Confronting Identity in Light of Coronavirus and Xenophobia

As much as I may identify with my own nation, the recent pandemic has shown me how fragile this relationship truly is.

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By Emily Dai, Deputy Opinion Editor

I was born in New York City. I grew up in Richmond. I reveled in my American history and government classes. I even voluntarily participated in a year-long civics competition where I obsessively memorized the Constitution. Being an American is all I’ve ever known. 

In light of the surge of xenophobia and hatred directed toward East Asians, it’s been difficult for me to grapple with the reality that despite how American I may feel, that identity can be easily revoked in times of crisis. I’m wrapped up in a monolith Asian stereotype where my ethnicity comes before anything else. I’ve heard countless racist jokes about me infecting others with the coronavirus. I’ve had wary shoppers shooting accusatory glances in my direction at the grocery store. 

I know, though, that discriminatory jokes and distrustful glances are only the tip of the racist iceberg, and I’m extremely lucky to have only endured this much. I’ve heard other testimonies from Asian students being called “diseased b-tch” for wearing a mask and other Asian students being prompted “shouldn’t you be wearing a mask?” by strangers on the street for not wearing one. 

And influential figures have repeatedly failed to put out these xenophobic flames. Carriers of the coronavirus aren’t confined to just Asian people. Yet, media outlets have repeatedly put the face of Asians at the front of their coronavirus articles. When New York confirmed its first case of coronavirus, the New York Times, Forbes and the New York Post reported this story using photos of unrelated Asian people wearing face masks. A reporter at the White House’s pandemic task force press briefing cited an anonymous report that a White House official used the term “Kung Flu.” Notably, President Donald Trump continually insists on calling the coronavirus the “Chinese Virus.” 

But this behavior isn’t new. Novel diseases have often led to a rise of fear-mongering and xenophobic hysteria. In medieval Europe, people believed the bubonic plague originated from the Jewish community. Consequently, thousands of Jews were burned at the stake and their communities massacred as their inhabitants were accused of spreading contagion and poisoning wells. When the 1853 yellow fever ravaged the United States, European immigrants faced the brunt of stigmatization. In the 1980s, HIV became associated with Haitians, partly because of a recent influx of “boat people” and the subsequent controversy of legal status in the United States. Naming diseases after foreign nations is the most common manifestation of a time period’s increased racism. The bubonic plague was called the Jewish Death. Yellow fever was nicknamed the Stranger’s Disease. HIV was dubbed the 4-H disease, a reference to the “high-risk groups” of Haitians, homosexuals, hemophiliacs and heroin users.

With this history in mind, it may be more clear why using the racist term “Chinese Virus” is inappropriate. Using the term may be a way for people to combat the perceived political correctness of avoiding naming diseases after the geographic origin of the virus. As Saagar Enjeti, the co-host of the Hill’s Rising web series, put it, “Chinese virus is the new radical Islamic terrorism.” The State Department defended Mike Pompeo’s use of the term as a way to counter Chinese Communist Party propaganda. It’s important to note, though, the World Health Organization urges people not to name diseases after geographic locations, other cultural references or terms that incite undue fear. The desire to change the label from coronavirus to yet another “foreign virus” is, just as it has been in the past, an aggressive and politically charged move that needlessly stigmatizes a group of people and heightens more fear against Chinese people.

As a result, Asians are facing a new wave of xenophobia and hate crimes. Coronavirus has proven to be economically devastating for Chinatowns and other Chinese-owned businesses as wary shoppers now avoid those areas. London student Jonathan Mok was brutally assaulted by four assailants, one of whom had said “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country” while beating him. A woman wearing a face mask was assaulted and called “diseased b-tch” on a New York City subway. One young woman was punched in the face as the perpetrator screamed, “Where’s your coronavirus mask, you Asian b-tch?” Just hours later, an Asian man was jumped as his assailants yelled, “F-ck you, Chinese coronavirus.”

These are undoubtedly trying times. Amid colleges across the U.S. closing and people urged to practice social distancing with seemingly no end in sight, it’s understandable that people are anxious about the coming days. But that is no excuse for people to hold the bigoted notion that Asian people are to be blamed, feared or hated for the coronavirus. As hate crimes against Asians surge and as my own government legitimizes this hatred by perpetuating the otherness of the “Chinese Virus,” I’ve felt ostracized by my own country. No matter how much I may identify with my own nation, it seems that my Chinese ethnicity will always put me an arm’s length away from being an American.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Mar. 23, 2020 print edition. Email Emily Dai at [email protected]