Asian-Americans Are Being Attacked Over Coronavirus Fears

Phillip Lim, Prabal Gurung, and more are speaking out against the racism.

Coronavirus Racism
Photo: Richard Milnes/Shutterstock

Dr. Rosalind Chou, an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University, was on a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles this week when she witnessed a fellow passenger, a white woman in the row ahead of her, stage a selfie on her phone that also captured an Asian-American male passenger on the flight.

“Her font on her phone was very large, so I saw the reply after she sent this picture of this man without his permission,” Dr. Chou says. “The reply was, ‘Oh no! Is he Chinese?’ To which this woman replied, ‘There are a lot of them.’ This woman then added, ‘Pray for me.’”

Dr. Chou says she was the third Asian-American person in the immediate vicinity; in addition to the man, there was another woman sitting next to him.

“I assume she was speaking at least about the three of us in the aisle behind her,” she says. “I politely tapped her on the shoulder and said, ‘The font on your phone is so big, I can see what you wrote and that you sent a picture of the man behind you without his permission. It wasn't ok what you said about us.’ She was speechless, and embarrassed. After a moment, she apologized and said she was ashamed.”

Dr. Chou says she’s seen an uptick in racist incidents against people of Asian descent since the news of the coronavirus and the imminent threat it poses began circulating in January — and she’s not alone. In the past week, designers Phillip Lim and Prabal Gurung have spoken out against the discrimination Asian people have faced after the virus spread across the globe.

Though coronavirus outbreaks were first reported in the Wuhan region of China in December, little else is known about the virus’s origin, and scientists have strongly condemned conspiracy theories and rumors about its genesis. Still, that hasn’t stopped the proliferation of misinformation and ignorance — ignorance that has a very real impact on people’s lives.

When the virus began to dominate the news, I saw the odd, occasional off-color TikTok joke or Snapchat that linked it to Asian people at large. It wasn’t a surprise: there’s always that one person. But soon enough, it wasn’t just one person or even just a handful of people making jokes and thinly-veiled comments. An Asian woman was physically attacked in New York City for wearing a mask on the subway. A Howard Stern staffer claimed the South Korean music group BTS had the coronavirus, based on no evidence other than the fact that they are Asian. A man went on a racist tirade on the Los Angeles subway, verbally attacking an Asian woman. Chinatown businesses in N.Y.C. and San Francisco have suffered in the midst, despite the fact that there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in San Francisco, and just one person has been tested for it in N.Y.C. (A total of 14 cases were diagnosed in the U.S. at the time of writing, and no confirmed deaths.) Fake flyers in Los Angeles have targeted Panda Express, despite the chain restaurant being arguably one of the least Asian things about Los Angeles. Not to mention, doctors and nurses with an “Asian appearance” have been abused because of their race and fears about the virus. Then there was the incident at the University of California, Berkeley, when the school sent out a statement recognizing “xenophobia” and “fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about these feelings” as “common” reactions to the virus’s global spread. (The university later deleted the post and apologized).

Dr. Chou says that unfortunately, this reaction to a widespread illness is nothing new, though the speed at which we now consume media may have exacerbated this behavior in 2020.

“We have seen similar xenophobic fear with other iterations of flu in 1889 with Russians and 1918 with the Spanish,” she says. “We are connected instantly now through the media and 24 hour news cycle, so we see the widespread panic and it being associated with old racist tropes of Asian, specifically Chinese, people. Misinformation can spread quickly, and the magnitude of an issue can be preemptively amplified. The anonymity of social media also allows for folks with xenophobic and racist attitudes to make their thoughts public in wide forums.”

Yes, coronavirus is spreading rapidly, and with the World Health Organization raising the threat assessment to its highest level of risk, people have the right to be worried and to try to protect themselves. But spreading misinformation isn’t the way to stay safe.

“I think it's hard to stop all the racist comments and attacks since we have centuries of history of racial discrimination and xenophobia,” Dr. Chou notes. “What I hope is that there are enough people, of all races, willing to address these behaviors and let those making disparaging comments know that it's inappropriate. Certainly, it would depend on the circumstances as there have been some violent threats, so my hope is that there are enough decent people out there to stand up against injustice — [in] this case, xenophobia and racism.”

And if you really want to protect yourself from the coronavirus, the best thing you can do is wash your hands thoroughly, not project public health fears onto an entire racial group.

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