By Vivian Li, Staff Writer, April 2020
History teacher Nahyon Lee was walking her dog at a local park when she was stopped by a stranger. It was early March, and the statewide shelter-in-place order had not yet gone into effect. Multiple other pedestrians were present, yet this man only addressed Lee.
“He asked me if I spoke English, and then he yelled at me to ‘stop spreading the pandemic!’” Lee said. She felt angered by the man’s targeted words and called him out for it, asking him, “Why are you only yelling at me? Is it because I’m Asian?”
Luckily for Lee, she was not alone at the time of the incident and the man’s attack was not physical. However, she “feels more cautious now” when leaving the house for essential activities, such as grocery shopping or walking her dog.
Since the coronavirus pandemic has become a major threat to public life, there has been a significant rise in racism against Asian-Americans. The fear surrounding the pandemic has translated into a wave of hostility against Asian-Americans, which has manifested in targeted incidents.
The Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council launched a hate-crime reporting campaign on March 19, 2020, and within the first two weeks, they received over 1,100 reports of coronavirus-related attacks against Asian-Americans. Verbal harassment, such as the kind experienced by Lee, was the most common, making up over 60% of all reported incidents. However, physical assault and shunning were the second most-common, taking up a combined 30% of reports. In fact, in Texas, a man stabbed three members of an Asian-American family at Sam’s Club –– two of whom were children aged two and six years old (Dallas Morning News). Lee said, “As an Asian-American that has a toddler, that news worries me.”
With the shelter-in-place order being in effect, the AAPI reported that most hate crimes were taking place in grocery stores, pharmacies, and local neighborhoods. Being targeted at these places poses a serious threat to Asian-Americans, as it has made carrying out day-to-day essential tasks much more dangerous.
Even people who have not experienced racial harassment have reported feeling a greater sense of fear when going out. When asked why this was happening, A2A co-leader Justin Qin (Class II) said, “Because there’s been so much fear and anxiety surrounding the coronavirus, people want to put the blame on a certain group of people, and it has transferred to Asian-Americans in the community.” Lee agreed: “Throughout history, during periods of economic depression and hardship...racial groups have been scapegoated.”
This “scapegoating” has appeared at the highest levels of government. President Trump has referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” multiple times, and the term “kung flu” has been used among White House administrators. Chinese teacher Ray Sun said, “Because the Trump administration was slow to react to the pandemic, it seems as though they are blaming other countries to lessen their responsibilities in handling the crisis.” Physics teacher John Chung remarked on the danger of using racially-charged words: “When you have big public figures using that kind of language, anyone who has those preconceived notions will act on their prejudice.”
The rise in racism cannot only be blamed on government figures, however. Various news outlets are responsible for exacerbating the association between Asian-Americans and the coronavirus. According to NBC News, reputable news sources such as the New York Times, the New York Post, and The Hill have used pictures of Asians wearing masks and in Chinatown to present articles on the coronavirus. This even occurred before the US released the race of anyone who tested positive.
Helen Cui (Class IV) pointed out that such imagery is rooted in stereotypes of Asian-Americans, particularly that Asians and Chinatown are “unclean.” Lee added that coronavirus-era fear towards Asian-Americans is reminiscent of the “yellow peril” ideology, which was a 19th century belief that East Asians were a threat to the Western world and led to multiple anti-East Asian laws.
This racism is misguided. “A lot of Chinese people were on guard and responsible in responding to the coronavirus, because they remembered how SARS [an illness that caused a 2002 pandemic] affected their families and communities,” Cui said. She added, “My mom felt hurt when she heard people calling the coronavirus the ‘Chinese virus,’ because she had been so careful to social distance and take precautions during the pandemic...now it felt like she was being blamed.”
In fact, both Qin and Sun highlighted the fact that Chinese-American communities are donating masks and supplies to hospitals. Qin said, “A lot of Chinese families in my community have been raising money to help hospitals and workers.” China was also donating masks and supplies to the US to help them amidst the crisis. “These kinds of positive broadcasts should be shown more,” Sun said.
With the statewide quarantine in effect, most people are staying at home. Fortunately, that means that opportunities for hate crimes are limited, providing some sense of safety for Asian-Americans. However, both Chung and Lee are concerned about what will happen when the quarantine is lifted and people begin to go out in public again. Chung said, “As we start to return to normal society… [and] once the dust clears, people will start to point fingers.” Lee added, “There will be people who are angry having lost jobs or loved ones, and will scapegoat a whole ethnic community.”
So what can people do about this? Qin suggested, “Do your research...Know where your information is coming from...Just because someone’s Asian certainly doesn’t mean that they have the coronavirus or can spread it.” Cui said, “Don’t blame people...The sense of ‘us vs. them’ is counterproductive to the fact that this [pandemic] is difficult for everyone.” Chung encouraged reading stories of coronavirus-related hate crimes: “I didn’t develop this emotional empathy [to the issue] until I started reading the stories.” Staying informed and being aware of the racism that is rising during this time is essential to supporting the Asian-American community. Lee pushes the Nobles community to “be upstanders –– if you see racism, call it out.”
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