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Why it is NOT the ‘Chinese virus’

During COVID-19 pandemic, Asian Americans face racist attacks

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Have you ever walked into a crowded movie theater late? The lights are dim and you need to find a seat. You wait until there’s a bright scene, then sheepishly tiptoe down the aisle, blocking the view of moviegoers behind you. It feels like everyone’s watching you. Or maybe they’re not and it’s all in your head. Then again, maybe it isn’t.

That’s being Asian American during the coronavirus pandemic, when racism toward Asians and Asian Americans is growing so quickly the FBI issued a warning. The hate ranges from threatening letters taped to homes to being spat on and getting sprayed in the face with disinfectant to a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old being stabbed. Gun sales in the Asian American community are surging out of fear of attacks.

The message is clear but misguided: “You people” are the reason for the global pandemic. You are the Outbreak monkey. You are Gwyneth Paltrow in Contagion. You are the Chinese virus.

“In the last three weeks, there have been over 400 incidents of physical violence or verbal assault,” said John Yang, executive director of the advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC, while noting that not all hate crimes are reported. “Let me be clear, we’re not just talking about racial epithets and slurs, we’re talking about physical violence. People getting kicked, punched, physically assaulted, only for the fact they’re Asian American.”

The xenophobia is reminiscent of the aftermath of 9/11, when there was a surge of discrimination toward Middle Eastern, Arab, Muslim and Sikh people. Rapper Fat Joe recognized this on an Instagram Live with former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, a sentence that doesn’t even feel weird to type considering all that’s happened in 2020.

“What’s sad, when [the pandemic] started, I think back to 9/11,” said the rapper. “I have a lot of Muslim friends. DJ Khaled is my brother. He’s the first person I called on 9/11. I said, ‘Yo, stay in the house. Do you have a gun?’ Cuz I knew there was gonna be hate crimes. Anybody who’s performing these type of crimes on Asian people, these are obviously hate crimes.”

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

The anti-Asian sentiment is being exacerbated by the proliferation of the term “Chinese virus.” When world leaders use it, it becomes validated and trickles down into every corner of society, from businesses to schools, where Asian Americans are getting bullied for being themselves.

Former NBA star Jeremy Lin, who recently returned to China to finish the Chinese Basketball Association season, tweeted: “Can you honestly tell me there is ZERO anti-Chinese sentiment in all his characterizations of the virus? Can you honestly tell me Asians aren’t being unfairly physically attacked today in the US? Is it that hard to use coronavirus or COVID-19? We playin the blame game in a crisis.”

But Cary, the coronavirus started in Wuhan, China, what’s the big deal? How’s that racist? What about Ebola and West Nile? Those were named after their place of origin. You’re being too sensitive! This is politically correct culture gone wild!

“Calling it the ‘Chinese virus’ or anything of that sort creates unnecessary xenophobia for people who look like me. It takes literally no effort to call it by its correct name.” – UCLA women’s basketball guard Natalie Chou

Yes, infectious diseases used to be named after geographic locations. But in 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized the unintended negative effects on nations, economies and people, so they recommended using more generic descriptive terms. Hence “coronavirus,” because the virus is shaped like a crown. The guidelines don’t apply to previously identified diseases, such as Ebola, named in 1976, or West Nile in 1937. Like so much in life, we can’t view the past through our 2020 woke goggles, but we can learn from it and be better for the future.

“This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s assistant director-general for health, security and environment at the time. “We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities.”

THE HATE U GET

The backlash is real and rising. According to the online reporting forum, Stop AAPI Hate, there have been 673 reports of coronavirus discrimination towards Asian Americans across the country since March 18 (the report includes slurs unlike the stats mentioned by Yang). The Asian-American news site NextShark received too many complaints of racial attacks, so they launched an incident report form to track coronavirus-related incidents. Just Sunday, as several Asian-American journalists, including myself, gathered for a Zoom chat to mourn the passing of longtime CBS News journalist Maria Mercader from COVID-19, a white teen hacked into the chat and began posting racist rhetoric, including drawing a swastika.

“This is about mental health, this is not simply about political correctness,” said John Yang at a COVID-19 webinar hosted by the Council of Korean Americans. “This is not something people should be asked to shrug off. These are things that have lasting impacts. We still remember when we were called a ch–k and made fun of in grade school.”

Andrew Yang weighed in on Instagram Live with Fat Joe about the president using the term “Chinese virus”:

“A lot of people feel that Trump gave permission to blame the virus on Chinese Americans, Asian Americans, and it’s so unnecessary,” said Andrew Yang. “At first I tried to ignore it because this is just trying to distract us from the real issues – that he stumbled in the early response to the virus. But now that people are having their way of life change in fundamental ways like going to the grocery store, they’re not welcome in their own neighborhood, in their own country, it’s more serious than even I’d known.”

UCLA women’s basketball guard Natalie Chou, who’s Chinese American, said she’s felt endangered because of the adversarial nature of the term, posting on Twitter: “To call this pandemic anything other than the technical name it has been given, COVID-19, is disrespectful and ultimately racists. Calling it the ‘Chinese virus’ or anything of that sort creates unnecessary xenophobia for people who look like me. It takes literally no effort to call it by its correct name.”

Which does lead to the question: What’s so hard about saying “coronavirus” or “COVID-19”? Why the insistence on “Chinese virus”? It’s like the nonblack person who insists on saying the N-word because it’s in a song. Let me be clear: I’m not equating “Chinese virus” with the N-word or even anything close to it, I’m equating the person who stubbornly refuses to change their mentality about language out of misplaced privilege. The You-Can’t-Tell-Me-What-I-Can-and-Can’t-Say person. We all know this person.

“I understand people are getting devastated by this virus and it’s really easy to want to find someone to blame it on,” said Andrew Yang. “The fact is, Asian Americans are suffering in the same way everyone else is suffering.”

THE PERPETUAL FOREIGNER

In response to the rising anti-Asian wave, the president recently tweeted multiple times about the need to protect Asian Americans, including on March 23: “[The pandemic] is NOT their fault in any way, shape, or form. They are working closely with us to get rid of it. WE WILL PREVAIL TOGETHER!”

The message, while positive, also had a subtlety all too familiar in the Asian American community. The use of “us” versus “they,” as opposed to “we.” Those simple pronouns result in the Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome, the concept that regardless of where Asian Americans are born and raised, they’re still viewed as foreigners.

ESPN personality Pablo Torre, who is Filipino-American, said on The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz: “You may be born here, you may have been here since your ancestors built the continental railroad, you may even be a newly arrived immigrant, but whatever the case – you are visibly less American. In this case, the Italian tourist who gets to walk across America, in the limited fashion any of us can at this point, with less fear. It’s that notion you will never be American. That is really heartbreaking about what is happening and will be happening for a while longer, because this is all just starting.”

UNITY IN THE ‘SUFFERING’ OLYMPICS

The outbreak of racism has led some Asian Americans to reflect on the discrimination against other communities of color. UCLA’s Chou, who wrote a first-person piece for ESPN, compared the prejudice she faced with that of her African American teammates.

“Spending time with them and going out, I see this happen to them every day,” Chou told the Los Angeles Times, “and this is maybe an inch of what they experience a day, and it’s just crazy how they’re so strong because I’m fed up and this is like one little thing.”

It’s human nature to make comparisons. Compare struggles, hardships, successes. “My struggle is tougher than yours.” That’s not what this is about. Torre addressed this on ESPN Radio:

“One thing I would say to the Asian American community, is we have a similar obligation when other communities are attacked.” – John Yang, Asian Americans Advancing Justice president and CEO

“We know when you do the ‘Suffering Olympics,’ there are things that have happened in this country that puts what [Asian Americans] go through in perspective and it’s worth keeping that,” said Torre. “It’s one of my frustrations when you refer to anybody who’s nonwhite as a person of color it tends to erase all these nuances and distinctions that makes one population’s experiences with racism different from another.”

From the NAACP to the National Urban League to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, leaders in other communities of color have been vocal defenders of the Asian American community. Before the lockdown, actor/comedian Tracy Morgan was seen in New York’s Chinatown ordering food and entertaining patrons at a local restaurant. Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s John Yang says this is a time to remember the golden rule, and that all communities are stronger together.

“One thing I would say to the Asian American community is we have a similar obligation when other communities are attacked,” said John Yang. “The Asian American community has not always been great about standing up for the African American community, the Latino community. We should use this moment to remind ourselves what makes us better [is being] together.”

Truth is, while clichéd, we’re all in this together, trying to figure out the new normal. This is an unprecedented moment in our lifetimes. A nondiscriminatory disease is infecting our loved ones and livelihoods, forcing us apart. A discriminatory disease is doing the same to a large group of us. One is a new phenomenon, the other stitched into the fabric of this country. As we figure out how to stop one, empathy can slow the other.

Cary Chow is a freelancer for The Undefeated. He has an unrivaled talent for breaking video equipment, still thinks Omar was wronged in "The Wire," and roots for both the Clippers and Lakers and doesn't care about your fandom rules.