norms within Asian diaspora communities, which may prevent some individuals from seeking help.  

Also speaking on the panel, Juliette Han, CFO and COO of Cambrian BioPharma and an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School, addressed the mental burden of tokenization among high-performing AAPI individuals. While on the surface, the concept of the “model minority” may seem to benefit Asian Americans, one outcome is that it raises the bar for individuals “to an impossible standard.” When a performance standard is not the same across the board, it pits these “model” individuals against each other––as if they are competing for that token minority spot––rather than encouraging them to simply be the best they can be.

“I think one pervasive feeling we have for any high achiever of any gender or any color, is ‘Do we deserve to be here? Do I deserve to be here?’” Han said. Instead, she suggested, the question should be: “Does this thing––whatever it is––this job…Does it deserve me?”

Rounding out the panel, Lien-Hang Nguyen, Director of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and Dorothy Borg Associate Professor in the History of the United States and East Asia, put the modern AAPI struggle in historical context. Nguyen explained that the United States was built on a foundation of discrimination against AAPI individuals. In her remarks, she highlighted American history’s vicious and repetitious cycle of anti-Asian foreign policy trickling down to anti-Asian hate. 

From early laws barring ingress to Asian women––evolving during the Gold Rush and Opium Wars, to extend to all Chinese nationals; the colonization of Pacific islands including Hawaii, Guam, Midway, and the Philippines; the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII; the Cold War’s hot wars in Korea and Vietnam––all the way to the 1980s when protectionist policies were enacted to stifle the Japanese economy and, more recently, the Trump administration’s Trade War with China, “We can’t divorce domestic politics from foreign relations,” Nguyen said. 

“Even though we’re living in this moment and we’re suffering––many of us––as a result of this recent spate of anti-Asian hate, it’s nothing new, it’s nothing different,” Nguyen reminded the audience. “As good students of history, please don’t forget that this present moment isn’t unique.”