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Racism and COVID-19

As a self-professed germaphobe, the spread of COVID-19 has been distressing for me, to say the least. My mother, well aware of my quirks, recently sent me several masks with a note saying: “Wear when you go out.” 

I have yet to use one. 

Not because I’m irresponsible and feel that my (relative) youth protects me from the worst of the disease. No, on the contrary, I’m deeply scared. Not so much of the virus, but of being a target of a racist attack. A report by the FBI warned that “hate crime incidents against Asian Americans likely will surge across the United States, due to the spread of coronavirus disease … endangering Asian American communities.” It’s perhaps unsurprising then that as an Asian American wearing a mask, I feel I am making myself a target for such crimes. It’s ironic that the desire to protect myself from the virus, also endangers me, by putting me at an increased risk of a hate crime. Therefore, these past few weeks have shown me that, whether rational or not, when forced to choose, I walk out into the world unprotected, for I fear racism more than COVID-19. 

As is often the case nowadays, the media is partly to blame. When the first confirmed case of coronavirus in New York City was reported back in March, publications like the New York Post used generic photos of Asians wearing masks in Chinatown to accompany the article. Even reputable publications like The New York Times were guilty of this misleading association. When an attorney in Westchester became the second confirmed case in New York, The Hill ran an image of an Asian man wearing a mask on the subway – the catch? The picture wasn’t even taken in New York City but in Hong Kong. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words and the use of these photos (whether conscious or unconscious) vociferates loud and clear the grossly inaccurate and perilous association of the virus with the Asian community. 

Some acts of association, however, are far more deliberate and explicit. Perhaps most notable is Trump’s insistence to refer to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.” While there’s rightly been a lot of pushback against such semantics, not all reaction has been critical. In fact, in an article in The Atlantic, Shadi Hamid argues that not referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” would be irresponsible because it would run the “risk of obscuring Beijing’s role in letting the disease spread beyond its borders.” While he feebly warns that Americans must be “vigilant against scapegoating Asians,” he insists that it is imperative to blame the Chinese government for its mishandling of the virus, noting that a government is not a race and that “American critics who raise the racism canard are themselves inadvertently collapsing the distinctions between an authoritarian regime and those who live under it.” What Mr. Hamid fails to sadly recognize is that yes – in an ideal world people would be able to draw such a distinction but the reality is it is incredibly easy for people to conflate the two. After all, it is not easy for the average person to seek retribution against a nebulous entity like “the government,” so they attack the next best thing: the people associated with that government. Mr. Hamid’s insistence on placing blame, in the name of accountability, only puts innocent people at risk.

The evidence of this is becoming more and more frequent. I recently read an account of an Asian American woman at a grocery store, who was told by a lady in front of her to stay “two feet away from her because ‘who knows what diseases she may have.’” What makes these subtle racist comments especially pernicious is their “defensibility.” In other words, it’s okay for someone to be weary of Asians and their supposed proclivity towards uncleanliness, because such sentiments are founded on a desire to care for one’s own wellbeing and not because they are racist. In other words, the desire to be free of “contamination” from “dirty Asians” somehow mitigates any undercurrent of racist rhetoric. Worse yet, if we, the victims, misperceive these statements as racist, then it’s our fault because we’re being “too sensitive.” 

A former coworker of mine regularly sends me videos and posts about more explicit acts of racism associated with coronavirus: videos of people shouting at Asians to “go back to China,” “stop eating bat soup,” and perhaps more alarming, videos of physical violence. Every time I watch them, I’m filled with sadness, anger, and confusion: why, I ask, are these videos not going viral? Why are people not outraged? Why are we, Asian Americans, not more outraged? Part of it may be cultural. Growing up, my mother used to reinforce in me the ubiquitous Chinese belief that suffering was necessary: “you have to eat bitterness, to appreciate sweetness,” she used to tell me. 

While eating bitterness has allowed us to achieve normative standards of success, it has also weakened our willingness to decry instances of injustice. Over time, our silence has been misconstrued as meekness, and a tacit invitation to ridicule and act in a racist manner towards our community.

Growing up, I have stark memories of this. During prom, for example, my friends and I went to a comedy club. I don’t remember the exact details of that night but during one of the acts, a comedian singled out an Asian male audience member. Suddenly, someone in the audience shouted out a racist stereotype about Asian men. Before I could process what was happening, the whole room – including some of my own friends – joined in by repeating and chanting the racist comment. Fearing that any sign of protestation or discomfort would make me the next target in the room, I outwardly forced a smile, praying that the internal turmoil I was experiencing would not outwardly betray me. Looking back, I feel regret at not having the courage to stand up to the outrageous racism in that room, but I also feel a deep sense of isolation and shock. How could a whole room, both strangers and friends, joyfully and explicitly participate in shouting these racist statements? Why was it understood that this form of racism was “funny” and “acceptable,” and others, so clearly not? 

Turns out I still don’t have the answers more than ten years later. I’m just as confused, hurt and scared as I was all those years ago. But this time, I refuse to sit idly by as my Asian brothers and sisters get emotionally and physically attacked. I refuse to eat bitterness anymore. I will scream and I will shout until someone hears me. Until someone hears us

While I have no doubt that we will find a cure for this virus, I am less certain if we will ever live in a world cured of racism and hate. Although this bleak reality would normally discourage me, I am hopeful because I know that while we cannot change the world’s perception of us as a community, we can change how we perceive ourselves. As a gay Asian American male, I have, for as long as I can remember, wanted to be someone else. Growing up, society has told me I was not “white” enough, not “Asian” enough, not “manly” enough, and I believed it. 

When I was in middle school, my mom would sometimes pack me dumplings for lunch. On those days, I chose not to eat lunch. On those days, I would throw my lunch away in the garbage and watch as my friends ate their perfectly acceptable sandwiches, the emptiness in my stomach reminding me how much of an outsider I was. It is now clear to me that I refused to eat those dumplings all those years ago for the very same reason I refused to wear the masks my mom sent me: because they signaled my “Asianness.” 

Little did I know though, how much work went into making those dumplings. As an adult, I now have a greater appreciation for them. Sometimes when my mom decides to make them for dinner, I like to sit and watch: her nimble, yet noticeably weathered fingers, chopping, mixing, folding, pleating…over and over again. In those moments, I am acutely aware of all the generations who have come before me and have done the same thing. In those moments, I sit beside my mom and I help her chop, mix, fold, and pleat, and I am filled with a sentiment I rarely feel in my life – pride. For I am proud to be an Asian American.

Photo credit: https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/responding-racism-during-covid-19-outbreak

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