This article contains references to violence against Asian Americans. Please take care of yourself and refer to our list of resources to stay informed, connected, and safe.
Compassion fatigue: “A profound indifference and empathic exhaustion produced by the repetition of shocking images” — Meg McLagan, “Principles, Publicity, and Politics: Notes on Human Rights Media”
There it was, sitting patiently in the pages of my anthropology reading. A name for the strange dullness that had taken residence within me. For the miserable concoction of outrage and hurt that boiled down to nothing but a profound indifference.
It was the spring of my senior year at Tufts, and despite COVID-19 rocking the world’s foundation, I was making a half-hearted effort to continue with the things I was expected to do: classes, homework, exams, repeat. It was a well-practiced routine, but not one untouched by the pandemic. Biweekly COVID testing and Zoom classes altered the college experience, and a collective grieving for lost loved ones weighed heavily on the student body. The shift I was least prepared for, however, was the challenge of being Chinese American in a time when Asian hate flared.
Growing up in a predominantly white town, I’d adopted methods of dismissing my race. I recall a sleepover at 13 years old; my friends wanted to pretend to be sisters, so I awkwardly joked that I must’ve been the adopted one of the group. Later, in a more diverse high school, I intentionally distanced myself from the first- and second-generation Asian students, championing the pejorative labels of “banana” and “Twinkie” to prove my assimilation. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I was able to confront the internalized racism that festered within me.
Considering my past behavior, I wonder what prompted me to sign up for a class named “Asian America,” but I’m grateful that I did. Through studying neglected pockets of U.S. history and telling terminology like “model minority” and “perpetual foreigner,” I found explanations for my experiences. In conducting an oral history assignment, I discovered my grandmother’s perseverance in the story of her immigration. And sitting in a homely classroom amid a dark Massachusetts winter, I cried in solidarity with my classmates as we confided in each other about our anger and insecurities.
Ironic, then, that in the process of repairing my relationship with my race, the world imposed a new arsenal of hate to accompany it.
This influx of xenophobia and the insinuation that Asians were more likely to contract the virus were mere predecessors to what followed. In 2021, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 339% nationwide. Stop AAPI Hate — a hate incident tracking platform created in response to pandemic-fueled racism — collected about 10,905 reports of hate incidents from March 2020 to December 2021. And even now, more than two years after the start of the pandemic, 21% of Americans believe that Asian Americans are at least partly responsible for COVID-19.
But I didn’t need percentages and polls to recognize the rise in hate. I recognized it in the pointed finger of a drunken man shouting “COVID!” at me with cruel enjoyment on his face. I recognized it in my mother’s inevitable plea for caution when I told her I was leaving the house. And I recognized it in instances of violence that advertised themselves on my social media feed under the pretense of activism and awareness.
“Flooded with images of the sort that once used to shock and arouse indignation, we are losing our capacity to react. Compassion, stretched to its limits, is going numb.” — Susan Sontag, “Regarding the Pain of Others”
Throughout my life, my mom sought to teach my siblings and me to embrace our race. Since she became active on Instagram, I got used to her sending me posts about the Asian American community. At first, they were harmless: inside jokes about a Chinese mom cooking for her children. Interesting reads and interviews focused on Asian American leaders. A compilation video of responses to the dreaded “Where are you from?” question. “No — where are you really from?” But as Asian hate surged, I could feel her anxiousness in the frequency and content of what she sent, and soon the sensationalized headlines and graphic images became too much to bear.
It didn’t take long for the buzzing to incite dread in the pit of my stomach. I’d be sitting on my bed trying to finish an essay, when a DM from my mom would obliterate my concentration and replace it with an affliction that had nowhere to go.
I often wondered what it was that kept my mom watching. Did the plethora of posts provide validation that the rise in hate was really happening? Did she feel she had to witness a crime as solidarity with the victim? Was her sending it to me and my sister meant to be proof that her copious warnings didn’t come unwarranted?
Gently, I tried to suggest that consuming so much violence-based media wasn’t good for her. That there was nothing productive to come from it besides driving up her own paranoia. I now realize that at its core, it was a plea for my own sanity. Nevertheless, my words fell on deaf ears, and the barrage didn’t stop.
My boyfriend was surprised when, during our study session, a simple notification brought frustrated tears to my eyes. At that point, the incidents had become nearly indistinguishable — they all blended into one mass of horrific and senseless violence with no indication of retribution or resolution. I couldn’t tell you which post was the one that caused me to crack. It was merely the feather that toppled the scale, and I found that the sheer overload was causing more emotional distress than I could handle.
He held me as I cried. Cried for the victims of hate, cried for my own fear, and cried for the fact that, though large reserves of my anger were directed towards the perpetrators of these crimes, there was an undeniable part of it directed towards my mother for forcing me to bear witness.
In the aftermath of that night, I became numb. When faced with yet another instance of Asian hate, I would allow my eyes to glaze over, my emotions tampering down into nothingness as a form of self-preservation. It was in that manner that I fell deep into the grips of compassion fatigue.
“Those who suffer from compassion fatigue have — at some level — stopped caring about others.” — Susan D. Moeller, “Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death”
Looking back, I wonder how I could’ve let myself lose compassion when the affected community was my own. Was it a sign of selfishness? Of weakness? Perhaps, an indication that I wasn’t prepared to reconcile with my race. Or that I would turn away rather than acknowledge a difficult reality and take action.
Or maybe it was for the sake of self-care. Maybe shutting down was the only thing I could do to guarantee that I wouldn’t break. Even so, I’m not convinced that it was the right thing to do.
Compassion fatigue is a phenomenon that spreads far beyond the context of Asian hate. When I first read about the term, it was in relation to the coverage of international human rights violations. My dad, an ER physician, informed me that it’s a common occurrence in the health care field. And my boyfriend shared that he felt a similar indifference in the face of an overwhelming amount of pandemic news. In any circumstance, I believe that the fight against this numbness lies in the recognition of impending fatigue and a concerted effort to moderate consumption.
There’s a part of me that fears that by sharing my experience, I’m arming those who are not directly touched by crisis with an excuse not to care. In reasonable doses, I do believe that there is something to gain by the distribution of sensationalized content, starting with a wider recognition of a problem. For an audience to acknowledge a disturbing headline or image seems marginal considering what others must live through. It is, after all, merely the reporting of truth.
There is also the reality that these images serve as a warning to those potentially affected. My mom recently informed me that her intent in DM-ing me those posts was to ensure my safety. Knowing what could happen, it was better to err on the side of caution, she argued. Why take a chance when these attacks were random and had dire consequences? There was wisdom in fear, she said, if that fear resulted in smarter decision-making.
The issue, I believe, is when the impact of an image shifts from delivering actionable information to inciting shock. Too often a story is capitalized upon for its graphic nature, and then dropped, offering neither deeper understanding nor closure. And in its mission to spread awareness, it instead turns the public away from the subject — even those initially willing to listen. Even those who are suffering themselves.
It’s been a year now. I’ve graduated, landed a job in journalism, and feeling is coming back. But recent news proves just as disconcerting as it was before. As I explore my new home of New York City, I am haunted by the deaths of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee; regardless of whether the incidents were deemed racially motivated or not, the trauma isn’t mitigated.
Since beginning my career, I’ve become intimately familiar with how the news cycle produces tragedy on top of tragedy. At times I wondered if working in the industry would make me more vulnerable to the fatigue I had just recovered from. But in recognizing my own fatigue, I now find myself better equipped to fight it. And all it has done is reaffirm my commitment to report responsibly and ensure the public doesn’t go numb. These issues are simply too important to be ignored.
As long as Asian hate persists, rage needs to be maintained. And compassion fatigue threatens our ability to do that. When indifference creeps in, it is imperative that it be recognized and addressed. And even if that leads to an inattentiveness to the issue, a temporary turn of the head is preferable over the turn of the back.
I hope that one day I can stand in the subway without guaranteeing distance between myself and the edge of the platform. I hope that one day I can walk the streets of Chinatown without envisioning the surveillance video tracking Lee and her murderer into her apartment. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking, but I hope it isn’t. In the meantime, I strive to stay conscious of the plight at hand, without falling victim to the overload that once consumed me.
Cover image: Casey Chiang
Last modified: January 9, 2023