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title. Ethnic Identity & Online Racial Hate Speech

date. 05.07.2021

author. Stephanie Tong (


As the second study in our online hate research series, we focused on the rising problem of online racial hate speech--or language disseminated online that specifically discriminates against Asian Americans because of their race or ethnicity. Recent estimates indicate that since March 2020, on Twitter alone, tweets featuring anti-Chinese hate speech have skyrocketed 900% (Gilbert, 2020). Investigating the issue of online racial hate speech is especially important as some have argued that anti-Asian activity online has paved the way for more "real world" violence and attacks, which have surged by nearly 150% since Spring 2020. Instances of rising anti-Asian hate include deadly attacks on Asian elders in Oakland, CA; unprovoked and random physical assaults on Asian Americans in New York City, and the murders of six Asian women in Atlanta, GA. 

Although such estimates clearly document this issue, a related question is how Asian Americans themselves perceive the issue. While it may seem intuitive that "all" Asian Americans would perceive and respond to a threat against their ingroup in the same way, that might not actually be the case. As a minority group, Asian Americans are a diverse set of people, with various understandings, perceptions, and backgrounds--as a result, we should not expect them all to behave alike. Instead, we might expect within-group variation, with some Asian Americans perceiving online racial hate speech as a severe problem, and others who might minimize it altogether. 


Just one of the thousands of anti-Asian hate tweets that appeared on Twitter in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic on March 19, 2020.

In this study, a factor that we expected to affect how Asian Americans perceive and respond to the threat of online racial hate speech is their sense of ethnic identity. As the "frame" through which many minorities come to view themselves, a person's ethnic identity can deeply influence how people interpret their larger social world and their place within it. In May 2020, we surveyed 269 Asian Americans to examine (a)  differences in their sense of ethnic identity, (b) how their sense of self affected their perceptions of increasing online hate speech against their ingroups, and (c) how they used resilience communication to combat this rise in pandemic-related racism.

Using a statistical approach known as latent profile analysis, our results revealed the following:

  1. Asian Americans are diverse in terms of their ethnic identity: We measured five dimensions of ethnic identity (importance, centrality, ethnic involvement, group evaluations, and model minority stereotype belief). We uncovered four latent profiles that reflected within-group variation in ethnic identity across the Asian Americans in our sample. This suggests that far from being a monolithic group, there is much diversity in the ways that Asian Americans perceive themselves and their social world.

  2. Asian Americans' ethnic identity affected their perceptions of anti-Asian online racial hate speech: Specifically, those individuals who felt (a) their ethnicity was a strong part of their own self-concept and (b) held strong positive evaluations of Asian American ingroups found the rise in pandemic-related hate speech to be more problematic than others who did not hold such attitudes as part of their ethnic identity.

  3. Asian Americans' ethnic identity affected their enactment of resilience: Again, those who reported stronger ethnic self-concept importance and positive ingroup evaluations also reported that they were able to practice resilience communication strategies during the pandemic.

In sum, our findings suggest that far from acting like a monolithic group, Asian Americans' perceptions and responses to the rise of COVID-19-related online racial hate speech can and does differ. Those who have adopted a stronger sense of ethnic centrality and positively evaluate their ethnic ingroups found anti-Asian online hate to be more problematic and were also able to respond by enacting various resilience strategies.


These results suggest that in order to better understand how minority groups are processing the stresses of the current pandemic requires remembering how their personal sense of ethnic identity may affect their perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors. The within-group variation seen in this study's sample also suggests that as a group, Asian Americans may face distinct struggles and hold unique advantages in their enactment of resilience communication during COVID-19.


One example of the strength that Asian Americans are leveraging at this time is their ability to mobilize and enact communal resilience. Asian Americans' sense of collectivism has spawned the formation of community groups across the country. Formed in response to recent attacks in Oakland, CA's Chinatown, Compassion in Oakland consists of over 400 volunteers from many different ethnic backgrounds. The organization's mission is to "come together and support our Elderly Asians" and has done so by providing services such as language interpretation, physical chaperoning, and health and legal advice. As such, a silver lining of the rise in anti-Asian online racial hate speech may be a deeper collective response and drive toward resilience.


Effectively engaging with Asian Americans and other minority groups during the pandemic requires finding creative solutions during this challenging time, and necessitates taking into account the variation across their identity and experiences.

For more details on the study (including additional results and description of methodology), please download the full Ethnic Identity & Online Hate White Paper, the second in the SMART Labs' Online Hate Research Series.


Update, October 2023: To read the full study, published in Human Communication & Technology, please visit the special issue on Developing and Communicating Identity via Technology.

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