Q&A: Asian American prof reflects on long history of racism
May is Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi American Heritage Month, a time dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the ways in which the APIDAcommunity contributes to the history, culture and achievements of the United States. This month, the Office of Research and Economic Development is spotlighting the work and thoughts of members of Nebraska’s APIDA research community to highlight how they strengthen and diversify our university.
Yan Ruth Xia is a professor of child, youth and family studies who focuses her research on family strengths and resilience, with a particular focus on strengths and stresses in Asian immigrant families and Chinese adolescent social competence. In 2018, she became the first Husker professor to receive a Fulbright Distinguished Chair Award, which enabled her to spend a year at East China Normal University in Shanghai working on a project titled “Chinese Parents and their Adolescent Children During the Social Transition.” She also has received the Jan Trost Award for Outstanding Contributions to Comparative Family Studies, a lifelong achievement honor from the National Council on Family Relations international section, and the organization’s 2017 Felix Berardo Scholarship Award for Mentoring.
Xia is also a dedicated teacher. She launched the university’s first immigrant families class in the CYAF department more than 10 years ago, a course she continues to teach today. She’s received numerous teaching awards at Nebraska, including the Dean’s Award for Excellence and Graduate Education and the College Distinguished Teaching Award.
The following interview with Xia has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your research as it relates to Asian American immigrants and their families. How has this work become increasingly relevant over the past year, as harmful rhetoric and violence against Asian people has increased in the United States?
A typical stressor for Asian and other immigrant families is “racial talk”; parents find it very difficult to talk about race and ethnicity, which is very relevant during this time of horrific violence against people of Asian descent. In our recent research on parenting, we’ve seen this issue come up repeatedly: What is the right time to talk to our children about race? Younger children notice the differences — they wonder, “Why is my hair black and my friend’s hair is blond or another color?” Those are great opportunities for Asian families to talk about race, and for Caucasian families, as well. It’s very important for adults to really learn and recognize our own attitudes and prejudices and biases, and try to educate ourselves at the same time we educate our children.
Another interesting theme from our research is that if parents connect their children to their heritage by sending them to language school to study Chinese or Japanese, for example, or connecting them to other resources in order to let them learn about their culture of origin, this helps them develop a positive ethnic identity. This is a process called “enculturation.” It’s connected to strong mental health, strong emotional skills and high self-esteem. In the past, we’ve seen Chinese American families react to discrimination by raising their children as if they were not Chinese kids. They would even change their name to try to erase, adapt and assimilate. But then, when the children grow up in American society, they are not seen as American, and they don’t know how to deal with that. We want to help parents talk about race and help children feel pride and embrace their differences, and enable them to recognize and address discrimination.
How do you help Asian and immigrant parents implement these strategies?
In our department, we train future family professionals and school teachers, so I integrate these messages into my curriculum. I developed an immigrant family class at UNL more than 15 years ago and still teach it now.
I also try to help parents in other ways. One of my doctoral students worked with the Asian Community and Cultural Center in Lincoln, adapting a parenting curriculum focused on how to raise children using healthy communication and relationship-building. We also teach kids how to best communicate with their parents. I live in Omaha, so I also share with the Asian and Chinese communities there.
The National Council on Family Relations recently invited me to develop a webinar focused on Asian American family strengths and resilience, and how we are facing and dealing with racial issues in light of the current situation. This is another way to reach families.
Tell me about your own racial and cultural background and career pathway.
I came from China to the U.S. originally to pursue my degrees in family science. When I was in China, I was a language and literature major. Both my parents were educators, and they instilled in me the importance of kindness and helped me to recognize the common ground of people of all colors. There was no such thing as “family studies” or “family science” in China, so I said goodbye to my parents to pursue my career.
I got my Ph.D. in family science and master’s degree with a specialization in marriage and family therapy, but didn’t ultimately take that route. I chose the education and outreach route because I thought I could play a larger role by conducting family research, developing educational materials and disseminating evidence-based information. All families have challenges and keep trying to solve their problems. Sometimes the solution and the way to solve their problem become the problem. I want to strengthen families by giving families the tools to deal with their challenges.
The only job application I ever put in was to UNL. I was lucky enough to get the job, and I’m still thrilled. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to start my career in the U.S. That doesn’t mean I haven’t faced challenges. When I was hired, I was the first faculty member in the department with an international background and the only minority faculty member at that time. I want to see the institution continue to make efforts to retain minorities — faculty and students. There’s more that can be done.
I want to point out that racism against Asian American families is deeply rooted. This is not something new. It’s something that’s intensified because of COVIDand rhetoric directed against Asian and Chinese people. That’s something we need to face. The more we talk about it, the better we deal with it.