One cold February afternoon, I had just returned from grocery shopping at the University of Southern California’s Village. I organized my purchases — a jug of milk, bananas, ingredients for a stir-fried ramen dish I planned to make that night — and checked my phone before getting back to work. What I saw felt too perfectly placed to be reality: an Apple News highlight covering the exponential spread of COVID-19 around my hometown of San Francisco, and beneath it, a text from my boyfriend: “Oh, by the way, be careful when you go out. I read somewhere that Asians are being attacked more.” For the record, we’re both technically Asian American, but he’s a Filipino, Mexican, and white mix while I’m full Chinese. By most societal standards, I look more conventionally “Asian.”
It was a strange feeling. Asian American presence in the United States is generally partial to those originating from the East Asian powers, while other Asian diasporas, including (but certainly not limited to) Filipino, Thai, and Cambodian Americans, tend to slip under the model minority radar. Yet here we were with the cards seemingly flipped, where I and other East Asian Americans were now advised to watch our backs. San Francisco might be known for its prominent Asian population, but I am no stranger to slander, subtle or otherwise, against my racial background. Still, I would be lying if I said I’ve experienced marginalization the same way many black, Latinx, and other darker-skinned Americans do; East Asian Americans, after all, are rarely categorized under the same stereotypes that threaten many others’ lives in this country. As I parsed news and social media in the weeks leading up to that day, though, sources kept pouring in about the ways Chinese or Chinese-appearing people were being treated: with slurs, their businesses boycotted, and children stabbed, all in the name of COVID-19. The news highlight and my partner’s warning made one message clear: this issue was, literally and figuratively, too close to home.
That was a few weeks ago. Since then, the stories only came closer: people backing away from me long before the concept of “social distancing” entered the mainstream, the C-slur tossed at some of my friends (some of whom aren’t even Chinese), my family frantically exchanging WeChat horror stories of Chinese folks being beaten or mugged. How did things get this bad? I now find myself wondering from time to time. To an extent, the pandemic itself was unprecedented (though one can argue that it really should not have been), but how have racism and xenophobia manifested like this?
Yet truth be told, I — and I’m sure many others — have been aware that racism in the United States is like a muscle, a fundamental fiber flexed especially in times of crisis. It was ingrained in this nation from the start; manifest destiny, or the idea that white settlers had the right — and often the obligation — to expand their territory and ostracize indigenous people, was only an extension of American nationalism and the supposed inferiority of foreign cultures. Similarly, flawed beliefs such as the infamous Curse of Ham and, again, cultural inferiority relative to an American (read: white) lifestyle propelled the mass enslavement of black folks across the nation. From these contemptuous ideals came some of this nation’s most brutal injustices, and that’s not even discussing more recent examples like Jim Crow, xenophobia towards the Middle East and its people post-9/11, and the treatment of undocumented immigrants, just to name a few.
While abhorrent, some might think that these examples don’t quite explain the discrimination Chinese folks feel because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s because Asian Americans typically experience racism differently, notably in the form of the model minority myth. I alluded to it earlier, but for those who aren’t aware (and a recap for those who’ve forgotten), this is the concept that there is a higher standard to which all marginalized communities should aspire, with the ambiguous “Asian” often being that standard. For decades, we have been touted as a peaceful, prosperous, and proactive people, with the suggestion sometimes being that we’re all riding this high sea. But the term “Asian” is inadequate because it’s an umbrella term for a massive geographical region — whose parameters are also contested — with many ethnic groups that have wildly different experiences: in the United States, many Asian people still experience high rates of poverty and low rates of education. What people are likely thinking of when they employ model minority thinking are East Asians, but the erasure of other Asian communities means that the struggles they face remain unsolved, instead being masked by flimsy positive stereotypes. Besides placing unrealistically high expectations on Asian people, even the existence of a model minority inherently suggests that we are always a separate population, or in other words, perpetual foreigners.
The model minority myth’s other critical downfall is that it forces unnecessary rifts between communities of color. By suggesting that Asian people are doing well because our cultures have stronger values and our people are better-behaved, we’re not only measuring ourselves to the highly subjective Western metric, but we’re also implying the absence of these traits in black Americans, Latinx Americans, indigenous Americans, etc. These ideas range from incorrect to culturally insensitive on both ends: African immigrants are, in fact, the nation’s highest-educated immigrant group, and I’m pretty sure many Asian students can agree that the “A is for average, B is for bad” mindset that supposedly boosts us reaps more mental scars than long-term academic rewards. These fundamental faults expose a romanticized portrait of positive stereotyping as yet another form of racism that, instead of overtly asserting superiority over a group, subjugates its victims via division.
The model minority myth and other racist and xenophobic ideals find their origins in different periods of the United States’ life, but they didn’t die with history. They’ve continued to evolve, truly flourishing in times when a frightful, vulnerable population can be consumed by hatred. Take, for example, the Ebola outbreak of the mid-2010s. When Thomas Duncan, a Liberian citizen, was the first patient diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, it stirred the nation’s xenophobic underbelly. Multiple news outlets reported that immigrants from Duncan’s Vickery Meadow area in Dallas were being denied work and other opportunities despite showing no signs of the disease or even having encountered Duncan. Rebecca Range, an executive director of the Vickery Meadow Improvement District, told The Dallas News that, “they can’t go to work and are being turned away at restaurants” because of their skin color or accents. Jennifer Staubach Gates, a Dallas City Council member, elaborated on the growing racial discrimination, stating, “Because of where they live, they were turned down at work.” There are obvious parallels to the same ideas of cultural inferiority and exclusion that have plagued this nation since its inception, but it is difficult to deny that the Ebola epidemic only heightened such bigotry under the guise of health concerns.
Not only is this comparable to Asian restaurants, community centers, and other organizations losing patrons or even being attacked over COVID-19 fears, but the general concept of restricting work based on racial identity is rooted far deeper in American history. In regards to Asian history, Chinese immigrants were barred from entering industries such as tobacco and woolen manufacturing after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, largely due to stereotypes deeming them dirty and incompetent. Such discrimination coupled with their non-citizen status ultimately filtered them into the laundromat industry, which was largely disregarded for being “female labor.” From Chinese laundries to COVID-19 and everything in between, the bigoted implications run deeper than skin color or contamination potential: it is the usage of business against the discriminated, the practice of holding money and other essential resources hostage to avenge the damages caused by the infected, that is the underlying injustice. Often, it is the job itself, whether it is at a laundromat, a store with a Ghanan clerk, or a Brooklyn dim sum hall, that is weaponized as a status symbol, with them being labeled as barbaric, unnecessary, or as contaminated as their workers. This form of prejudice has existed as long as non-white Americans have, and amidst the panic and irrationality of crisis, these sentiments are allowed to thrive.
In times such as these, many, whether they are the oppressor or the oppressed, often look to our leaders for guidance and response. Perhaps most notable — and abhorrent — are Donald Trump’s multiple references to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” or a White House official referring to the virus as the “Kung Flu,” remarks that only perpetuate fear of and intolerance towards Chinese and other Asian Americans. It is only natural that such statements prompt responses from the Asian American community, yet these too can kindle concern instead of consolation. Former Democratic candidate Andrew Yang controversially addresses fellow Asian Americans in an April 2020 Washington Post article, in which he contextualizes COVID-19’s spread in the United States and the ensuing racism. The article’s turning — and arguably its main — point is plainly written, “I obviously think that being racist is not a good thing. But saying ‘Don’t be racist toward Asians’ won’t work.” He continues with a call to action, saying:
“We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before. We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis. We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.”
Yang also cites both contemporary and historical examples of Asian American patriotism, such as the Asian American doctors battling COVID-19 and the Japanese Americans who enlisted in the military during World War II. While Yang might believe that these support his patriotic thesis, they both signify its fatal flaw. Historically, no amount of Japanese American military involvement could have curbed the rampant anti-Japanese racism propagated by wartime media and resurfacing yellow peril, nor did it stop the American government from romanticizing its incarceration of over 100,000 Japanese Americans. In 1943, white Director for the War Relocation Authority Milton Eisenhower reported that Japanese Americans were willingly, even happily moving into horse stalls, which was the purportedly necessary act of patriotism to protect the country. In 2020, an Asian American entrepreneur is asking us to take up the mantle again.
Even Yang’s contemporary examples contain contradictions. Though it’s true that many Asian American doctors fight on the COVID-19 battlefield every day, some still refuse them on the basis of their racial identity. Similarly, a large Asian student body at the University of California Berkeley did not stop the university’s official health account from justifying xenophobic feelings against Asians. Yang’s suggestions are useful in helping us combat the virus, that much I will certainly concede. But they are not useful towards combating racism. No matter how much an Asian American donates to a COVID-19 relief fund, no matter how many Asian Americans vote for more significant healthcare reform, and no matter how many American flag-themed outfits an Asian American owns, nothing will sever us from the physiological and cultural ties to our Eastern motherlands upon which racists and xenophobes base their judgments. Even though Chinese Americans toiled connecting the nation by rail and even though Japanese Americans gave their lives in the United States’ name, it was not enough to save their ostracized, incarcerated brethren. It was never about proving our all-American worth to people with this mindset for one simple reason: no matter how model of a minority we think we are, they never thought of us as Americans in the first place.
The Bay Area has been in lockdown for about three weeks now, yet even if I could go outside, I would be a little afraid to do so. Even in a city so proudly built upon the work of Asian Americans, we have been neglected, shunned, and attacked for supposedly bringing the coronavirus here. I posed a question earlier, “How did things get this bad?” and the answer is clear enough: things have always been this bad. As a Chinese American, I understand that my community often buys into the model minority myth. Many of us ignorantly regard ourselves as exempt from other people of color — sometimes even other Asians — and thus exempt from the struggles they face and the systems that subjugate them. As the COVID-19 pandemic proves, though, we are not. As history proves, we never were.
This conclusion is not meant to be a wondrous revelation but rather an overdue reorientation. If we delude ourselves like Yang has and believe that the path to acceptance is to blindly mimic our oppressors, then we are doing neither ourselves nor other marginalized communities any good; standing in silence or even with the hateful throngs only ever comes back around. My hope is that the story of COVID-19 will be a cautionary tale for those of us who become too complacent in such prejudiced systems, for at any given moment, our “privileges” can be stripped from us and we will be abandoned and assaulted once more. No, “Don’t be racist toward Asians,” probably isn’t enough. What we need to do is not only recognize the struggles we as Asian people have endured and continue to face, but we also must stand in solidarity with other communities that have borne such burdens for generations. We must actively combat each and every discriminatory act through actions that empower and enable our people and friends, not those who mock and detest us. These are the steps we must take if we want to build a better world, one in which race is never a reason for disdain, one in which people are not the virus, and one in which my partner does not need to warn me for doing my groceries.