Foreigners in their own country:
Asians in America


Ms. King and Ms. Kang are both native-born American citizens. But are they equally American in our eyes?


NARRATOR: Against the backdrop of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve witnessed a surge in a particular kind of bias – one that’s been relatively dormant for decades:

ASIAN-AMERICAN WOMAN (NEWS CLIP): I was told that I “should be rounded up with the virus and shipped back to China.”

ASIAN-AMERICAN MAN (NEWS CLIP): He just said “F— you and your chinky policy,” told me to go back to China…

MAN ON SUBWAY (NEWS CLIP): Every disease has ever came from China, homie. Because they’re f—ing disgusting.

NARRATOR: Over 2000 of these kinds of incidents have been reported since March – compared to 158 reports in all of 2019…

2020 (March – June): 2100+ incidents reported
2019: 158 incidents reported

NARRATOR: …and often this idea of “belonging” is at the heart of the attacks. You are not American. Go back to where you came from.

Now, these cases smack of an explicit racism and xenophobia, the kind that embarrasses and outrages the vast majority of Americans. Most of us would never say such things publicly or believe them privately.

The question is: is there something implicit feeding into these explicit actions. Are associations about race and belonging embedded in our culture, prevalent enough that we’ve all absorbed them too?

According to the science, the answer is yes. Many of us (even many Asian Americans!) have a documented bias that Professor Mahzarin Banaji calls “a strong contender for Our Most Ridiculous Mindbug Prize.” Here’s how ridiculous it is.

This is British actor Hugh Grant.

And this is American figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, Olympic gold medalist and two-time World Champion.

Are they equally “American?”

Of course not. One of them isn’t American at all.

But at some level, our minds see someone like Grant as more “American” than someone like Yamaguchi.

HUGH GRANT: Don’t be ridiculous.

NARRATOR: Citizenship may have a precise legal definition: if you are born in the United States, you are American. But Thierry Devos’ research with Mahzarin showed that implicitly our minds follow a different rule:

American = White

Participants taking an IAT were much better – faster, more accurate, at associating “American” with “White” than with “Asian”. Even when the faces they saw were of famous Asian Americans like Lucy Liu and Kristi Yamaguchi and famous White Europeans like Hugh Grant or Gerard Depardieu.

Here’s a big question: So what?

Why does it matter if we have this ridiculous implicit bias?

The data show that the stronger someone’s belief that American = White, the less willing they are to hire qualified Asian Americans for national security jobs, and the more negatively they evaluate an Asian American’s opinion on immigration policy.

And as we go about our day to day lives? We may never say the words “Go back to China”. But  a subtler question springs from the same implicit notion of foreignness:

MAN’S VOICE: But where are you really from?

NARRATOR: And that one’s pretty common.

Listen: bias thrives in times of uncertainty.  The science tells us that when we feel unsure or threatened, our brains process information differently. We become more sensitive to potential danger — whether it’s a stranger walking toward us or a virus that’s taken hold in our town. We show more bias against people who aren’t in “our” groups.

 So remember this:  There’s an implicit association most of us carry about what it means to be  “American”  or what an “American” looks like. … and in moments of uncertainty, it likely gets stronger. How could it not when we explicitly hear COVID-19 referred to as the “Chinese virus”?

So what can we do?

Some of us are lucky. Research shows that in areas with more Asian Americans, people don’t believe that “American = White” quite so strongly. (Congrats, San Francisco.) This tells us something about the power of exposure.  If you see a lot of Asian-Americans around you, of course it’s easier to see Asians as “American”!

What about the rest of us? Those of us whose environments can help a Hugh seem more American than a Kristi, even when we know it’s not true? Two words: Culture and Media. They don’t reflect what America really looks like. Now, we can’t wait around for Hollywood and social media feeds to get it right… but we can make decisions about what we are exposed to. This means little decisions every day about the books we read, the movies and news we watch, the things we include when we celebrate “American” identity. That’s how unlearning happens.

It’s these little things that will chip away at an old stereotype and bring our brains into modern times.


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Extra materials if you want to learn more


Looking to immerse yourself in some Asian American and Pacific Islander media? Check out this collection put together by Netflix.

What implicit associations about Americans might you hold? Find out by taking the Asian-American IAT.

Even the term “Asian American” simplifies a huge diversity present in the population – Asian Americans trace their heritage to more than 20 different countries! Collapsing all of these different cultures to just one term hides the history and challenges each specific group has. On top of that, Asian Americans are often talked about as a “model minority,” a term that puts them under immense pressure to conform to a certain stereotype. Check out John Oliver’s commentary on the issue on HBO’s Last Week Tonight.

Asian workers make up approximately 9% of New York’s population and workforce but accounted for 12.5% of initial unemployment claims in April 2020 in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s an increase of 6,900% for Asian Americans – more than any other group in the U.S. Read more at CNN Business.

“When leaders call COVID-19 the ‘China virus,’ it harkens back to decades of state-sanctioned discrimination against Asian Americans.” For more, read Nina Strochlic’s “America’s long history of scapegoating its Asian citizens” at National Geographic.

The question “Where are you really from?” seems harmless on the surface. But if you haven’t asked the countless German, Irish, and British Americans whose paths you’ve crossed the same question, consider what this may mean about who you implicitly view as “foreign.” “I don’t get personally offended, but it kind of just makes me feel perpetually foreign,” says Stacy Chen in Kurt Bardella’s article “The question every Asian American hates to be asked”. Well-intentioned or not, research shows that these implicit beliefs that “Asian = Foreign” can have downstream effects, with the potential to influence decisions like who we find credible or choose to hire.

To update our notions of what America really looks like, we can start by acknowledging that the Asian American experience is not a monolith. Listen to the podcast Self Evident, which highlights Asian American stories across “generations, cultures, and class”.

The rise in anti-Asian sentiment in light of the coronavirus pandemic harkens back to similar allegations against Asian Americans during the Chinese Communist Revolution. “During the Cold War years, Asian Americans are simultaneously heralded as a Model Minority, and targeted as the perpetual foreigner.” Learn more by watching Good Americans – Episode 3 of the PBS documentary series Asian Americans.

Take a second and think: can you name a well-known Asian American? A national US survey found that 42% of adult Americans couldn’t name a single one. Norman Chen takes this result to mean that “Asian Americans remain largely invisible in US society.” This poses a problem for creating true equality across race in America. As Shirley Leung puts it, “To create a truly equitable society, we have to see Asian Americans as who they really are: Americans, not foreigners in their own home.” Find more about the survey at The Boston Globe.


Devos, T., & Banaji, M. R. (2005). American= white?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(3), 447.

Devos, T., & Sadler, M. (2019). Context diversity predicts the extent to which the American identity is implicitly associated with Asian Americans and European Americans. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 10(2), 182.

Riek, B. M., Mania, E. W., & Gaertner, S. L. (2006). Intergroup threat and outgroup attitudes: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(4), 336-353.

Yogeeswaran, K., & Dasgupta, N. (2010). Will the “real” American please stand up? The effect of implicit national prototypes on discriminatory behavior and judgments. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(10), 1332-1345.


“Foreigners in their own country: Asians in America” was created and developed by Olivia Kang, Alex Sanchez, Evan Younger, and Mahzarin Banaji. Support for Outsmarting Human Minds comes from Harvard University and PwC.

Narration by Olivia Kang, featuring Alex Sanchez.

Animation and Editing by Evan Younger.

Images by Olivia Kang and Evan Younger, adapted from photographs by Henry Co, Robert Bye, Amogh Manjunath, Daniel Rigdon, Cory Schadt, Juan Encalada, Mollie Sivaram, Liam Burnett, and Andrijana Bozic via Unsplash.

Video footage via ABC 10, USA Today, Action News 4, and GQ.

Music by Matt Hill, Philip Guyler, and Paul Mottram via Audio Network