By: Cindy Chen
*This article was written before what is now happening in the black community. I do not intend for this to undermine the importance of BLM and the struggles the black community faces on a daily basis. I fully support those who are fighting against police brutality and encourage all to lift up black voices.
I wasn’t wearing my glasses the day I thought my life was in danger. A couple of weeks ago, I walked out my front door to get some fresh air. The street was deserted except for another person walking down the sidewalk. I thought nothing of it, thinking to myself, “It’s just another person who couldn’t stand being inside any longer.” Without my glasses, this person didn’t have a face. They were of medium stature and judging from their build, most likely a man. Glancing at the stranger only enough to know they were there, I walked down my porch steps to my backyard, intending to circle the house a couple of times. As I rounded the corner to the front of the house, I saw the stranger following the path I had just come from. I can’t remember the exact thoughts that went through my head, but I will never forget the stab of panic that immediately drove me to get back inside and lock the door. A small part of me thinks I overreacted, and in the initial moments after seeing the stranger enter my backyard, I scrambled to think of an explanation. I didn’t want to imagine what might have happened had I stayed outside, and it hurts to realize what that incident might have been symbolic of. I have mentioned all of what happened that day, but perhaps I have left out the most important detail of this narrative. In case you couldn’t tell from my name, I am Asian, Chinese to be specific.
Since the COVID-19 crisis began, racism directed towards Asians has soared online, and thousands of anti-Asian incidents have been reported. Just to name a few: two Asian children and their father were stabbed in Texas, a woman was shouted at and spat on in Washington, and an elderly man was assaulted in New York. It’s hard to not be afraid, because even though I did not personally experience these hate crimes, they serve as a punch to the gut, reminding me that “I am not a real American”— that my appearance will always be my most defining trait. My thoughts resonate with many other Asian Americans such as actor John Cho who feels as though, “The pandemic is reminding [those of Asian descent] that [their] belonging is conditional. One moment we are Americans, the next we are all foreigners, who ‘brought’ the virus here.”
The term “Chinese virus” has only fanned the flames. Naming viruses after geographic locations or specific people is extremely damaging as it creates negative connotations for Chinese Americans and other Asian minorities, and it creates the mindset of China vs the world when it really should be COVID-19 vs the world. Even more alarming is the long-standing tradition of blaming racial minorities for the spread of diseases which continue to be used as justification for racist attitudes. As explained by Merlin Chowkwanyun, assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, “Irish immigrants were blamed for cholera and Italians for polio, while Chinese, Japanese, and Mexicans were scapegoated for tuberculosis and small pox outbreaks. During the HIV/AIDs crisis, Haitians were demonized and denied entry to the U.S. Truth be told, it disappoints more than it scares me that this ongoing crisis is another source of fuel for xenophobia; we as a nation need to stop this trend and realize that racism is a disease in itself which only worsens the crisis.