With the rise of COVID-19 and subsequent feelings of fear and uncertainty, there has been a rise in xenophobia and anti-Asian racism. As a Chinese-Canadian, I have seen North American xenophobia and anti-Asian racism due to COVID-19 towards my racial group firsthand. The novel coronavirus has brought an unprecedented level of fear and tension into everyday life. With preventative measures such as social distancing being recommended in order to control the spread of the virus, fears of contracting the virus dominate social interactions in the public arena. The virus originates from Wuhan, China, which can be identified as the root of this anti-Asian rhetoric.
President Donald Trump has noticeably been altering his language in addressing COVID-19 in the media, which has included referring to the virus as the “Chinese virus.” A White House Official was also recently caught referring to the novel coronavirus as the “Kung Flu.” With anti-Asian racism being modeled by public figures, this kind of behaviour enables the general public to participate in this harmful rhetoric. Whether it be the vandalization of Buddhist temples in Montreal’s Chinatown, widespread verbal and physical harassment, or the spread of Asian stereotypes and stigmatization, associating COVID-19 specifically with Chinese people alludes to placing the burden of responsibility for the virus on them as well. Labelling the novel coronavirus as Chinese or associating it with East-Asian culture is explicitly racist in the simple notion that the virus is in no way Chinese. Although it originated in Wuhan, people of East-Asian descent are no more likely than any other person to carry or contract the virus.
The anti-Asian rhetoric that is fueled by the discourse surrounding COVID-19 is no stranger to East-Asian communities. The racist stereotypes and stigmas surrounding Chinese traditions, such as enjoying exotic animals as culinary delicacies, are only magnified by the novel coronavirus. It is important to understand that criticizing these cultural traditions comes from a Eurocentric perspective. In the same ways that North Americans commonly consume pigs, cows, or other animals that are considered sacred or forbidden to consume in other countries, Chinese people consume certain animals as a part of their culture that many North Americans may not agree with. This difference in culinary preference and cultural norms has fueled anti-Asian stereotypes that often identify Chinese people as uncivilized, dirty, unhygienic, and savage. Due to the purported origin of COVID-19, these stereotypes have been amplified and projected onto many Chinese people in North America through acts of racism, xenophobia, and hate crimes.
Being a Chinese individual in North America already comes with many challenges. Many Chinese-North Americans struggle with situating their racial identity, as it often straddles identifying as North American or as Chinese. I grew up as a third-generation Canadian citizen with a family that is culturally more tied to our North American roots than our Chinese roots. However, being a visible racial minority always came with a convoluted sense of not belonging or being able to identify with North American culture, despite not knowing anything different. As anti-Asian rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 becomes more prevalent, this feeling of visibility in the public arena is increasingly heightened. Asian-North Americans feel more culturally ostracized than ever when interacting with others in the social sphere, often finding ourselves on the receiving end of fear, anger, and blame. This kind of behaviour strips away the individual’s racial identity and assumes that every Asian-North American is a threat, which is problematic for a multitude of reasons. We now face a process of racialized Othering that is performed by dominant society, identifying all Asian-North Americans as Chinese (and therefore a threat), whilst failing to acknowledge the complexity and duality of our racialized identities. It does not go unnoticed when a stranger practices extra caution when faced with our presence, or looks at us in fear when we are wearing masks or clearing our throats. These subtle actions speak clearly, treating us as nothing more than the status of our visible racial minority and the negative connotations that come with it.
This is a scary time for all of us, and it is especially difficult for Chinese individuals that are experiencing hate, xenophobia, and anti-Asian racism due to COVID-19. It is important to be mindful of the language we are using and consuming, and it is more important now than ever to practice compassion and empathy as a unified community. Many victims of xenophobia and anti-Asian racism are targeted based solely on appearing as a visible minority of East-Asian descent, meaning that anyone who is perceived to be of East-Asian descent, many of whom are not Chinese, also experience similar challenges.
The prevalence of North American xenophobia and anti-Asian racism that coincides with discourse surrounding the novel coronavirus has a profoundly negative impact on Asian-North American livelihoods. A significant part of practicing responsibility during COVID-19 should be practicing respect for East-Asian Americans and Canadians. Small, mundane gestures, such as smiling at someone on the sidewalk or ordering Chinese takeout and supporting local Asian businesses can help in making the world feel warmer for all of us.