Lauren Aratani, The Guardian, March 24, 2020
When Rosalind Chou was on a flight at the end of February, she saw a woman in front of her raise her phone up high, as if taking a selfie. The woman snapped a picture and sent it to a friend, whose reply showed up in big font on the woman’s phone: “Oh no, is he Chinese?”
Across the aisle from Chou was a man she later learned is Korean American and a woman sitting next to him, also of Asian descent. The woman quickly replied to her friend: “There’s a lot of them. Pray for me.”
Chou knows her experience was not an anomaly. Across the US, Chinese Americans, and other Asians, are increasingly living in fear as the coronavirus spreads across the country amid racial prejudice that the outbreak is somehow the fault of China. It is a fear grounded in racism, but also promoted from the White House as Donald Trump – and his close advisers – insist on calling it “the Chinese virus”.
“This is becoming more widespread,” said Chou, an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University. “My fear is coughing in public, coughing while Asian, and the reaction other people will have.”
The last few weeks has seen a rise in racist incidents and comments directed toward Asian Americans tied to fears of coronavirus.
Last week Trump started to refer to Covid-19 as the Chinese virus.
“The United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese virus. We will be stronger than ever before!” read one tweet on 16 March, the first time he referred to the illness as “Chinese virus” online.
Trump’s use of the phrase sparked a chorus of criticism. Professional basketball player Jeremy Lin told Trump on Twitter that he should be instead supporting vulnerable people, “including those that will be affected by the racism you’re empowering”. Author Celeste Ng noted on Twitter that “Asians worldwide are facing actual harassment because of people who insist on calling the illness the Chinese virus”.
Trump doubled down on the name at a press conference on Wednesday, insisting that using the term is not racist. “It comes from China, that’s why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate,” Trump said.
Trump has received support from his allies who have defended the president for giving coronavirus a new name. “China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that … that’s why China has been a source of a lot of these viruses,” John Cornyn, a Republican senator from Texas, told a reporter when asked if the name was inappropriate.
Trump’s new name for coronavirus comes after weeks of racist attacks against Asian American seen across the country. An Asian woman in New York City wearing a face mask was assaulted and called “diseased” in early February by a stranger in a subway station. In Los Angeles, a man directed a racist rant about coronavirus to a fellow passenger, who is Asian.
One family in Fresno, California, had their car tagged with the word “Fuck Asions … and coronavirus”. A middle school student in California was told by his teacher to go to the nurse’s office after he coughed, though he told his teacher that he choked on water and was not sick. When he asked his teacher why he didn’t ask non-Asian students to go to the nurse after coughing, he was told to “let it go and move on”.
“The increasing frequency [in incidents] is something we have to take seriously,” said Gregg Orton, national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA). “Racial scapegoating is the exact opposite response we want to see from leaders of our country.”
NCAPA led a group of 260 civil rights organizations in sending a call to Congress to denounce anti-Asian racism around coronavirus. The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus sent a letter to their fellow members of Congress urging them to share verifiable information about the illness given the misconceptions about national origin and the spread of the virus.
Asian American history scholars point out there is a long history of anti-Asian discrimination in America that gives precedent to racist attacks against Asian Americans because of coronavirus.
“Close from the very beginning, Chinese immigrants were seen as inferior, filthy and diseased,” said Claire Jean Kim, a professor of political science and Asian American studies at the University of California at Irvine. When Chinese immigrants came to America in 1870, they were painted as a threat to the white working class, leading to racist attacks and segregation. Chinatowns were seen as filthy and full of scum.
“What is being accomplished by using this kind of language?” Kim said. “We’re being misled about what causes pandemics and how to possibly prevent them or reduce their severity in the future. That’s the kind of conversation that we need to be having.”
There is also a history of leaders painting those in an outsider group as diseased, evoking fear and often violence in their followers toward that group of people, said Susan Benesch, a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Security at Harvard.
Benesch coined the term “dangerous speech”: rhetoric that is used to turn one group of people violently against another. That Chinese people are unhygienic and unsanitary is a “very old feature” of dangerous speech against Chinese in America.
“It’s not really hatred that is the most operative in motion regarding [dangerous speech], it’s fear. Fear is what makes people turn violently against another group of people more than hatred,” Benesch said. “The level of fear is so great around this epidemic.”
As the coronavirus and its effects appear to be long-lasting, advocates in the Asian American community emphasize the importance of speaking up and calling out any racist remarks, when the environment is safe.
“We have to acknowledge everyone’s humanity at this time because the virus doesn’t know race or color,” Chou said.