Updated: Apr 9, 2021
“Just because I’m Asian… doesn’t mean I’m the cause of COVID-19….is that what they think when they see me?”
As an Asian living in the UK for nearly eight years, I have never been receptive to “Konnichiwa” or “Ni Hao” when walking on the streets. Yet, as painful as these remarks are made by strangers based on my race, I rarely respond nor even glance at them. Little did I know that my unresponsiveness could have further perpetuated existing stereotypes, exacerbated by something that many of us are taught to do - to be silent.
Over the past year, we have seen key political figures labelling COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”, the “Chinese Coronavirus”, the “Wuhan Virus”, “Kung flu”, and so on. While Anti-Asian racism is not a new concept, linking COVID-19 to a specific location and race has resulted in an influx of hate crimes towards Asians in the past year. According to the recent “Stop AAPI Hate National” report, there were nearly 3,800 anti-Asian incidents from March 2020 to February 2021 in the US. These stemmed from verbal harassment, physical assault, civil rights violations and online harassment, etc. I, for one, certainly resonate with experiences of verbal and physical abuse.
At the height of the COVID-19 panic last year, bypassers shouted “CORONA!” as I walked by and I got spat on, once, when returning home from the supermarket.
As one who treats England as a home, a looming sense of rejection began to rise in me- despite Britain’s emphasis on it’s progressive diversity and inclusion.
Over the past year, there has been a surge of xenophobic comments and attacks towards those of visible East and South-East Asian (ESEA) descent. In the UK alone, there have been police reports of a 21-75% increase in hate crimes regionally. This statistic is more worrying given that the ESEA population is on the rise in the UK. The Response to the Call for Evidence on Ethnic Disparities and Inequality in the UK report emphasises the difficulty in exploring the details of hate crimes in ESEA populations due to cultural insensitivity in censuses where people choose between being categorised as Chinese, Asian (being homogenous with Central and South Asians) or Other.
In the US, this discrimination has also targeted pacific islanders. Dhanani and Franz found that those who had more trust in Trump, less trust/knowledge in science, and more fear regarding COVID-19 had poorer attitudes towards Asians. Despite the disease being officially named ‘COVID-19’ by WHO, Trump continued to label the disease as the “Chinese virus” in official and unofficial settings, propagating and normalising the racialisation of the illness. Research has found that the use of the term ‘Chinese virus’ is correlated with increasing anti-Asian sentiments. Many news articles were extensively using photos of visibly ESEA people, giving coronavirus a ‘face’ alongside the normalisation of rhetorics such as ‘Kung Flu’ and ‘the Chinese virus’ which further reinforces this problematic narrative. Around 14% of popular tweets related to COVID-19 in 2020 were related to discrimination and within all tweets of 2020, there was a 68.4% increase in negative tweets referencing ESEA populations.
You can read more about this here.
The most grotesque manifestation of this increasingly visible malice towards ESEA populations were the recent Atlanta spa shootings. While 6/8 of the victims of this deadly attack being Asian was horrific enough, the spokesman defending the suspected murderer (who in any other circumstances would’ve been dehumanised as a remorseless terrorist) because he was having a “bad day” added insult to the injury of what had occurred. Like much of the Black Lives Matter manifestation in 2020, this once again highlights the racial privileges of white criminals.
Moreover, while a lot of our attention is on Anti-Asian hate crimes in the US, let’s not forget that this is a global problem.
Although 12% of the Australian population is of Asian descent, nearly one in five Chinese Australians have reported physical or verbal abuse since the beginning of COVID-19.
What we are currently seeing, hearing, and experiencing is just scratching the surface of the actual abuse covered by the media. What about subconscious Anti-Asian bias experienced on a daily basis? According to one study, anti-Asian sentiment is evident in countries with colonial legacies and institutionalised White supremacy. For example, circling back to the US, Republicans have explicitly expressed their fear of Asians carrying and spreading COVID-19 and Democrats are more likely to avoid going to venues including Asian restaurants. This shows that although what we are currently seeing and hearing is fuelled by COVID-19, the Anti-Asian subconscious bias has always been ingrained, to some extent, in US culture. When racism is entangled in one’s unconscious thoughts, values and behaviours, it becomes more challenging to address.
Thinking about the future, while many Asians have experienced some sort of racism in their lives, the vile increase during COVID-19 has pushed us to vocalise our outrage and protest to protect our community, especially in the aftermath of the Atlanta shootings. While we have been continuously silent and silenced in the past, we will no longer accept the injustice experienced by our community. We will no longer accept being the scapegoats of a virus purely on the basis of our race. While traditional media outlets have been useful in disseminating information and resources, it is important to note that social media is becoming a necessary platform to circulate petitions, GoFundMe crowdfunding, webinars etc, where traditional media fails to do so. This allows Asians and those with similar sentiments, no matter their location, to connect in solidarity.
Evidence illustrates conscious and subconscious bias towards Asians interplay with each other, as highlighted by COVID-19- not unlike many other prejudicial attitudes in society. Let us hope that the world and all of us can use the past year as an example of how not to act in a pandemic and to understand what Asians have experienced as a result of this racial scapegoating. We are not all one monolithic group abiding by stereotypes, but each our own individual human with traumas, love, ambitions and fear of illness aside from simply an inherited ethnic identity, to be used against us because scapegoating is easier than being accountable.
Contact the author: @lav_cheung
Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Identity International.