What does it mean to be Asian during COVID-19?

By: Catherine He

It was the first day of a March Break that would go down in history when I was boarding the four-o’clock train home. Bags in hand, I climbed the steps of the GO train and found a seat on the second floor. As the ride began, I started to feel highly uncomfortable. This was because a blonde woman, sitting across from me, was holding her phone in a peculiar position and glaring at me. Thirty minutes into my peaceful ride, I was momentarily blinded by a flash of light. I looked up to see the lady quickly bring her phone down in embarrassment. Evidently, I had become a tourist attraction in the span of half an hour. That was one of many encounters with racism I had gone through at the young age of 14.

An image of a GO Train in motion via toronto.com

            I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had to endure such dreadful situations, and unfortunately, I won’t be the last. This virus has shone a light upon the institutionalized racism that was previously swept under the rug. Being Asian during COVID-19 has revealed the changes necessary for moving forward. It has shed light on the hidden racism that shapes the present experience for Asians. Collectively, we must be more inclusive in the future to foster equality as an international community.

            COVID-19 has irradiated racist issues that have been hidden under the surface for too long. According to New York Times #1 bestselling White Fragility author, antiracist educator Robin DiAngelo, the average white North American has never experienced discrimination (8). Many are excited to read work by ethnic authors, overjoyed to listen to the stories of Francis Pegahmagabow and Mulan, but can’t discuss racism itself. It doesn’t help that a plethora of “diverse” things tend to merely brush on racialization – people become ‘educated’ and ‘diverse’, but wouldn’t be able to hold a meaningful conversation with someone who has truly lived through the horrors of prejudice. Really, you can do many different things in life without having to fight against discrimination – that is, when you’re white. After all, they aren’t on the receiving end of society’s harmful beliefs.

The fearless Mulan via syfy.com

            Beliefs are either created along the pathway of life, or drilled into your subconscious from the moment you’re born; the belief that race is connected to disease is an example of the latter. The current pandemic has pushed forward distressing stereotypes of Asians, including the harmful notion of being “pet-eaters”. Recently, US Texas Senator John Cronyn stated that the “Chinese virus” originated from a “culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs” (Samuels). This is a reflection of the age-old belief system that connects race with disease. Prince A. Morrow noted in 1898 that, “China has been the breeding-place and nursery of pestilential diseases…from time immemorial” (Gee). This is an early example of the association between disease and race, stemming from the belief that minorities are socially and biologically inferior. This popularized eugenics, helped to establish anti-miscegenation laws, justified slavery, and restricted immigration. Additionally, from a health standpoint, discrimination can result in infected individuals being mistreated, and skew our understanding of the disease by affecting the fatality rate (Gee). Beliefs may seem like something small and personal, but they can have a powerful ripple effect.

            The intricacy of beliefs makes racism a social construct, and all of us are guilty of playing along, even more so with the pandemic (Coates). During lockdown, I became more conscious of how my ‘yellowness’ was perceived in comparison to the white complexion – the depiction of the human ideal. When I turned on the TV to watch that new show I had been hearing about from my friends, all I saw were stunning white faces with the occasional person of colour in the background for a total of two minutes. I reflected on the fact that on the first day of attending a supposedly international school, I was shoved into a group full of Asian students for communication purposes. I became increasingly uncomfortable with my friends’ jokes on “the Chinese virus”, and when I confronted them, they always acted strangely, as if I had opened a box I wasn’t supposed to open, and shut me down. There’s no denying that racism is a framework – its ever present in all of our lives. However, race is merely an idea that society has created, and is really all about how we perceive the world and those around us. The concept of a white race was only solidified when waves of immigrants began entering the United States (DiAngelo 17). This gave way to prejudice, which then led to discrimination and caused uneasiness from being with ‘other’ people due to active separation. This created a larger divide, which is ever present during COVID-19. 

A lack of diversity in fashion via The New York Times

            The current experience for Asians living in North America is worse than it’s ever been in our lifetimes. There has been a sharp increase of hate against the Asian community since the onset of the pandemic; over 600 incidents targeting Asians in Canada have been reported to Chinese Canadian groups since March – when COVID-19 had begun to take over North America. One in three of those attacks have been assaults, with verbal harassment being the most common (CBC News). Justin Kong, the executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter, stated that, “Those attacks stemmed from historical anti-Asian racism, but also because of the ways in which COVID-19 has been racialized.” This shouldn’t be news to anyone – “Go back to China” and “yellow” are the phrases I remember the most from the Asian news articles I read every morning in bed during quarantine. Additionally, there has been a huge spike in racialized hate crimes compared to the same time last year. COVID-19 has posted many more challenges to racialized communities, and we must be aware of the fact that anti-Chinese racism has spillover effects to other groups and makes bad situations worse. As the Toronto-based ‘Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre’ foundation’s director of policy Jaime Kirzner-Roberts says, “It is the responsibility of the justice system to recognize hatred as the poison that it is, and confront hate crimes” (Xu). We need policies in place to tackle racism – we need a good influence.

            Despite this, some influencers are playing right into the popularized discrimination and prejudice during these trying times. Canadian singer of “Summer of ‘69”, Bryan Adams, had his true colours were revealed after he gave a profanity-ridden tirade on Instagram in which he blamed “bat-eating” and “virus-making” people for the coronavirus (Elliott). He was criticized heavily for his remarks, and was called out by many Asian celebrities, including Simu Liu of popular show ‘Kim’s Convenience’. Moreover, Timothy Caulfield, a University of Alberta health research professor, blasted Adams’ tweets as “angry, stigmatizing, hate-baiting” and “scientifically wonky” (Elliott). What’s more is that his fans genuinely didn’t understand why what he said was wrong, and thought that he was “just telling it like it is.” This goes to show just how powerful celebrity can be, and how influencers with oppressive views can harm our progression. After all, their fans will always support them no matter what and take their beliefs as their own (Elliott). 

Bryan Adams via The Mirror

            Moving forward, we must do better in being more inclusive to progress in fostering diversity. We must educate ourselves and others to stop racial bias (Gee). Becoming knowledgeable on the issues that our Asian and other minority friends face can prevent bigotry and help society grow on an equal playing field for all. As xenophobic information spreads along with COVID-19, it is up to us to understand that racism is intrinsically wrong, and that hate crimes only lead to negativity, with no benefits. Worst of all, nativism could prevent us from learning about the experiences of China and other countries about community mitigation and preparedness. However, just being aware isn’t enough. We can’t create change without action.

            So, what can we do?

            Well, for starters, don’t connect disease to a social group. How would you feel if your family’s Chinese restaurant business, your family’s entire livelihood, was going down the drain because once daily customers became victims of society’s vicious beliefs, and had developed a fear of Chinese people and food? Our policy makers must begin to develop anti-racist countermeasures to confront the wrong and provide a peaceful influence on the population. We must completely embody the fact that various racial groups are not inherently different – at the end of the day, we are all composed of the same flesh and bones. Genetics should never be a factor in deciding how we treat people. We need stronger fact checking in place to stop the spread of misinformation and prejudiced statements. Most importantly, we need more research on racism (Gee). In order to move forward, we must learn more about the issue and how it affects people in order to develop the necessary solutions. We need to know the problem to be able to solve the problem.

            The racist framework may be at play now, but we can dismantle it. If we all educate and take real action, you and I can stop racism in its tracks. We need to question our system and change to structure a better future for everyone. Above all, we must understand racism and resist it. This is the only way to deconstruct the racist framework that has been instilled into our minds for centuries. Together, we must do better to ensure that no one has to be afraid of their own skin ever again.

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