Living as an Asian American in the United States right now can be absolutely harrowing. While racial discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans isn’t anything new (we’ve dealt with it since before the first Asian immigrants started building the railroads), the Asian American community hasn’t faced this much potential backlash since Japanese Americans were interned in camps following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Today those anti-Asian sentiments are resurfacing. On April 5th, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams described the peak of coronavirus-related deaths as “our Pearl Harbor moment.” Such comments, suggesting America is under attack by a foreign enemy, can easily fuel racism against Asian Americans. In fact, the impact of racism since the start of COVID-19 has already begun to emerge.
As coronavirus spreads, so does racism and xenophobia. The rise in hate crimes against Asians can only get worse as the death toll continues to climb alongside unemployment rates; the country needs a scapegoat, and if history is any indication, crisis sharpens racism.
There have been several reports of anti-Asian racism related to COVID-19 from the most diverse cities in the world, including Los Angeles and New York City. Asians are being harassed, spit on, and attacked in broad daylight under the false assumption that they are to blame for the pandemic.
A Heavy Toll On Our Psyches
The result has been, in some places, horrifying. Reports of hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans have skyrocketed in the U.S., as if that would somehow stop the spread of COVID-19.
It may come as a surprise to some people, but viral infections don’t need a passport to cross borders. Blaming a whole subset of humanity — people of East Asian descent — for a global pandemic is the height of insanity.
Racial discrimination is consistently linked to poor mental health, specifically anxiety and depression. Overt racism and subtle micro-aggressions have increased psychological distress among Asian Americans.
Since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the states, there has been a 22% increase in people who took the Mental Health America’s anxiety screening test, and a 39% increase in Asian American and Pacific Islander test-takers.
When the mental health of one person is affected, we all suffer the repercussions. There’s a domino effect that extends beyond the individual; mental and behavioral disorders impact families and communities.
When there’s stress at home, it affects parenting. A depressed parent may not be able to interact with their children in a way that best promotes their development, leaving the children more vulnerable to behavioral disorders. The effects on society caused by individuals who are emotionally impaired cannot be ignored.
Today, of course, the situation is much different than in the World War II era. Asian Americans aren’t being herded into camps, but we are living with the possibility that misguided fear and anger will be directed at us for reasons outside our control. Already we see COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, China, being called “the Chinese virus,” as if somehow Chinese people are responsible for the pandemic.
The Chinese government may have some explaining to do, but Chinese people are as much victims of what happened as is everyone else, and they are not to blame.
Despite its racist overtones, the term has gone all the way to the top of the U.S. government. The president calls the disease “the Chinese virus,” and he’s even allowed a White House staffer to refer to it as the “Kung Flu.” When leadership condones this behavior, they’re saying that it’s okay to have an anti-Asian bias.
This fosters a climate of fear of “the other” and allows racists to justify their hate. Blaming Asians for a virus that people of every ethnic group have succumbed to is ignorance at its finest.
Crisis Text Line, a nonprofit group that provides free mental health support through text messaging, reported the biggest spike in calls after President Trump used the term “Chinese virus.” When the leader of our country dubs the virus “Kung Flu” or a “Chinese Virus,” people are likely to follow him.
This prompted the civil rights group, OCA–Asian Pacific American Advocates, to send a letter to Trump that was signed by more than 200 other civil rights and advocacy groups, urging him to make a statement condemning racism against Asians. That same day Trump held a press conference saying that “Asians are amazing people, and the spreading of the virus is not their fault in any way, shape, or form.”
Although community advocates appreciated the comment, what they want is for the administration to do more in protecting Asian Americans by creating a task force in the Justice Department to oversee anti-Asian hate crimes.
But until that happens, witnesses can still play a critical role in protecting Asian Americans from violence. When bystanders speak out on injustice, they are showing solidarity.
Deflect Hate with Your Americanness
One response to this, and one that’s been strongly criticized, is former presidential hopeful Andrew Yang’s plea to “show your Americanness” to stop racially based COVID-19 fear and prejudice in its tracks — and that opens up a whole other can of worms.
Do we have to denounce our very ethnicity to prove our “loyalty” to being American? We’re already suffering alongside everyone else, thanks to widespread stay-at-home orders and rampant fear that we or our loved ones will be infected. We don’t need the added emotional pressure of having to “prove ourselves.”
Reading Andrew Yang’s article in the Washington Post brought back a ton of memories for me. I’m Asian American from Dallas, Texas but grew up in a small town in Arizona. I was oblivious at how I took up space as a person of color until moving to L.A. after high school.
Living in Southern California changed my life; it was the first time I didn’t feel the need to represent everyone who looks like me because there’s a large, diverse Asian community here. Before that, I spent my youth feeling like I had to prove my Americanness to be accepted. Growing up in the southwest added more pressure to this as there are fewer Asian Americans compared to other cities.
After I had a taste of what it’s like to be myself without needing to prove how American I am, I’ll never forget that I deserve a seat at the table as well, which is why representation is so important.
In the end, what this experience really taught me is that there are good and bad apples everywhere. There has always been ignorance, but there are also communities that want to leave the world better than they found it. Because people are the same wherever you go.
We’re in This Together
If, like me, you are Asian American, you have nothing to prove. We have a right to be here just like anyone else. You or your parents most likely paid the racism tax for immigrating here, so there’s nothing you can do to be any more American than you already are. Be as proud of your heritage or ethnicity as you want to be. Coronavirus is not your fault.
For everyone else of non-Asian descent: we get it. You’re scared. We’re scared, too. But we’re not to blame here. We’re trying to survive this pandemic just like you are, and the only way we’ll get through this is if we all work together.
Stay at home. Find a way to channel your fear and anxiety in directions that don’t hurt yourself or others. Follow physical distancing rules. If you’re an essential worker, take steps to protect yourself as much as you can.
And please everyone — wash those hands!!
If you’re in need of support, please contact the following.
Connect With A Crisis Counselor:
U.S. or Canada. Text: HOME to 741741
Ireland. Text: 086 1800 280
U.K. Text: 85258
Report A Hate Crime:
OCA-National Center: (202) 223–5500
1322 18th St. NW
Washington, DC 20036
For Legal Help:
Advancing Justice: (888) 349–9695