By Karen Wang
Since the start of the spread of 2019-nCoV, more commonly known as “the coronavirus,” concern and fear have also begun to spread around the world. But other less pleasant and less talked about things have been going viral too.
Racism and xenophobia have been on full display throughout the West, often accompanied by the spread of misinformation concerning Chinese people and their lifestyles.
From blatantly racist jokes and memes to various articles and infographics justifying and promoting xenophobic tendencies, one thing is clear: for a majority of Westerners, the coronavirus is a source of amusement, feeding into their superiority complex and their orientalist views of East Asia and its peoples.
On social media, users have not held back. A “Coronavirus Chart” account, meant to mimic popular Twitter accounts that measure the charting success of a particular musical artist, was created within a few days of the first quarantines in China. I can hardly scroll through any of my social media feeds without seeing a joke about “coughing Asians” and “catching corona.”
A Twitter account dedicated to parodying the coronavirus
Chinese people are not the only ones being affected. Some Westerners have taken this as an opportunity to prove that they don’t have the capacity nor the desire to differentiate East Asian ethnicities.
Videos of people covering their mouths and noses while sitting beside Asians on trains or even moving seats to distance themselves from Asian passengers have gone viral as well. A video of a man assaulting an Asian woman wearing a surgical mask in New York and a video of a man on the Los Angeles subway going on a tirade about the coronavirus while pointing at a Thai American passenger have also surfaced.
But this racism isn’t just present on social media; it’s everywhere in the media. A French newspaper published a cartoon with the headline “Yellow Peril; is it already too late?” and the New York Times published an article linking the outbreak to “China’s omnivorous markets,” not so subtly implying that if only Chinese people didn’t eat weird things, they wouldn’t be facing this crisis! On Instagram, the University Health Services at the University of California, Berkeley, published an infographic stating that xenophobia was a “common” reaction to the virus.
An article headline published online by the New York Times
Top replies to the above New York Times article on Twitter
A deleted infographic published by UC Berkeley’s University Health Services
Upon reflection, I suppose it isn’t surprising at all that Westerners have decided that this is a perfect opportunity to further the perception that Asians are “dirty” and are inferior to Westerners, whether it be the food we eat, the way we look, or the values we hold.
I have seen so many “hot takes” from people about how China deserves this for a myriad of reasons, whether that reason is animal abuse, the actions of the Chinese government, or simply because Westerners hate China. Something I haven’t seen often: an ounce of empathy for the thousands infected and their families.
There are over a billion ethnic Chinese people in the world, and we are hurting. We are suffering, sick with fear and worry for our relatives, our friends, our coworkers. And what has the West responded with? Complaints that iPhone shipments are delayed, jokes that karma is coming for China, and memes about avoiding Asians at all costs.
A meme mocking Chinese food customs
I don’t expect those unaffected to understand the anxiety or the paranoia I have associated with the coronavirus, but there are a few things I want to clarify for Westerners who can only view the East through an imperialist gaze.
- You need to separate the actions of the Chinese government from the actions of the Chinese public.
It is unreasonable to hold the 1.3 billion Chinese nationals, most of which have little to no influence or control over national politics, accountable for the actions of the Chinese Communist Party. Governments act independently from the people they rule, and wishing for the deaths and demise of billions of innocent people doesn’t make you “righteous” or “woke.” It is beyond ignorant to assume that political freedoms are universal and that people deserve to die because they haven’t publicly protested their government.
- Everyone eats weird food; the “weird food” was not the cause of the coronavirus.
Several reports have noted that a majority of initial cases of the virus had no connection to the meat and seafood market that was first suspected as the source. For Westerners to automatically make the assumption that Chinese people “created” the virus by having low hygiene standards and eating “weird” things is incredibly orientalist and xenophobic. While I understand Westerners have always held disdain for culturally Chinese and Asian foods, this is not the time to jump to conclusions. There have been no conclusive explanations for the virus yet; do not spread misinformation just because you feel superior for consuming Western foods.
- Your racism is really showing, and it’s not a cute look.
Although I have always known this, the responses to the coronavirus have really brought out a realization I had during my childhood: Asian lives have never mattered as much as others in the eyes of the West. Stereotypes about how “robotic” Asians are, how “there are too many Asians,” how “all Asians are the same” have always been dehumanizing, but not quite as dehumanizing as seeing our suffering and trauma reduced to a source of amusement for Westerners. Listening to my classmates and teachers, people I thought I could trust, making jokes about the virus has been a hurtful but eye-opening experience. I guess I just never realized the sheer amount of people who really don’t see Asians as humans, as equals.
The virus was first found in December, but the outbreak first garnered worldwide attention in mid-January as Chinese people around the world were preparing to celebrate Lunar New Year. It was supposed to be one of the happiest times of the year for us, but many of us spent our Lunar New Year worried and fearful of what was to come.
I don’t expect everyone to fully understand what Chinese people are going through right now, but I think a bit of compassion and sympathy from the West is in order. Think about your words and actions; do they reflect an orientalist and xenophobic standpoint?
The coronavirus will pass, but I know that racism and xenophobia are things that will stay long after the virus fades. And I know that I, along with many of my Chinese and East Asian compatriots, will be thinking about and reflecting on my experiences from this time for years to come.
Image courtesy of Axios