Coronavirus and an Asian American Reckoning

New York, NY (March 19, 2021) – As anti-Asian hate crimes have escalated in the wake of coronavirus, Asian Americans and allies raised their voices in protest of these acts of racism, hate, and violence. (Photo credit: Andrew Ratto, some rights reserved)

 

Racism, discrimination, and violence against Asian Americans has been around for centuries. But why are we just talking about it now? Why wasn’t there more outrage from the public or coverage by the media when Asian Americans faced a surge in hate crimes after the COVID-19 pandemic began? The truth of the matter is that “Asian hate” has become all too common in America and the current crisis has made it more evident.

The “Model Minority” and the (Forgotten) History of Asian Americans

Asian Americans, especially students, are seen as the “model minority.” This narrative is just about as old as time, creeping into elementary schools with the age-old, “Asians are good at math,” and, “You must be good at playing instruments.” At the surface, these may seem like compliments, but in reality, this stereotype places Asian Americans into a box, and typifies them as hardworking, academically successful, and skilled at assimilating. For Asian Americans, being viewed as the model minority can lead to negative emotions and feelings of inferiority, evident in instances of imposter syndrome. Additionally, the model minority categorization further stigmatizes and alienates Asian Americans by pitting them against other ethnic minorities.

Despite the view of Asians as the model minority, they have been continually viewed as a threat to the success of a nation whose power lies in the hands of white elites. Throughout history, Asian Americans have faced significant discrimination from white Americans and the government alike. In the 1700s, Asians were referred to as “mongoloids.” This term originated from phrenology, a pseudoscience that studied the size and shape of skulls from various human races, and claimed that some physical features were inferior while others were superior. Under this system,  people who were white were deemed superior to “mongoloids” and other racial minorities.

During the nineteenth century, white people saw Asian Americans as a national threat. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned the immigration of Chinese laborers, remains the first and only instance of the federal government outlawing the immigration of a specific national or ethnic group to the United States. White workers believed that Chinese laborers posed a significant economic threat. In an essay submitted to the Senate, former-American Federation of Labor (AFL) President Samuel Gompers argued that adopting this act was vital in order to combat the “dangers of ‘Asiatic’ men.”

In World War II, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States federal government, under the leadership of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, forced an estimated 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps. Once again, the US government labelled those of Japanese descent an “enemy race,” thereby blaming an entire race for the actions of an opposing nation. Due to a curriculum that centers white America’s narrative in schools, many people fail to realize the truth about our own nation’s misconduct and horrendous treatment of its own citizens. For example, Bert Miller, Idaho’s then-Attorney General stated, “We want to keep this a white man’s country. All Japanese [should] be put in concentration camps for the remainder of the war.”

When forced into internment camps by the federal government, Japanese Americans left behind their businesses, farms, and homes. Unfortunately, these were left to the devices of white Americans, who looted and vandalized Japanese Americans’ property. Furthermore, living conditions in the internment camps were appalling, with barracks, barbed wire, cramped quarters, and poor sanitation that led to disease, food poisoning, and other illnesses. The United States made Japanese Americans victims of racial prejudice and hostility. This is not unlike racist attitudes against Asians and other racial minorities today.

The Dawn of Coronavirus

Asian Americans are currently being used as a scapegoat for the pandemic, blamed for a zoonotic disease that they did not cause. The coronavirus crisis has highlighted America’s long history of discrimination against Asian Americans. When the pandemic first appeared on the news and lockdowns were put into place, Asian American-owned restaurants and businesses experienced some of the earliest declines in business activity, leading to the closure of many small businesses. Due to xenophobic attitudes and misplaced coronavirus fears, Asian American unemployment rates skyrocketed higher than that of any other racial group, increasing by over 450 percent from February to June 2020.

According to Duke University English professor, Priscilla Wald, fear in the wake of a disease outbreak follows a certain formula in what she refers to as “the outbreak narrative.” First, an infection is discovered. Next, news travels through the media in affected countries, leading to epidemiologist discussions about how to contain or stop the infectious disease. As seen in popular culture, outbreak narratives often exaggerate the threat of a virus, which only serves to further stigmatize minorities and incite additional racist views.

Washington, D.C. (April 13, 2021) – A rotating digital billboard ad for the Stop Asian Hate campaign stands on display in Union Station Great Hall urging people to listen to minorities’ stories. (Photo credit: Elvert Barnes, some rights reserved)

 

I can attest to these claims, as I became subject to racist comments at my undergraduate university when coronavirus first entered the news last year. I coughed in class and overheard a not-so-quiet comment behind me: “Oh no, it looks like coronavirus is going to kill us all.” Such remarks only intensified after former President Trump referred to coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu.” According to a report published by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), there was an eighty-five percent increase in anti-Asian rhetoric on Twitter within twelve hours after Trump blamed coronavirus on China. For days afterward, conspiracy discussions spiraled on social media, with one claiming that coronavirus is a biological weapon created by the Chinese government to be used against other nations.

Fear of the unknown in a pandemic fuels racist and xenophobic narratives that act as a barrier to equity. Cecillia Wang from the American Civil Liberties Union stated that attempts to blame China for the virus can lead to “dangerous scapegoating and widespread ignorance, just when accurate public health information is critically needed.” Vivian Shaw from Harvard’s Department of Sociology stated that “this pandemic has affected the most vulnerable of the vulnerable,” deepening current inequities. According to Shaw, the rise in anti-Asian hate is a manifestation of broader structures in society.

Racial microaggressions and more overt racist actions have increased since coronavirus appeared last year. Microaggressions can be seen in the way someone puts on hand sanitizer with a look of disgust towards an Asian American, or in the way some people avoid sitting next to an individual of Asian descent on public transport. It may also come in the form of comments that have underlying meanings. For instance, “where are you from?” means “Go back to where you came from. You’re not American.” Another racial microaggression—“speak up more”—ignores and dismisses an individual’s cultural upbringing, as many Asian cultures use a more indirect communication style in which meaning is conveyed through nonverbal cues, implication, and suggestion.European American culture, on the other hand, uses a direct communication style that values verbal skills and uses explicit statements to convey meaning. To say “speak up more” is to essentially tell an Asian American to assimilate because “foreigners” are not welcome.

As a result of racism and microaggressions, the Asian American community has experienced deteriorating mental health. While microaggressions are not something that is exclusive to the Asian American experience, they have become especially prevalent against this community during COVID-19. A report from Crisis Text Line, which provides free mental-health support for individuals via text, shows a thirty-nine percent increase in messages from Asian Americans in the beginning of 2020. However, actual numbers of Asian Americans suffering from mental health issues as a result of COVID-19 is likely much higher, since seeking treatment for mental health is often stigmatized in Asian American culture.

Another organization, Stop AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Hate, has received over 3,700 reports of hate incidents against Asian Americans. While verbal harassment has been the most common form of discrimination, other incidents mention shunning, physical assault, being coughed or spat on, workplace discrimination, and refusal of service. The executive director of National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association, D.J. Ida, told NBC News, “The thing that makes a hate crime really, really dangerous is—it’s not that you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time… You’re being perceived as being the wrong person, all the time, everywhere… You can’t escape.”

San Francisco, CA – As we move forward, we must raise the voices of the oppressed, thereby changing the narrative and healing our communities. (Photo credit: Jason Leung, no copyright)

Moving Forward

This month is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, making the #StopAsianHate movement particularly relevant. It is a time for Asian Americans to celebrate their heritage and for all Americans to acknowledge, reflect upon, and educate themselves about the contributions and accomplishments of the AAPI community. For many of you, this may come in the form of reading up on the extensive history of discrimination that the AAPI community has faced in the United States or watching documentaries about the countless hardships that Asian Americans have and continue to endure in today’s society.

But what does “stopping” Asian hate look like? What steps must we take? First and foremost, increased policing in the United States is not the solution to protecting Asian Americans. Studies show that having a higher police presence doesn’t necessarily result in less crime. The deeply flawed law enforcement system is further reflected in recent cases of police brutality against Asian Americans.

Anti-Asian racism is not a new problem and fear does not justify racism and xenophobia. This is not just a result of anti-Asian rhetoric or coronavirus, but rather a result of the widespread omission of Asian Americans from cultural conversations and the systematic erasure of the Asian American community. According to the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans are expected to be the largest immigrant group by 2055. It is critical that we address Asian hate now.

Because there has been a lack of media coverage and conversation about anti-Asian racism, the U.S. needs a cultural shift in its conversation around the Asian American community. Education is especially important. Academic scholarship often neglects to mention the contribution of Asian Americans to environmental affairs and environmental movements. However, academics like Julie Sze have used their position to raise awareness about this unjust invisibility, highlighting the prominent voice of Asian American environmentalism.

We cannot continue to solely present the biased, settler colonialist narrative that is taught in grade schools. We must acknowledge that Asian Americans are not just one monolithic body that lacks agency and individuality. We must teach about diversity, equity, and inclusion starting at a young age, and encourage these discussions both inside and outside the classroom. We must listen to those whose voices have been silenced. We must change the narrative, and therefore experience, of those who have endured constant racism, prejudice, hate, and violence in the United States.


For more information on the AAPI community, history, and culture, please visit the resources below:

A Brief History of Asian Americans

AAPI Community Stories | Teach for America

Asian American History Documentaries | PBS

Asian Americans Speak Out: Countering the Rise in Anti-Asian Hate | Vice News

How to fight the anti-AAPI narrative

Larry Itliong (Filipino American and farmworker revolution leader) | Smithsonian Magazine

The Library of Congress on AAPI Heritage Month

New York Public Library’s AAPI Reading List

Women Cross DMZ (Women-led and primarily Korean women-led peace organization)

Yuri Kochiyama (Japanese American activist and former WWII Internee) | NPR News