Defining Safe: The Spread of Coronavirus and Anti-Asian Racism

Alex Chun, Reporter

How has the rise in reports of anti-Asian racism impacted the Northwestern community? Northwestern students share their experiences with and comment on the rise of anti-Asian racism in the time of COVID-19.

Resources for Asian American students:

NAKASEC Community Resources for COVID-19
NAKASEC Mutual Aid Fund Donations
NU Asian Pacific American Coalition
AAPI Incident Report Form
National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum Facebook page
NU APAC Facebook page

MICHAEL ZHOU: So, I am on our school’s mock trial team. And, in January, we had a tournament in downtown Chicago. We went through the whole trial. You know, usually you shake hands with everyone and you congratulate the other person on the other team on a good round. I went up to shake one of the other person’s hands. And he was just like, “Yeah, you know, I just don’t want to get coronavirus.”

ABBEY ZHU: When my dad goes out shopping, we used to debate whether or not he should wear a mask, because if he wore a mask, someone might be like, “You’re Chinese, and you’re sick, and I’m going to hurt you.”

SOO LA KIM: We were walking along the rocks, and then I passed the big flat rock that originally had a Chinese character on it, and then, written across the top, was in red spray paint “Chinese Virus,” underlined three times.

ISABELL LIU: It wasn’t a matter of “if,” it was a matter of “when.” It was a matter of when the camera or the lens would get turned on Asian Americans and when we would be painted as the harbingers of virus.

ABBEY ZHU: This is very much an Asian American issue.

ALEX CHUN: From the Daily Northwestern, this is Alex Chun. Welcome to Defining Safe, a podcast about the experiences of marginalized communities on campus… except, right now, most Northwestern students aren’t on campus. Amid COVID-19, learning has become remote… but the impacts of the coronavirus spread beyond Zoom lectures.

On March 19, 2020, the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council launched “STOP AAPI HATE,” a reporting center for Asian-identifying individuals to report coronavirus discrimination and hate crimes. In just the two weeks since its launch, the center received over 1,100 reports. And reports continue to rise.

But Medill junior Michael Zhou first experienced racial profiling in January at a mock trial tournament. After the round, when the members of each team were supposed to shake hands, a member of the opposing team refused to shake Michael’s hand saying that he didn’t want to catch coronavirus.

MICHAEL ZHOU: So, I didn’t really at the time think of it as anything, but as soon as he said it, I still looked up a little bit and kind of was still affected, and I shared a look with one of my teammates. He opened his eyes really wide at me and gave me this look, like, “What the heck is he doing?” And this person on the other team went up to another person on my team and gave them a handshake. So it took me a while to process this, but it was kind of laughable at the time, but when you actually think about what this person did, and the different way that he treated me, as opposed to the other people on my team where I’m the only Asian American person on my team, everyone else’s either white or African American, it was a pretty clear cut taste of a racist incident.

ALEX CHUN: And Michael isn’t alone in his experience. For one week during March, AAPI reported over 100 incidents every day. And even when some student activists focus on the work they’re doing, increased reports of hate can act like a fog — difficult to see through and hanging heavily over everything else. Weinberg sophomore Isabell Liu describes seeing anti-Asian reports increase despite activists’ effort.

ISABELL LIU: So I do follow a lot of activists on social media. The people that I admire so much and follow and support, try so hard and do so much. And yet this still happens. And I don’t think this is inevitable. I don’t think racism or discrimination is inevitable, but for that split second, a part of me felt like it was futile. It was just a split second. I try not to go there. Because I don’t believe it, that’s not one of my core beliefs. But it was a split second, where I just felt like everything we’ve been pushing for — maybe we aren’t capable of beating racism.

ALEX CHUN: And although we’ve switched to mostly online interactions, discrimination is still prevalent on social media. Students have reported seeing racist memes about Asians and the coronavirus posted in online Northwestern spaces, including Northwestern’s unofficial meme Facebook group. Even a member of NU’s Associated Student Government Senate made a racist post in the Senate’s private communication channel.

ABBEY ZHU: Even if they aren’t ill-intentioned, it was still like, damn. People are dying from this disease, and you still have to make a joke about it?

ALEX CHUN: Abbey Zhu, a Weinberg sophomore, is active in APAC, the Asian Pacific American Coalition. APAC provides a space for Asian and Pacific American identifying students to engage in dialogue surrounding identity, social justice and community organizing. Before learning was made remote, APAC held a discussion about the rise of anti-Asian racism and its impacts on Northwestern students.

ABBEY ZHU: We had a conversation then about how people were making light of a very deadly disease, and, also, a lot of our members identify as Chinese American, and we have family who are literally impacted by the disease. One side of my family is from Wuhan, which is where the virus started. And my grandparents who are like 90 years old live there. And so to see jokes about that when I know that they’ve been stuck inside their homes for so long, and they’re so old… and I was just praying constantly that they wouldn’t get sick, but people still managed to make a joke about it… it was very… really disheartening.

ALEX CHUN: After seeing the rise in anti-Asian racism reports and people’s reactions, Isabell describes a sense of foreboding.

ISABELL LIU: Honestly, my first thought was, “I knew it.” I mean, obviously, there was outrage. There was anger, there was sadness. I think when this first broke out, I knew this was going to happen. I knew that I was going to get painted as, “the Chinese virus.” And then my second thought was, “But really? Again?” This is not new. Tying Asians to virus is actually part of Asian American history.

ALEX CHUN: Stereotypes about Asian Americans as dirty have been perpetuated throughout history. At the beginning of the 20th century, San Francisco had a huge plague outbreak carried by rats. At the time, plague epidemiology was not widely understood, and plagues were considered a “disease of place.” Soon enough, public health professionals quickly pointed to San Francisco’s Chinatown as a cesspool of disease, propagating the belief that the disease came from Chinese people. Chinese immigrants were given invasive health inspections. And the anti-Chinese sentiment quickly spread across the United States, and in one incident, a “controlled fire” meant to cleanse burned down Honolulu’s Chinatown.

ABBEY ZHU: I think specific members of American leadership actively perpetuate harm, like President Trump and others who are high up who refuse to retract their statements about calling it the Chinese virus or the Wuhan virus or kung flu or whatever. And people I think will dismiss that. They call it that or think that it doesn’t have ramifications, when in reality, that directly attributes it to China and justifies attacks on people who look Chinese.

ALEX CHUN: Last month, in a coronavirus briefing, photographers captured President Trump’s speaking notes. The pictures showed that the word “corona” was crossed out, replacing it with the word “Chinese.”

Reporter: Why do you keep calling this the “Chinese virus?” There are reports of dozens of incidents of bias against Chinese Americans in this country. Your own aide, Secretary Azar, said he does not use this term because ethnicity does not cause the virus. Why do you keep using this? A lot of people say it’s racist.

Donald Trump: Because it comes from China. It’s not racist at all, no. Not at all. It comes from China.

ALEX CHUN: Previous presidential candidate Andrew Yang wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post offering advice for how he believes Asian Americans should act during this time. Yang wrote, “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. Demonstrate that we are part of the solution. We are not the virus, but we can be part of the cure.”

ABBEY ZHU: It’s embarrassing. It was so embarrassing to read not only because of the examples he used, but also why do you have to prove your humanity in whatever way, like for him being ultra-American and for him American means being white. Why do you have to continuously prove that you are worthy of being seen as a human being to people who do not want to see you as a human being?

ALEX CHUN: In his op-ed, Yang cited historical incidents, such as Japanese Americans serving in the military during World War II as an example of Asian Americans demonstrating their “American-ness.”

ISABELL LIU: The fact that he brings up Japanese American service in the military during World War II, as reference to ways we could be more American right now is actually hilarious. And by hilarious I mean not funny at all. There was this thing called the loyalty questionnaire that Japanese Americans were given. A lot of people getting this questionnaire were already incarcerated Japanese Americans. And they got two questions, OK. One was basically compulsory, like, will you serve in the US military? And then number two is, will you revoke your loyalty to the Japanese Emperor? If you’re a Japanese American citizen who has been born in the US, and you get asked this question, how would you feel? It was not us showcasing our American-ness, it was us being forced to sacrifice our lives for a country that did not even see us as citizens.

ALEX CHUN: So, what now? How can we best support one another during this time of such uncertainty and panic?

ABBEY ZHU: I think what is most important right now is for people with a lot of wealth and resources to donate to mutual aid funds. If you have extra time to make phone calls either to your Congresspeople or to make phone calls to jails and ask them to release more people. I think words are important too, but your words also have to be transformed into some form of action. I also know that there is a community organization right now called Nakasec. They’re organizing a campaign to call Congresspeople to have a fourth stimulus bill that allows undocumented immigrants to receive cash assistance and also qualify for Medicaid, or other federally subsidized health care. because right now they’re not getting the $1200 checks.

ALEX CHUN: For Northwestern to serve as a safe space, some students feel it is crucial for the Northwestern community to support one another.

ISABELL LIU: One of my favorite professors back at UCSB, what she said was, in order to help people that are not as privileged as you are, you first shut up, and you give them the stage. You say, “OK, I don’t understand. Help me understand how I can help you.” Obviously, privilege is a bad word, or whatever, to some people. But I also think of it as a resource. Just like how water is a resource or money is a resource, you can use that to give voice to other people.

MICHAEL ZHOU: College campuses in general, or Northwestern in particular, should and usually have been safe spaces for everyone, including minorities and Asian Americans. Being a safe space, there’s a responsibility on the administrators, the people at Northwestern in general, the Northwestern population, to kind of minimize and confront any incident like this. Anytime something like this happens, it’s everyone’s responsibility to call this person’s racism or bigotry out. If you’re a bystander in the situation, then I think you have a responsibility to call this person out and to tell them that they’re not OK, and that they’re being racist, and that that stuff is not tolerated.

ALEX CHUN: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Alex Chun. Thanks for listening! Stay safe everyone, and we’ll see you next time for another episode of Defining Safe.

ALEX CHUN: This episode was reported and produced by me, Alex Chun. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Molly Lubbers, the digital managing editors are Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava, and the editor in chief is Marissa Martinez.

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