Photo: Richard Milnes/REX/Shutterstock
In the months following the COVID-19 outbreak, fear and racism spread faster around the globe than the virus itself.
This month, Jonathon Mok, a Singaporean student who had been assaulted on the streets of London in a coronavirus related racist attack, posted about his experience on Facebook. In the post that has gone viral with over 66k likes and 41k shares, he said:
“Racism is not stupidity — racism is hate. Racists constantly find excuses to expound their hatred — and in this current backdrop of the coronavirus, they’ve found yet another excuse.”
In the rise of xenophobia amidst fear of the virus outbreak, many others like him have become targets of racism.
A Dutch-Chinese student was attacked, suffering from a concussion and knife-wounds, after she asked a group of youths to stop singing a racist song about the coronavirus at her. In the New York subway station, a woman wearing a face mask was called a “diseased b****” by a passer-byer before he hit her in the head when she tried to defend herself. A woman of Indian origin was beaten by an attacker and left unconscious after defending her friend of Chinese origin from racist coronavirus threats. The list goes on.
Asians have long been negatively stereotyped in the West for being soft-spoken, passive, and often unwilling to engage in confrontation or cause trouble. Because of such, racists and bigots have found Asians to be “easy-targets” to pick on without fear of repercussions.
To fight back, we must prove them wrong and show them that we have a voice too. Although I am deeply angered by the above cases of people who have been singled out by their attackers based on their race, I am proud that they had the courage to stand up for themselves.
Think of that negative stereotype as a brick-wall and our voices and actions as the hammer that chips away at the wall. Every time we take a stand and confront racism and hatred in its ugly form, a piece of that brick-wall falls off until eventually, however long that may be, it is no more.
Growing up in an Asian household, my parents have always advised me to keep my head down in the face of conflict because according to them, as an Asian and as a woman, I would be at a disadvantage (chi kui) if something bad were to happen. “Stop being so hot-tempered,” they lectured me, “learn to tolerate(ren) more.”
But what good does tolerance do to fight injustice and bigotry?
I don’t blame them for thinking the way they do — they are the products of trans-generational trauma caused by historical wounds that have yet to completely heal. Yet me and my generation?
We are at a critical juncture — we have the power to step-free from the box that has caged our ancestors and lift the pen that will influence how our generational legacy will be told.
A few years ago, I encountered a racist incident that almost resulted in physical assault. Ironically, it occurred in an Asian country that the aggressor was directing racists slander towards. The audacity, right?
At the time of the incident, I was tending to my shopping at a local grocery store when I heard a man sneer something rude behind me, implying that I was taking too long at an aisle. Instead of pretending I didn’t hear him, I turned around, looked him point-blank in the eyes and told him he had no right to speak to me like that. I registered shock in his eyes for a brief moment. Perhaps he didn’t expect an Asian girl half his size and age to talk back at him, or perhaps he didn’t even expect me to speak English fluently. Whatever it was, he quickly snapped back and started throwing a slew of targeted racist insults at me despite not even knowing my ethnicity. To them, we were all the same.
His belongings fell off his bag as he raged, and he blamed it on me. This man towered over me and inched his face near mine looking like he was very close to attacking me, but I stared right back at him refusing to back down. I realized I had put myself in a dangerous situation back then, but at that moment I was so disgusted by this man that fear no longer registered with me.
Luckily, he backed off, but he continued to shout racist rants as he walked off.
I threw a middle finger at this man when I made eye-contact with him again at the cash registers. This isn’t the first time I stood up to racists like him and it won’t be the last.
Standing up to bullies who are more powerful or physically stronger than us may be intimidating, but for all the moments that I did stand up for myself versus the moments that I didn’t, I only regret the later.
Still angry after the incident, I was determined to track this man down and shame him.
A good friend had gone to the supermarket the day after to ask for footage of the incident, but they were unable to provide it as no actual physical assault occurred.
That’s when I came up with an ingenious idea: I went on Tinder, uploaded a stock picture of a young Asian woman, and upped my searchable age-range to 50. Within four swipes, I got the man I was looking for.
In the next few minutes, I got everything I needed to know about him including his full name, nationality, and the name and base of his startup company (which, by the way, is also in the said country he insulted).
This racist man had no problem consuming the women or taking advantage of the business opportunities in the culture and country that he directs his racism towards. I was so enraged that I spent the good half of the night lying in bed thinking about all the ways I was going to expose him and sabotage his business ties.
Waking up from crappy sleep the next day, I realized that I was not driven by a sense of justice to shame him, but by a sense of hatred; if I had followed through with vengeance, I would have been no different than him — a sad human being full of spite.
Not only did I have to pick my battles, but I also have to know when to end them.
Racism doesn’t always happen in such a blatant manner. It can be subtle and go unnoticed or not easily understood by those who it is not directly targeting.
In the early stages of the outbreak, the French newspaper, Le Courrier Picard, published a news headline reading “Yellow Alert” (“Peril Jaune”), picturing a close-up shot of an Asian woman wearing a mask. The headline triggered reactions among French-Asians online who used the hashtag JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I’m not a virus) to vent their anger. The newspaper has since apologized.
Then, the WSJ published an article titled “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia” without recognizing the deeply offensive implications that the term “sick man of Asia” has in China according to its historical context — a derogatory term that was often used by foreign forces who conquered China during what China calls the “century of humiliation. The WSJ has not issued an apology.
More recently, a Western academic associated with the Chicago Council for Foreign Affairs posted on her Twitter account an insensitive acronym (W-U-H-A-N), that perpetuates harmful stereotypes and hurts the people who are currently suffering from the outbreak in Wuhan. Several commenters pointed out (some nicely and some not) the offensive nature of the tweet. Instead of recognizing her misjudgment, she used a blanket term to suggest that anyone who spoke out against her is simply bots, accused the people that her comments hurt as “thin-skinned,” and proceeded to block all those in question.
The point of the matter is — it should never be up to the perpetrators to codify what constitutes racism or not, however casually or unintentionally put; it should be up to those that it directly or indirectly targets to decide.
Media outlets and public figures have great power over public discourses, and they shouldn’t use that power to fan more divisiveness and hate, inadvertently giving racists and bigots everywhere a push to target their victims.
In the rise of global xenophobia and racism amidst the coronavirus outbreak, it is all the more reason that we must raise our voices and speak because no matter what they tell us and how they try to intimidate us, Asian voices matter too.