Opinion guest column

Anti-Asian racism: the neglected strain of COVID-19

Like a virus, xenophobia adapts, new strains for new times, as noxious ever

Yu Jing Chen: A couple of months ago, right as coronavirus was beginning to make its way to America, I was invited to watch the Boston Ballet for free. Normally, I would never have even thought twice about going. The issue?

Just the night before, I had been scrolling through Facebook and had seen a video of a group of people taunting an elderly Asian man to the point where he was in tears. Hate spewed from the lips of the offenders as they physically assaulted the man: “I hate Asians.” 

The elderly man had simply been out collecting recyclables, likely to make any extra money to support his family. On this particular day, he was not just robbed of his day’s work of recycling; he was robbed of his dignity. Flashbacks to my childhood arose, of my grandparents bringing home tables and other knick knacks that they’d collected from the sides of roads and alleys simply because we didn’t have the money. That elderly man could very well have been my grandfather. I was shaken to the core.

What was I to do if I, a lone Asian woman taking the T late at night to see the Boston Ballet, were similarly attacked? My childhood had been characterized by unknowing smiles of good-willed people like this man, unaware of the racist words thrown at them. The distinction here? I understand them.

To be Asian American is an interesting thing — a juxtaposed existence. It is an interesting thing to be both hyper-visible and invisible at the same time, forever the “perpetual foreigner” yet simultaneously ignored. To be perceived as silent and complacent, yet to be hushed when we do speak for our accents and broken English, then assured that we have nothing to be angry about as the “model minority” is an oxymoron in itself.

We have never been seen as completely American. It’s a startling reality that many who have tried so hard to conform to this “American” mold of white suburbia have come to realize in times like this. 

Don’t be fooled by the recent influx of Asian faces on television. Don’t be fooled by the seeming success of Asians in America. Don’t even be fooled by the fact that an Asian American has run for president of the United States. For as long as racism thrives in this country, we will forever be viewed as the perpetual foreigners. 

Alana Chandler: Such xenophobia is rooted in American history. 

In the late 19th century, the Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese people from entering America, after white people insisted that their presence, or rather intrusion, in America leeched the country of good: jobs, cleanliness, and civility. Yet, being half-white and receiving an education in predominantly white institutions since middle school, I have witnessed firsthand how this history has been overlooked and deemed irrelevant, so much so as to be largely erased from the American history curriculum.

Like a virus, xenophobia adapts, new strains for new times, as noxious as ever.

For some Asian Americans, it began with someone in the grocery store telling them they didn’t deserve a grocery cart at the risk of physical assault if they did not relinquish the cart. For other Asian Americans, they were told their “kind” were not wanted here, whether it was yelled across the street or uttered by a neighbor in the elevator. Spat on, punchedchased, refused service, greeted at work by smashed windows and hate-fueled graffiti, called slurs left and right, Asian Americans are openly attacked and berated beyond the unassuming comfort of white spaces today. 

As the coronavirus epidemic has spread across America, so have the hate crimes. Such incidents include the stabbing of an Asian American family in Texas, a 16-year-old sent to the hospital after being bullied about the coronavirus, and a woman burned through an acid attack while taking out the trash. These are only a handful among thousands of incidents reported since the coronavirus pandemic began.

To the ignorant and fearful, an Asian American with a mask signifies a sickened foreigner spreading the virus with each step they take in a country that does not accept them as their own. How is it that taking your mask off, to escape accusation and attack, is safer than wearing one?

“Go back to where you came from” is a common phrase thrown at Asian Americans, as if disappearing from America would make the virus itself disappear. As Cathy Park Hong said in her New York Times op-ed, to xenophobes, “We don’t have coronavirus. We are coronavirus.”

 Anti-Asian American racism hasn’t been taken seriously, from history to modern day. What harm could there be in making fun of our eyes and our “smelly” food once in a while? Asian Americans are painted with the broad brush of being a “model minority”; what could there be to complain about for a group of obedient, productive, quiet people?

While Asians were seen as inferior, unclean people just a century ago, today, the “positive” stereotype has replaced such rhetoric. The illusion of preeminent Asian American success and complacency has been used to minimize the struggles that other minorities have experienced — a racial wedge to pit minorities against each other and to silence all. The notion that one racial minority group could “flourish” under the current American system while another “complains” is a tool used to undermine the oppression other minority groups face. Our struggles are also invalidated with the covert yet omnipresent question woven into the cultural tapestry of America: Why should Asian Americans complain when they’re “next in line” to being white?

Fetishized, emasculated, demoted, harassed, all in the shadows of America’s racism, today, the wounds of discrimination have been ripped open for everyone to see. The pandemic has unveiled the callous racism boiling under America’s skin, the cookie-cutter comfort of Asian Americans in this country an illusion. What will it take for America to realize this isn’t true? Was the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II not enough? How many more Asian-Americans are to be stabbed, harassed, and abused until America opens its eyes?

MIT AAI: In response to the rampant Asian American racism facing our country, Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang said in an opinion piece for the Washington Post:

“The best thing that could happen for Asians would be to get this virus under control so [crimes against Asians aren’t] a problem anymore. Then any racism would likely fade…

We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before… Show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need. Demonstrate that we are part of the solution.”

When even a fellow Asian American encourages the obedience of Asian Americans, it shows how deeply etched this rhetoric is in the American psyche. 

Yang’s rhetoric is white-pleasing. Perhaps he has been conditioned to please, playing into the system in order to succeed. Yet, once stay-at-home orders are lifted and people are interacting more normally, hate crimes against Asian Americans may very well grow, simply because there are more incidences of interaction for them to grow. The society we will find ourselves within these next couple years, one in which the economy may be devastated and one that may be drastically different in terms of social norms, will need a scapegoat. That scapegoat may very well be Asians. 

Asian Americans, as with other Americans, are and have been working to prevent the spread of the virus through every measure, from social distancing in their homes to working on the front lines. We do this, not because we are Asian American, but because this is how community members act in times of crisis, regardless of background. 

Why is American-ness something we have to prove? Will handing out masks while wearing red, white, and blue truly erase underlying hostility? What about after the virus? 

Yang is under no obligation to speak on behalf of the Asian American community just because he is Asian American. But if he chooses to do so, especially as a prominent Asian American figure, one would think he would be more mindful of what he says, particularly in his decision to put the responsibility of addressing racism on Asian Americans rather than condemning the racists themselves. This pattern — where the responsibility of combating oppression is solely placed on the victims of such oppression — is one that has plagued American history. Time and time again, we find ourselves back in the same place, disappointed by yet another news story or headline.

Chandler: I recently listened to a video by Rabbi Steve Leder reminding us to put into perspective the difference of an inconvenience versus a problem in these trying times. 

Having to eat the same meal every day is an inconvenience. Not being able to spend a semester of college with your friends is an inconvenience. Having to spend a birthday inside is an inconvenience.

Disparities in access to proper health care are problems. The number of people of color disproportionately affected by the coronavirus is a problem. The xenophobic harassments and killings towards Asian Americans are problems

Curing coronavirus is out of the hands of the general public. But creating a more just America is a problem that we can and must fix.

Chen: We may never get another time so subject to transformation. As everything has come to a halt and as the inequities of our society have become clear as day, we now have the opportunity to confront them head-on. The first step is to acknowledge that.

This month is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. In a society that demands our assimilation and silence, we must continue to support each other, and others marginalized, in celebrating and reclaiming our identities and rich cultures. We are Asian American, and we are proud.


Read more:

The coronavirus has made evident the inequalities rampant in our society. Yet this article has just barely scratched the surface. This pandemic has unearthed systemic problems facing all communities of color. We encourage our audience to read the following articles to learn more about how COVID-19 has affected various communities.

If you have witnessed or experienced discrimination or racism, please report at these links: 

Brought to you by Yu Jing Chen ’22 and Alana Chandler ’22, members of the MIT Asian American Initiative, a student run organization for Asian American advocacy, allyship, and civic engagement. Contact us at aai-exec@mit.edu or on our Instagram (@mit.aai).