For months, my friend Shandra Woworuntu was raped by traffickers and sex buyers.
One day, she saw a small window of hope in the bathroom of the Brooklyn brothel where she was being held. In secret, the Indonesia native quietly unscrewed the plywood from a window with a small spoon and jumped two stories to the ground. She imagined that when she told her story, she would be met with compassion, and would find help and support immediately. Instead, she says, one of the first times she sought help at a police station, she overheard an officer say, “I think she’s just a prostitute.”
Woworuntu says this disturbing stereotype of Asian women is pervasive.
“Many Americans think Asian women just come to the United States to work in a massage parlor and are prostitutes. They think we just come here for a green card, so they don’t help when we really need it,” she said.
Woworuntu eventually connected with Safe Horizon’s Anti-Trafficking Program and got help enrolling in ESL classes and securing refugee funds. She was able to reunite with her daughter.
This could have been the happy ending to her story, but Woworuntu faced many additional challenges as she tried to build a new life in the United States. In need of financial support after escaping human trafficking, she applied for food stamps. One of the workers said, in a patronizing tone, “Aw, you look so cute,” referring to her small stature. This presumably unwitting and unintentional condescension felt diminishing and dehumanizing, and Woworuntu responded, “Excuse me? I am not cute. I am not an animal. Cute is for animals.”
“I am not cute. I am not an animal. Cute is for animals.”
For Asian-Americans, this kind of treatment is all too common. The stereotype of Asians as harmless, obedient and submissive means they are often belittled or taken less seriously by those who are supposed to help them.
Then there is the model minority myth, a huge barrier for so many Asians who are victims of violence or abuse such as intimate partner violence. The model minority myth perpetuates the falsehood that all Asians are successful and well-off, and live perfect lives. Yet in New York City, Asian-Americans have the highest poverty rate of any ethnic group.
Asians ― particularly South Asians ― are often thought of as highly skilled immigrants. Doctors, dentists and lawyers; individuals with means. This contributes to the stereotype that they can’t face violence at home, because the stereotype of abusive households doesn’t include well-off families. The assumption is that well-off women don’t “put up with” domestic abuse. Yet up to 55 percent of Asian women in the U.S. report experiencing intimate partner violence and/or sexual violence during their lifetime. Too often, we imagine intimate partner violence as a poor-people problem, but I have met CEOs, teachers, social workers and even an Olympic gold medalist who faced violence at the hands someone who was supposed to love them.
“The assumption is that well-off women don’t 'put up with' domestic abuse. Yet up to 55 percent of Asian women in the U.S. report experiencing intimate partner violence.”
The model minority myth also drives a wedge between Asians and other communities of color, creating a false conflict that pits oppressed groups against each other. Racism affects all people of color, even though it affects groups differently. For example, stereotypes of Asians as defenseless or weak can make them targets for crime. Karlin Chan, a community activist in Manhattan’s Chinatown told NBC News last year that “perpetrators often stereotype Asians as immigrants who are unable to speak English. That makes them a target ... as criminals assume they cannot communicate with law enforcement and thus won’t call police.”
In some cases, that may unfortunately be true. Immigration status can be a systemic barrier to safety. One out of every 7 Asians in America is undocumented. They are often living in the shadows and may be hesitant to report crimes to the police for fear of deportation.
Even those who are here legally feel the effects of social isolation. For example, many South Asian women who enter the U.S. on a dependent visa enter at the wish of their spouse, which means that their husbands control their ability to stay in the United States.
“Many of the women I’ve worked with are engineers in India, and can do better than their husband, but can’t work here legally in the U.S. and so rely financially on their husband,” says Manisha Shah, senior director for Safe Horizon and the NYPD’s Crime Victim Assistance Program. “I have worked with clients who were not sure of their immigration status and live in constant fear of the abuse.”
“Stereotypes of Asians as defenseless or weak can make them targets for crime.”
Language is another barrier that blocks Asian survivors of violence from the services that could help keep them safe. Because of the sheer diversity of Asian languages spoken in the United States ― Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean, Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Panjabi, Gujarati and Urdu, to name just the most commonly spoken ones ― survivors can often struggle to find advocates who speak their language.
Woworuntu remembers her frustrating interaction with a translator who was supposed to be helping with her immigration case: “Even though I knew limited English, I knew he wasn’t translating correctly. He brushed me off as ‘not knowing English’ and didn’t listen to me.”
Language barriers can make it harder for survivors to get the services they need and deserve, like medical help, food stamps, shelter and counseling. Sometimes, they give up all together.
Eventually, despite the systemic barriers she faced, Woworuntu got the help she needed, but it took extraordinary strength and perseverance. Today, she’s the co-founder of an advocacy group for human trafficking survivors, and a nonprofit organization that helps survivors find mentorship and job training to get back on their feet.
There is much to be learned from Woworuntu’s story. This includes the painful reality that survivors of violence who are Asian face unique barriers when they seek safety. To change that, individuals and institutions alike will need to shed their biases and stereotypes about Asians, and about domestic violence. That starts with making sure that all Asian survivors can make their voices heard ― and with listening.
Brian Pacheco is the director of communications and media relations at Safe Horizon, the nation’s largest victim services agency.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.