Xenophobia: A COVID-19 Consequence
By Gavin Zhang and Arnav Mishra
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has caused a rise in xenophobia in the United States, particularly towards those from China and other Asian countries. This has not only resulted in bullying and harassment targeted towards an already marginalized group, but has also quickly escalated to violence.
Nowadays, Asian-Americans find themselves being taunted and humiliated for the mere crime of being Asian. On the morning of March 10, an Asian-American in her early twenties had racial slurs shouted at her and was punched in the face. She had to be taken to the hospital for injuries.
Later that day in San Francisco, an elderly Asian-American collecting recyclables was attacked by a man, who shouted that he “hate[s] Asians.” As the Asian man walked away, trying to avoid a confrontation, the man ran up to him and began brutally beating him with a long stick, mercilessly striking him on his head and shoulders.
An Asian-American woman was spat on after being accused of infecting other people with the coronavirus. An Asian-American man was confronted by an angry shopper just for coughing. Middle-school children are being bullied and even beaten up, just because of their ethnicity. Over the course of just two weeks, more than three hundred incidents of anti-Asian racism were severe enough to have been reported by numerous news platforms. Many more incidents would go unreported — and unnoticed.
Furthermore, this type of behavior is not only permitted but encouraged by the very people we expect to discourage it. President Donald Trump, for example, refers to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus” in his tweets and on national news briefings related to the novel virus. In fact, he had pinned — and unpinned within hours — a tweet of a video captioned “CHINESE VIRUS FACT CHECK,” a move that not only seems deliberately meant to provoke Chinese-Americans but also emboldens the festering and thriving rhetoric of xenophobic racism currently present in the nation.
To many of his supporters, the phrase is meant to connect the novel coronavirus with its country of origin. However, many others recognize that the name “Chinese Virus” connects the Chinese people with the virus, placing the blame for a worldwide pandemic on an entire country of people that had little to do with its spread. Other names for the virus not only tie the coronavirus to the Chinese people but also use racist stereotypes to poke fun at them. For instance, the phrase “Kung-Flu” is another newly popular term that associates Chinese culture with the worldwide pandemic, and another President Trump refuses to condemn. Having the nation’s leader promote these racist feelings provides a free pass for the oppression of the Asian ethnicity to the population’s hateful individuals.
Some politicians take it further, using racist stereotypes about Chinese people to blame them for the novel coronavirus. Senator John Cornyn commented that the Chinese are at fault due to their “culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.” Not only is this untrue for the vast majority of the Chinese population, this idea also feeds into a significant trend in anti-Asian xenophobia. Asian cultures have often been portrayed as exotic and strange — something that should be kept apart from “civilized” Western culture as much as possible. Asian-Americans are frequently ostracized for the differences Asian culture has compared to Western culture. For example, the phrase “ching chong” is frequently used to mock the foreign-ness of Asian languages and, by extention, Asian cultures. The common idea that Chinese people eat dogs and other strange animals, expressed by Cornyn, has a similarly negative impact because they portray the supposedly dog-eating culture of China and the dog-loving culture of the West as fundamentally incompatible. As a result, those who attempt to bridge these two cultures by moving from one to another, such as Asian-Americans, bear the brunt of abuse from a community conditioned to hate mixing the two.
Another source of anti-Asian-American xenophobia results from racist jokes, no matter their intention. When an individual makes a joke aimed at a certain population, its immediate effect is to humiliate in some form.While these jokes can be played off as “playful,” they can have the negative consequence of associating that population with that specific viewpoint. Racist jokes always pinpoint the low points of a certain ethnicity and use those points as leverage towards attacking the race. For instance, the notion that Chinese culture entails, and in fact promotes, eating exotic meats can be easily joked about from friend to friend. However, these general racist jokes create stereotypes of that certain race. Once these ideas are developed in society, they can be used to attack that race with overtly xenophobic comments. Ultimately, the overarching effect of passing of racist jokes, intended to be playful, is one that actually normalizes comments intended to harm the targeted race, disguised as edgy humor.
We need to recognize the tremendous damage that stems from the many derogatory and offensive names that politicians and leaders — and everyday people like you and me — use to refer to the coronavirus. It is immoral to use this worldwide pandemic’s country of origin as justification for punishing fellow Americans of Asian descent. It is disgusting to relentlessly harass others because of “the Chinese virus” or to resort to violence to satisfy one’s shamefully misinformed idea of “justice.” It is depraved to scapegoat an entire race of innocent human beings, resorting to harmful stereotypes to belittle and humiliate millions of people, just to place the blame of a worldwide pandemic no one could have seen or prevented on millions of people just as scared and afraid as we are. America’s political leaders have encouraged this social epidemic of Asian-American xenophobia for long enough. Their association of the Chinese population to the pandemic and inaccurate and harmful remarks about Chinese culture only further normalizes and promotes these xenophobic stereotypes, ostracizing many of our fellow citizens just because they come from somewhere else. We also have to realize that racist jokes normalize racist rhetoric no matter the intent, that making “innocent” jokes punching down at other races emboldens racists and encourages them to take their hate out on racial minorities. We must make it clear that xenophobia will never be tolerated in our society, and that we can and must end it. Our country can do better. We can do better.
Note: On the 23rd of March, President Trump tweeted that “it is very important that we totally protect our Asian-American community in the United States, and all around the world.” This discontinuity between his desire to keep Asian-Americans safe and his earlier comments poses an interesting contradiction, and one we should all learn from. While it is likely that he does not wish to antagonize Asian-Americans with his “Chinese virus” comments, his use of this phrase suggests that he is willfully ignorant of the issues his rhetoric has caused. No matter what his true intentions are, his rhetoric has done undeniable damage. Likewise, we must recognize that the effects of our words have nothing to do with our intent, that intending to combat xenophobia does not mean that our rhetoric will not encourage it. It is not enough to want to protect Asian-Americans; we must also remain educated on how we can protect them — and how we can accidentally harm them.