Asian Identity During the Coronavirus Pandemic: How Fear Is Exposing Xenophobic Bigotry

Written by Depali Rai

As a British Asian, from the very beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak, I had felt silent calculations forming in the heads of strangers I passed on the streets, waited on station platforms with and rode on buses alongside. Was I Chinese? Had I recently been abroad? Did I exhibit any symptoms? Never in all my twenty years in Britain had I felt so conspicuous.

Over dinner back home in London, my father tells me of a woman who crossed the road upon seeing him. He shrugged it off and reasoned that it was non-confrontational and she was wrong- he wasn’t a Chinese coronavirus patient. Perhaps she was just a passionate social distancer. The recommended two-metres was just simply not enough.

Whatever that stranger’s logic was, her visible distrust in my father fits neatly into the current experiences of many other Asians, at home and abroad. A friend tells me how her parents back in New York were denied a viewing upon their arrival at the property. The doorman insisted that the agent was not at the apartment and so refused them entry. Confused, they called her up. She tells them that she was indeed there and cannot think why he told them differently. Perhaps the doorman was also fiercely committed to the cause of social distancing.

Yet, the rise in anti-Asian sentiment around the world following the outbreak of COVID-19 has meant that microaggressions and everyday racism against Asian people have become increasingly obscured in the face of violent attacks and explicit demonstrations of xenophobia.

Indeed, there is an entire Wikipedia page entitled ‘List of incidents of xenophobia and racism related to the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic‘. Scrolling through the paragraphs of abuses and hate crimes, it appears that every continent save Antarctica is represented.

In the U.K, on the 24th February, Jonathan Mok, a 23-year-old from Singapore, was violently attacked by four males whilst walking down Oxford Street in London. After shouting “we don’t want your Coronavirus in my country”, the attackers left Mok with a broken bone. Across the ocean, Jose L. Gomez, 19, stabbed three members of an Asian family on March 14 in Midland, Texas before being taken down by a store employee. The FBI reports that Gomez was motivated by the perception that “because he thought the family was Chinese, and infecting people with the coronavirus”. These incidents aren’t isolated hate crimes but follow a global trend of xenophobic attacks against Asian communities.

On the one hand, there is a strong and continued rise in Sinophobia, namely racism and prejudice against those of Chinese origin. In northern Italian towns of Como, Brescia and Varese, posters plastered on the storefronts of Chinese-Italian businesses read: “Coronavirus? Buy Italian. It’s a moral duty”. The posters also carried the logo of the far-right Forza Nuova group. In San Francisco, on her way to the gym, Yuanyuan Zhu was harassed and spit on by a stranger who yelled: “F*** the china” at her.

Such Sinophobia, particularly towards Chinese immigrants, is not limited to the recent COVID-19 outbreak. Racist narratives about Chinese communities are historical and enduring. In the case of the USA, “close from the very beginning, Chinese immigrants were seen as inferior, filthy and diseased,” tells Claire Jean Kim, a professor of political science and Asian American studies at the University of California at Irvine. Kim is right to ask: “What is being accomplished by using this kind of language?”

Closely following, Sinophobia has bubbled over into a wider racist homogenisation of Asian people. The stereotype that “all Asians look the same” is proving to be dangerous and consequential. There has been an evident racist conflation of different Asian backgrounds into a single category. When 24-year old Pawat Silawattakun was violently assaulted and robbed by two teenagers shouting “coronavirus” at him, it didn’t matter that he was British Thai. His appearance alone satisfied the one-dimensional xenophobic conception of Asian identity.

Lumping all people of Asian background into a monolithic unit is far from a novel phenomenon arising from the recent outbreak of the Coronavirus. Historically, the term ‘Yellow Peril’ was used to describe the alleged threat that all East Asians posed to the west. Irrespective of differences and nuance, skin colour or features are used to homogenise Asians. Despite being the largest, most populous continent on earth, the bigot’s logic is that anyone vaguely “oriental” looking belongs to a single, static yet ambiguous category of ‘Asian-ness’.

I am prompted to think back to a recent Instagram post I came across. It was an Asian girl eating an ice-cream. At that moment, I already knew to brace myself for the comment section: “Have they now decided to start eating normally?”, “at least it isn’t a bat”, “I hate China”. The girl with the ice cream is Korean.

It was a moment that made me pause from my scrolling and recall all the times that I had been racially vetted by curious peers and strangers: are you Chinese? Japanese? Maybe Thai? After the rise of K-pop, Korean also joined the list of possibilities. The weird guessing game that I have humoured too many times before now holds a more disturbing weight. Perhaps the reunions I have been waiting for, the trips I have been planning and the perishable foods that I have been craving are no longer just simple pleasures that I once took for granted. Even in our allegedly post-racial world, my visible ‘Asian-ness’ may continue to be seen as a threat long after the virus is contained.

Undeniably, major incidents of any sort have often manifested in racial tensions. After the 2016 Brexit Referendum, the Home Office reported a doubling in the rise of hate crimes in the U.K in which race was cited to motivate 76% of all crimes. Across the pond, as Stephen Rushin from Loyola University Chicago School of Law argues, Donald Trump’s presidential election victory and the racist rhetoric it espoused, fuelled a surge in race-related hate crimes in the USA.

But no circumstance of any kind can justify this or any other surge in racism. In a world where the President of the United States labels the outbreak as the “Chinese virus”, fear is eroding at our supposedly universal and timeless commitment to human rights. It is a difficult and challenging time but the anger, upset and anxiety we feel cannot be channelled at a single country or continent. The coronavirus is indiscriminate in the suffering it has caused.

We live in historic times and we need now, more than ever, a collective realisation of our values and belief systems. Mutual respect and compassion should not be reserved for when it is convenient for us. In the face of extreme adversity, may the enduring legacy of this pandemic be one of humanity towards all.

Edited by Aliza Wall

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