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New Research Summary: How is gendered racism related to substance use in Asian American men?

Photo by Andres Ayrton from Pexels

We sat down with Brian Keum, Ph.D. (University of California Los Angeles) to talk about his new article published in our flagship journal, Psychology of Men and Masculinities. In the article, entitled "Substance Use Risk Among Asian American Men: The Role of Gendered Racism, Internalization of Western Muscular Ideals, Interpersonal and Body Shame, and Drive for Muscularity," Keum and colleagues explored the role of gendered racism as a predictor of risky compensatory substance use among Asian American men. This important work suggests that Asian American men may engage in risky alcohol and substance use in order to compensate for experiences of gendered racism which may lead them to feel emasculated or not "manly" enough. We encourage readers to check it out!

What were the key questions you were addressing in this article?

Gendered racism is a long-standing reality for Asian American men whose masculinities are

emasculated and delegitimized in the United States. By employing a culturally modified

objectification framework, we examined how gendered racism, a form of sexual and appearance denigration of Asian American men, could be associated with compensatory substance use (alcohol and anabolic androgenic steroids). Our focus was to identify culturally-relevant pathways within the culturally modified objectification framework that could help identify potential mediators (internalization of attractiveness ideals, shame [family, external, body], and drive for muscularity) that can be targeted for intervention development. Given that there are generational differences in substance-related risks and awareness of racial issues among Asian American men, we also examined how the pathways could differ across early generation group (1st, 1.25, and 1.5 generations) and later generation group (2nd generation and beyond).

What were the main conclusions of your article?

We found that gendered racism was significantly associated with substance use through two pathways: (a) an internalization-driven pathway (Gendered racism → internalization of Western muscularity ideals → drive for muscularity → substance use), and (b) a shame-driven pathway (gendered racism → shame → drive for muscularity → substance use). The internalization pathway may be reflecting Asian American men’s survival within White hegemonic masculinity driven society by actively aligning with Western appearance and muscularity ideals, which may subsequently drive compensatory substance use. The shame pathway may be highlighting the significance of shame responses that may ultimately be driving the compensatory preoccupation with muscularity and substance use as a means to relieve the shameful feelings.

What are some key implications of your findings for research or practice?

Clinicians should gauge the level of internalized Western mainstream attractiveness ideals and whether such internalization is contributing to substance use risk for Asian American men experiencing gendered racism. Clinicians should also pay special attention to the interpersonal and body-related shame associated with gendered racism among Asian American men clients. Clinicians can help them explore and redefine their feelings of shame and externalize the internalized images of themselves as “lesser man.” Clinicians can also help Asian American men explore their drive for muscularity and redirect their energy to develop a more comprehensive and affirming racial and gender identity and raise the critical consciousness about the systemic gendered racism in the U.S. Additionally, the nuanced differences between the earlier generation and the later generation groups indicated that clinicians may need to consider Asian American men client’s generational status and acculturation experiences in the U.S. when exploring the shame related to gendered racism.

In tandem with the above individual-level implications, we hope that our findings inform allies and community- and societal-level advocacy initiatives that can help change the emasculating and undesirable narrative toward Asian American men. It would be important to develop community-driven advocacy initiatives that can challenge these oppressive narratives perpetuated in various communities, schools, and the media. For example, online social media platforms can be used to engage in digital activism to spread awareness on these issues and develop counter-narratives that can serve as support systems and affirm non-stereotypical images of Asian American men.

Where do you see this line of research heading in the future (i.e., what's next)?

What was most interesting in the study was the role of shame (family, external, and body-

related) that can drive compensatory substance use among Asian American men. We thought this was particularly important as shame is a risk factor for suicide ideation and depression. Shame is also an internalizing symptom, so Asian American men may be suffering in silence, as it may be shameful to even express the need for help in dealing with gendered racism, and trying to resolve this distress on their own by engaging in substance use to cope. This is an important research direction for intervention development considering that suicide deaths among young Asian American men are on the rise and substance-related (e.g., alcohol) problems are significant among certain Asian ethnic groups (e.g., Korean, Filipina/n/x individuals).

How did you become interested in this line of inquiry?

I started researching gendered racial and body image experiences among Asian American men since I started my graduate training in counseling psychology. It is a personal passion of mine (what one might call “research mesearch”) as I wanted to address the lack of research on mental health issues related to Asian American boys and men. There is still a systemic underrepresentation and lack of empirical attention on Asian American boys’ and men’s experiences. To continue to address this structural issue, I view research as a vehicle to highlight the unheard stories and experiences of Asian American men.

Brian TaeHyuk Keum, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor - Department of Social Welfare

University of California Los Angeles

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