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  • Writer's pictureJeenah Gwak

The Virus that Rekindled Racism

Updated: May 14, 2021

“If a white person comes up and says racist things to you, pretend like you didn’t hear them and walk away.”

This is what my father advised as my sister and I headed out on a walk last Saturday. As Asian girls living in the United States in the midst of a pandemic referred to as the “Chinese virus,” we are reminded this on a regular basis. We hear stories of Asian people getting harassed and assaulted on a regular basis. We see community discussions containing xenophobic language on a regular basis. And we are not alone. Our experiences align with those of our Asian peers.

Stories about racism against Asian Americans weren’t seen on newspaper headlines until a few months ago, when the United States reported its first cases of the coronavirus. This virus, referred

to by our own President as the “Chinese virus” or by our Secretary of State as the “Wuhan virus,” has been the cause of many uprisings in the states. Since the outbreak, American residents of Asian descent have been targets of disparaging language on media platforms. They’ve been victimized by white Americans who accuse Asians of being the ones to “bring back the Chinese virus” to the United States. Asians have been physically attacked in public spaces and beat unconscious. The coronavirus has, without question, fueled anti-Asian racism and xenophobia.

Discrimination against Asian-Americans isn’t a new phenomenon; people of Asian descent have been victims of racist remarks and discrimination since the first wave of Asian immigration to the states. This can be dated back to the late 19th century, when xenophobic propaganda about Chinese “uncleanliness” was spread by white natives in parts of California. Similarly, American officials in the early 20th century, when colonizing the Philippines, considered Filipinos “unclean and uncivilized bodies”. Though this discrimination died out in the last few decades, these phrases describing Asians have made a comeback. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, Asian-Americans, now more than ever, are hearing these negative remarks.

In a survey conducted by Pew Research Center in July, around one in three Asian adults reported being subject to racist slurs or jokes. An alarming number of those surveyed reported feeling unsafe going out in public in fear of violent encounters, perhaps because of numerous stories of Asian people getting harassed and beat. The following are a few examples of many.

Late in February 2020, an elderly Asian man was collecting recyclables in San Francisco when he began to be threatened by a crowd of people. They followed him, robbed him of all his valuables, and shouted racist slurs and words of abuse, going so far to chase him with a long stick.

In early March, an Asian man who was wearing a surgical mask in Brooklyn, NY, was stabbed more than a dozen times. He was taken into a hospital in critical condition, barely hanging onto his life.

Later in the same month, on a Tuesday night in East Harlem, a 59-year-old Asian man was kicked in the back by a teenager, causing him to fall immediately. He was told by this teenager to go back to his country. The victim later admitted that this same teenager had spat on this face earlier in the week.

In late March, a 92-year-old Asian man was physically assaulted and thrown out of a grocery store by a white man who yelled racist, hateful slurs at the elderly man, which were fueled by the coronavirus.

In May, an Asian man in his thirties was riding an uptown train on the New York City subway when a white man approached him, accused him of being infected of the virus, and then proceeded to grab the Asian man by his wrist and shoulder, and tried to pull him out of his seat.

These are only five of the countless experiences that people of Asian descent have experienced in the past months. However, it is significant to consider that most racist encounters aren’t even reported, as many victims feel like authorities will not act on their case.

Outrageous accounts of racism fueled by the pandemic have not only prevailed in the United States, but they have manifested globally. Before the virus, people of Asian descent living in foreign countries had seldom encountered discrimination. But as numbers of infected people rose in these countries, the amount of racism that Asians faced became unmatched. Though many countries have recovered from the pandemic that struck them, our country has not. The number of cases continues to rise, reaching a new record each day. And along with those high numbers comes the increasing reports of racism towards Asian-Americans.

More stories on COVID-19 racism:

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