Anti-Asian racism is on the rise. This is what it feels like

A person walks past a sign laying on the ground that reads: "It's China's fault" as supporters of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro take part in a protest blaming China for being the country where the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) started, in front of the Chinese consulate in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil May 17, 2020.
"China is to blame": Xenophobic and racist attitudes appear to be spreading along with the virus
Image: REUTERS/Pilar Olivares
  • COVID-19 has led to an increase in racism and xenophobia directed at those of Asian descent.
  • Here, a professor of Vietnamese heritage working in Bogotá recounts being on the receiving end of two such incidents.

The first incident

I teach at a university in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, where, a few days after the first case of COVID-19 arrived in the country, a student reported me for allegedly coming to class sick and coughing. Did I cough? Yes. Was I sick? No. That didn’t matter to the administration, who told me to stay at home without bothering to ask. Nor did it matter when I voiced my concern that the student had lied about my being sick. I am the only professor of Asian descent at the entire university, and the only one, as far as I know, who was asked to stay home.

Apart from this incident, more and more “friends” had begun making jokes with me about keeping their distance before a countrywide stay-at-home order was put in place.

The lockdown, which many friends complained about as a big disruption and inconvenience to their lives, was a quiet relief for me.

The second incident

A few days ago I was walking back home from the grocery store, carrying two large bags, when a man half a block ahead looked back and yelled something indistinguishable. He was visibly angry and looked like he was going to attack someone. I figured he had gotten into a fight with someone behind me. Not wanting to get into the middle of it, I crossed the street. As I walked past from the other side of the road, he pointed at me and continuously yelled "Hija de puta!" at me - an insult in Spanish too obscene to translate here. I looked around and saw a few other people in the vicinity, but it eventually sunk in that he was pointing and yelling at me. I hurried away as fast as I could. The yelling continued on for what seemed like an eternity until I was finally out of earshot.

I sobbed all the way home, not wanting to touch my face, but feeling suffocated by my mask.

No one around me had reacted at all. They just went about their normal business and turned away when I looked in their directions. I thought this might be down to the Colombian mentality that you shouldn’t get involved with other people’s business — 'no seas sapo' (literally 'don't be a toad', which is Colombian slang for 'mind your own business'). But I couldn’t help but wonder if they felt this way about me, too.

I believe these incidents are related to my race, as I am ethnically Vietnamese — but after speaking up about both, I received responses such as: "You’re making something out of nothing", or "Maybe you’re just paranoid".

Maybe I am. But what I do know is that I have experienced many microaggressions here since I arrived. It seems to me that people are just now feeling more emboldened to openly express hatred toward Asians.

I love Colombia and the life I have built here, but I am afraid of how life will look when I go outside again. I might be ostracized, or I might lose work. What I am most afraid of, though, is that I might be physically attacked and that people will just look away when it happens.

Living in a place in which you are reminded every day that you are different is already hard. But feeling like you are being blamed for a global crisis is impossible to digest.

The rise in hate crimes

My initial anger has developed into fear as I have experienced more hostility and read story after story about the sharp rise in discrimination, abuse, and hate crimes against Asians around the world. Some of the most alarming are about the man in London who was beat so badly that he may require reconstructive surgery to mend the multiple fractures to his face, and the family — including two children aged two and six — who were stabbed at a market in Texas by a man who confessed he was trying to kill them because he believed they were Chinese and spreading the virus. Stop AAPI Hate was created in response to the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans and received over 1,100 incident reports in just the first two weeks.

The racism didn't appear overnight

Because of coronavirus, the world is changing rapidly in ways we have never seen — with the economy, healthcare systems, our personal philosophies, and much more.

But many individuals’ mindsets about race are not changing. The history of racism against Asians dates back centuries. People are angry about the virus and all the uncertainty it brings, and it is easier to point the finger at a group of people than it is to try to understand something they can’t see or resolve.

Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, states in an interview with PBS NewsHour: “...we know from our firsthand accounts on this tracker (Stop AAPI Hate) that we have individuals who are mimicking [President Trump’s] words...and that they’re also individuals who’ve reported their interactions of defending the president’s words.”

But it is not only politicians who are to blame. It is also people like the teacher who forced the Asian boy to go to the nurse for coughing when he was only choking on water. Parents are teaching derogatory terms to their children, who are going on to harass their classmates of Asian descent.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Do something

Consider your actions. Think about the people you influence — your children, siblings, partners, friends, students, colleagues, constituents — what conscious or unconscious messages are you displaying or teaching them about their identities? Are you passively allowing aggressions to happen around you? Or are you taking actions against them?

Educate yourself and others about coronavirus-related racism. Speak up against it. React when you see incidents happening. Help victims when you see them being attacked in any way. Report incidents so we can take aggressors off our streets and push policymakers to see this data and take action in a serious manner.

Finally, demand inclusive leadership and condemn racism. The first pandemic has already spun out of control, but we don’t have to let that happen to this one, too.

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