Unmasking Identity: Supporting Asian American Youth

by Neel Saxena, Executive Director
Photos Courtesy of Neel Saxena & Bitmoji

Today is Halloween, one of my favorite “holidays” because it was a time in my life as a youth to be able to define for myself how I wanted the world to see me and emulate a favorite character and see someone I didn’t see who looked like me in my regular life at the time, like an Asian American baseball player, artist, teacher or this:

Yes, there weren’t any Asian American Oompa Loompas around in my day but in the remake the Oompa Loompa were played by a Kenyan actor of Indian descent. Growing up I navigated my Indian culture at home and what I thought was an American culture outside but never really figured out how I could combine the two until I got to college. I’d hide each from the other and become exhausted switching between the two. At times I didn’t know how to feel when friends would call things I loved, weird. It was the through the support of peers in college who navigated the same struggle I did and positive role models that I was able to begin to figure out my own individuality and start to feel more comfortable in my skin.

We’re still not 100% what the Asian American identity is, it has been defined by others for us for many years from the racist caricatures of the 1940s to the whiz kids of the 1980s. For many youth including myself, trying to fit into a complicated Asian American narrative causes stress and anxiety. These feelings of being overwhelmed navigating a dual identity impacts youth psychological well-being. The signs of stress in Asian American youth are often overlooked by practitioners and hidden due to the stigma.

At Asian American LEAD, we promote positive youth development that is culturally responsive to the needs of the 23 different Asian ethnic groups we support. We believe affording youth the space to feel comfortable and confident in their cultural backgrounds and experiences, and learn to find their place as community members as well as exposing them to other cultures to see similarities.

Here are a few examples of the types of activities and support youth receive in programs.

Safe, Supportive, Stable: The Importance of Out-of-School Time Programs

Youth Voice on Social Issues

Loving Ourselves and Our Cultures

At AALEAD we continue to support youth through the out of school time programs made up of supportive peers and staff or through our mentoring program where youth are connected with a caring adult. As youth unmask their individuality we believe they build on their self-confidence, develop healthy self-concept, and will lead productive lives.

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