Racism against Asian Americans isn't unique to the coronavirus pandemic—everyone else is just becoming more aware now

Trigger warning: This article discusses racial discrimination and violence.

On March 2nd, I went to Costco. News that coronavirus (COVID-19) could hit the U.S. the same way it had devastated China in January was just starting to spread, so I figured I might as well take my annual shopping trip to the warehouse in Clifton, New Jersey, to stock up. With toilet paper and paper towels in my cart, I walked toward the front of the store, passing by a product representative hawking samples. “Stay away from my face!” she said sternly. I looked around. Was she talking to me? There was another Asian woman in front of me. When I turned back toward her, I couldn’t even make eye contact with the product representative—she was holding a box in front of her face, shielding herself from us.

Whether this was directed at me or the woman ahead of me—or both of us—I didn’t know, but I shrugged it off. After all, comments reflecting anti-Asian sentiment like this have long been a part of my life: I was born in Chicago and raised in California by Taiwanese immigrants.

Sometimes these incidents are just a passing comment—or the pressing question, “No, where are you really from?” Other times they’re harsher, like when a non-Asian stranger incessantly shouted at me, “Ni hao ma?” trying to get a chuckle out of me, or when a neighbor asked how I could see through my “small eye slits.” “But really, how do you see?” he insisted. There was even the time I was told the only reason I landed a magazine editor job was because I was Asian and someone got a diversity hiring bonus.

Whatever form discrimination against Asian Americans takes, it’s been on the rise in recent weeks. We are seeing more violent and extreme instances of discrimination stemming from unfounded fears that those who are any kind of Asian are more likely to carry coronavirus since it originated in Wuhan, China. For example, there was the spraying of Febreze on an Asian man on the New York City subway, the stabbing of a two-year-old Asian American girl and her family at a Texas Sam’s Club, and the punching of a 55-year-old New Jersey Asian woman by a young girl during quarantine.

Despite the fact that the confirmed numbers of coronavirus cases are higher in nine countries—the United States, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Russia, and Iran—than in China, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, Asians are still being targeted as spreaders of the coronavirus.

As of April 15th, there were 1,497 reports of discrimination against Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) across 45 states and Washington, D.C., on the Stop AAPI Hate site, a reporting center launched on March 19th by the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council, Chinese for Affirmative Action, and the San Francisco Asian American Studies department. The incidents include being denied services and being verbally abused, shunned, coughed and spat upon, and physically hurt, among others. Specifics include a 71-year-old Asian man who was chased out of a California convenience store, a white woman who stomped on bread and accused a Taiwanese woman of touching it, an Asian family in Oahu who was coughed on by a car full of strangers, and an Asian victim who was told by a Bakersfield child that they caused the child’s father’s death. Even from the safety of their homes, 40 Asians experienced hacking on their Zoom calls, with a perpetrator saying, “All y’all have coronavirus, every single one of you.”

“We’ve received about 1,500 incident [reports] in just four weeks, and we barely publicized our reporting site,” Dr. Russell Jeung of San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies department tells HelloGiggles. “One of the reasons we’ve had such an outpouring is that these hate incidents are not simple microaggressions. These verbal harassments are hate-filled and horrific, often accompanied with spit or coughing. They’re not minor, but traumatizing acts of terror with Asian American children and elderly often present.”

As more of these incidents are reported on major networks and news outlets, there’s also been a heightened awareness among non-Asians. I have personally noticed that in the last few weeks, friends have started asking me, “Have you ever experienced racism?”

The question was a tricky one. Should I cite the Costco example? It seemed flippant compared to so many of the far more violent and shocking incidents that other Asian Americans have been experiencing.

If I told my friends about my own experiences, their entire basis of firsthand Asian American racism in the U.S. could be encompassed by my experience, possibly leading them to think that the news was exaggerating everything. If I cited the greater incidents in the news, they could shrug it off since it didn’t happen to someone in their circle.

Big or small, incidents like these are manifestations of people’s thinking. And the fact that people are seeing race placed at the forefront of Asian identity more frequently in the news can give them permission to see those of us who are Asian Americans as Asian first and as Americans second. I personally experienced this when I once said to a non-Asian friend, “It’s not like I wake up every morning thinking, ‘I’m Asian.’” They shockingly and genuinely replied, “You don’t?!”

Unfortunately, experiencing biases has long been a part of the Asian American experience, mine included. But it begs the question: Will this current state of awareness brought on by coronavirus have a lasting, long-term effect?

“My hope is that the current dialogue will draw attention to the fact that these events have a history: that the stigmatization of Asians as vile disease breeders […] existed at least a century before COVID-19,” Dr. Jeannie Shinozuka of Soka University’s International Relations department tells HelloGiggles. “By the late 19th century, Asian immigrants were already perceived as a virus [in the U.S.]. The foreignness of pathogens is nothing new, but what is new is that we have digital media to extensively record and respond to these incidents.”

She cites the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese workers from coming into the U.S., and the 1885 Rock Springs Massacre, when white miners accused Chinese immigrants of taking their jobs. Additionally, Asian discrimination in relation to illness can be traced back to 1900, when San Francisco’s Chinatown was looked at “as the epicenter for filth and disease, including highly infectious diseases such as smallpox and bubonic plague,” Dr. Shinozuka explains.

Both she and Anna Storti, a predoctoral fellow in Dartmouth College’s Asian American Studies department, cite how this contradicts the model minority image, another example of a damaging racial generalization.

“The increase in anti-Asian racism demonstrates the fragility of the model minority myth,” Storti says, explaining that Asian Americans are often considered “honorary whites” based on their economic status and their proximity to whiteness. But this often contradicts both the historical and current dangers of other common anti-Asian sentiments, like yellow peril, or the idea that Asians are a threat to Western cultures; orientalism; and xenophobia.

While the coronavirus pandemic shows us how conditional the model minority myth is, it has also brought back longtime misassumptions connecting Asians to health threats. “The racist myth that Asians host and disseminate disease and illness conveniently conceals the nation’s practice of white supremacy and its exclusion of some immigrants,” Storti adds.

While we can’t undo the damage that’s already spread, this might be the opportunity to steer the conversations toward positive change. And that may come in educating victims and perpetrators alike.

“More work must also be done to educate those who are committing the violence, the ones who still harbor anti-Asian and anti-Chinese sentiments,” Storti says. She suggests “thinking creatively” about more effective ways to report incidents and learning from Black community organizers “who have built alternative models of safety, support, and healing.”

But she also points out that there isn’t one catch-all way to deal with the aggressions. “It is vital to process something that happens to you in a way that makes sense for you,” she says. “When people choose not to report in a traditional sense, they can find healing through art, therapy, and, collectively, with their communities.” She cites the Asian American Feminist Collective and Bluestocking NYC’s zine, Asian American Feminist Antibodies: Care in the Time of Coronavirus, as an example of “life-sustaining, world-building work” during this time.

“While we may not be able to control the direction the news goes, we can shift the way we think,” Storti adds. “Now is a time to study as much as it is a time to act, rest, and stay in.”

Looking ahead, the future is as complicated as the past. “The greater awareness of how Asian Americans are facing racial profiling and harassment should help in lowering the number of incidents as we should have more bystanders alert to intervene,” Dr. Jeung says. “However, it seems like China-bashing is becoming a presidential election issue. I predict anti-Asian hate will only grow stronger as Americans are sheltered in place longer, the economy tanks, and deaths mount from COVID-19.”

The dangers go beyond politics, and current messaging can impact young Asian Americans as they group up during the pandemic. “Asian American youth may perceive themselves as others see them—as threats, as disease carriers, as foreigners,” he adds. “They will then do what others do—shun their Asian-ness—and feel stigmatized. This experience of racism has both negative mental health and [physical] health impacts.”

The issue is clearly not limited to Americans, as Asians around the globe have experienced biases as well. This may be an opportunity for Asian Americans to join forces with other groups that experience discrimination, both here and around the world.

“At this moment, it matters that Asian Americans speak up. But it also matters that we listen to others and we learn from others,” Storti says of working together with other people of color. “It won’t be foolproof and there will be mistakes, but forming or joining a community with shared guidelines, accountability structures, and a racially informed listening practice offers something worthwhile.”

Already, a new campaign launched on April 27th called All Americans, which joins together marginalized communities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic by uniting Asians facing racist attacks and Black and Latinx communities disproportionately affected by the disease, in terms of economic struggles and lives lost. The effort launched with a video featuring celebrities across all communities—including Dave Chappelle, George Takei, Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang, Megan Rapinoe, Olivia Munn, Lisa Ling, Marc Cuban, Daniel Dae Kim, and Hasan Minhaj—and is raising funds to support all groups by selling shirts by major designers, including Prabal Gurung, Phillip Lim, and Monse. The site also provides essential information on economic relief, medical care, and combating racism.

It’s this kind of breaking down of barriers and seeing past color lines that can spark the fundamental changes needed to alter the mentality behind racial discrimination—and finally shatter the long-standing habits of racism and xenophobia that have plagued our nation for generations.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of racial discrimination or violence, you can reach out to the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council to report the incident on their website, StopAAPIHate.