Why COVID-19 Isn't an Excuse to be Racist: the Aggression Towards Asians
an article by Justine Torres
January 1, 2020
“3. 2. 1… Happy New Year!”
Amidst the clinking of sparkling cider glasses, the glow of sparklers, and the trumpeting of foil horns, the world bids farewell to 2019 and welcomes the new decade with open arms. The joy is tangible, electrifying the air and sending goosebumps down your skin. You take a moment to turn your gaze to the night sky: a canvas most beautiful, each star illuminating a myriad of possibilities. With the crackle of firecrackers and the celebratory exclamations of your loved ones in the background, you offer a silent manifestation to the universe. This is your year. You’re sure of it.
January 21, 2020
“A man from Washington State is infected with the Wuhan coronavirus.”
You stare at the headline on the bottom of the television screen. The newscaster continues speaking, but her words don’t register in your mind. You’ve heard whispers about this mysterious virus, this illness originating from a Chinese seafood and poultry market, this disease that has already infected dozens of people. However, these little bits and pieces are overshadowed by all that’s still uncertain. There is so much that you don’t know, but you grasp onto one word like a lifeline. China.
March 13, 2020
“President Trump just declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency.”
January 1st seems like ages ago. Over the course of the last few months, this pandemic has embedded itself within the back of your mind. More and more people have tested positive. Over a thousand Americans have died. The joy and optimism from the prospect of a new decade have long since dissipated, replaced with a pervasive fear that’s embedded itself within the collective mind.
You can’t find hand sanitizer anywhere. Your house is packed with toilet paper rolls. The uncertainty is unbearable. Everyone is on edge. At school, you and your friends huddle together in a corner. “Do you think we’re coming back next year?” During lunch, you catch the eye of the foreign exchange student, a boy your age from Kunming, China. He had arrived in town at the beginning of the school year, a little shy but excited to learn in the land of freedom and opportunity—to live out the coveted American Dream. Normally, he’s always surrounded by a group of friends. People love to hear him recount stories about his sisters back home and try his favorite foods. But lately, he’s been receiving sideways glances as he walks down the hallways. No one wants to be his lab partner for Chemistry class. And for the first time ever, he’s eating alone. There’s no one sitting next to him to listen to tales of his family or taste his meals from home. You look away, ignoring the churning of your stomach.
March 30, 2020
“Stay at home.”
You’re frustrated. A world before phrases such as quarantine and social distancing were everyday aspects of vocabulary seems like a lifetime ago. Ever since you went into lockdown, the days have been a blur, clouded by a sense of boredom that grows with time. You don’t want to wear a mask. You don’t want to stay six feet apart from other people. You had to cancel your trip to Italy, a vacation you had been looking forward to for months.
The Chinese virus ruined my spring break. You think back to the foreign exchange student, to his stupid home country and his broken English and his weird-smelling food. This is his fault. This is the fault of his people. Initially a seed of resentment, the animosity had slowly taken root, watered by months of holding a misplaced grudge. The anger now extends through every fiber of your being, an all-consuming wildfire that disseminates through your veins.
May 4, 2020
“You brought the virus here, you dirty ch*nks!”
You’re at the grocery store, stocking up on much-needed necessities when you hear it. The voice belongs to an older man, his face red from exertion and misplaced passion. The recipients of his verbal tirade are a mother and her teenage daughter, the same in their almond-shaped eyes and hair dark as the night sky. You’re relatively far away, but even from a distance, you can see the fear painted onto their faces.
You stay quiet. After all, it’s what they deserve.
Over the last year, the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the world, laying its deathly hand upon countless lives. No person has been left unaffected. However, the rise of COVID-19 has also led to the targeting of a particular demographic: the Asian population. Scrolling through the news, I see new variations of the same headline every day: “Asian [man/woman/family] subjected to [physical and/or verbal abuse.]” With the advent of the coronavirus, pre-existing racial prejudices held against Asian Americans have been dreadfully exacerbated, with a more than 800 percent increase in racist incidents—and not just restricted to those of Chinese descent. Over the months, there has been a definite uptick in racially-motivated attacks against the Asian demographic as a whole: notably against Chinese individuals, but also against those from other parts of Asia, such as Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. Moreover, racism against Asians is a global issue; 85 percent of Asian Australians have suffered racial discrimination amid COVID-19. This bigotry must end. However, for this to happen, we must analyze the factors that have contributed to racism against Asians, from pre-existing conditions to those that have only recently come to fruition.
The first of such factors is maladaptive coping to the ramifications of the coronavirus. Most stressors can potentially harm a person’s health or well-being, and COVID-19 happens to tick both boxes. This global pandemic is beyond the control of any singular person, and the fear of death is a constant weight on the lives of many. Thus, many resort to maladaptive efforts to endure, where coping is “emotion-focused,” rather than “problem-focused.” When there is so much that is unknown, we tend to hold onto the things that we can understand. We look for a scapegoat, a martyr, a person (or a population) to blame. It doesn’t matter that Asia has a population of over 4.5 billion people or that it's illogical to blame an entire continent for a pandemic that originated from a single animal sold at a market. What matters is that someone pays the price.
Secondly, maladaptive coping mechanisms induced by COVID-19 have provoked an increase in biased media use towards Asians. According to Ohio State, individuals who reported more viewing of coronavirus-related information from Fox News were more likely to blame Asian Americans as a risk for disease than people who watch the news from CNN or MSNBC. Moreover, the normalization of racist views towards Asians doesn’t help the stigma we face. This is most evident when President Trump repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.” In the following weeks, Twitter analytics reported that there was a nearly ten-fold increase in usage of this term on the national level. This was coupled with a spike in both verbal and physical assaults on those of Asian descent within the United States. These are prime examples of what is known as information laundering, when communication of hatred acquires legitimacy and enters mainstream culture. It is the media’s responsibility to provide the public with nonpartisan information, yet this is not always the case.
However, stigmatization towards Asians is not merely about xenophobic terms such as “Kung Flu.” It’s reflective of a larger and more pervasive issue, one that has woven itself into the very fabric of society: the presence of racial prejudice. Of the three factors, stereotypical beliefs about Asians and feelings of radicalized envy were the strongest indicators of animosity. In what is known as civic ostracism, Asian cultures—oftentimes so unapologetically antithetical to Western ideals—are perceived as more alien and foreign than those of other groups. People often fear what they do not know.
Yet, Asians undergo relative valorization when compared to other minorities. Racial envy is more than the feeling that a person/group of people is undeserving of some perceived advantage. It’s also the desire to either strip this person/group of this advantage and procure it for oneself. In American society, Asians are seen as the “model minority”—the prejudice we face as a race differs from the prejudice enacted upon other minority groups. We’re seen as less inferior: not up to par with white people, but superior to those from the Black or Latino communities. However, this stereotype is detrimental to Asians, for reasons beyond the fact that it normalizes the discrimination against us. Due to the societal stereotype of Asian competence, we’re perceived to take up space once reserved for our white counterparts: from taking job opportunities, to clogging up elite colleges with our presence, to even sweeping athletic competitions on the global level. In fact, there is a common saying: “No matter how good you are, there’s always an Asian who’s better than you.” With this perception of relative valorism, Asians are often perceived as a threat to social and economic order, hierarchy, and resource distribution. These feelings of resentment build up over time, festering like an ugly emotional sore. The coronavirus didn’t create prejudice against Asians. It simply heightened feelings already simmering beneath the surface.
During a time where we need to be united, our collective stigmatization divides us. It detracts from the problems at large, the issues that desperately need to be resolved. Most of all, it’s harming the Asians in our communities. Asian Americans typically have the lowest unemployment rate, but during these times, it has skyrocketed to more than 450 percent. Hundreds upon hundreds of Asian, family-owned businesses have been forced to shut down due to a drastic decrease in customers. Thousands of Asians all over the world have been subjected to horrific racial violence. Suffering is not an excuse to cause others pain. Anger is not a justification for hate. Fear of what is unknown does not enable you to be racist.
We have all suffered this year, whether it be a lost job, a decline in mental and/or physical health, or the death of a loved one. We have all wished for an end to this global pandemic that has stolen hundreds of thousands of lives. However, racism is not—and will never be—an option. It is our responsibility as people, as a society, and as a world to build each other up, rather than tear each other down. Let’s demystify prejudice and debunk racism. As we steadily approach the other end of 2020, let’s remember that the New Year isn’t a blank slate. Unless we enact change, the prejudice from all the years prior will continue to bleed into the future. It’s time to put an end to this cycle. The stigma stops here.
- Justine Torres
Cover Photo Source: Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom