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Taking Action: COVID-19 and Asian Identity by Kyubin Kim

June 2, 2020

When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in America in March 2020, states scrambled to shut down, leaving people in a frenzy of confusion and uncertainty. The nation was ordered to stay home while 36 million Americans filed for unemployment, schools transitioned to online learning models, and businesses were forced to file for bankruptcy. Disruptions to everyday living grew rampantly worldwide as countries dealt with the pandemic by enforcing varying levels of restrictions. This heightened tension and restless aggravation became the breeding ground for the need to shift blame in the only way Americans knew how–– to the origin of the virus, Wuhan, China.


Theories quickly emerged in order to explain how the virus was created and unfiltered misinformation spread through social media networks. After a U.S. microbiologist speculated that the virus’ human transmission could have ties to a lab accident, 23% of Americans stated that they believed the virus was created deliberately by Chinese scientists in a lab in Wuhan. 


Rather than blaming a far-off country on the other side of the world, Americans deflected blame onto reachable targets within domestic borders. It was less about the virus and more about targeting American residents who appeared to be of East Asian descent. Eventually, entire Asian and Asian American communities were facing a rise in racial epithets and xenophobic assaults (inclusive of Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, and more). Verbal and physical incidents targeting Asians and Asian Americans continue to occur throughout May as people search for a scapegoat for this life-altering public health crisis.


The Anti-Defamation League has been recording the rising number of reported Anti-Asian assaults, harassment, and hate crimes since January 2020. Here are just a handful: 

  • Five Asian-owned restaurants were vandalized in San Jose, California. 
  • On a New York subway, a stranger shouted to an Asian man, “You're infected China boy, you need to get off the train,” and attempted to drag the man out of his seat. 
  • In Seymour, Connecticut, a Chinese food restaurant faced threatening phone calls that blamed the Chinese owners for the pandemic, with the perpetrators even threatening to shoot them. 
  • During a second-grade class Zoom session, a student told the class he doesn’t like “China or Chinese people because they started this quarantine.”

However, the month of May is historically laden with triumph and celebration for Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. On May 7, 1843, the first Japanese immigrant arrived in the United States. On May 10, 1869, the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed using Chinese labor. Today, there are 17.3 million Asian Americans living in the United States and the first Asian American ran for presidency in the 2020 election. In order to celebrate the progress and achievements of the generations of Asian Americans who shaped and continue to shape American history, May was officially declared to be Asian American Pacific Islander Month.


Unfortunately, in the year 2020, May began with Asian Americans being told to go back to their country, harassed and insulted in public, and victims of vandalism. The pandemic has exposed and resurrected the racial injustices deeply entrenched within American history. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act placed a quota on the number of Chinese immigrants entering the United States in the fears that they would take jobs away from white working class laborers. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in 1942, Executive Order 9066 issued the herding of all Japanese residents into internment camps during World War II. Asians were viewed as the Yellow Peril, uncivilized, filthy foreigners, born from the fear of an Asian invasion. We still see this attitude today when President Donald Trump referred to the novel coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” personifying the disease as an ethnic group and Asians as disease-carrying vectors.


In times of crisis and misrepresentations, it is imperative to encourage and actively engage with conversations about the Asian American experience. The global coronavirus pandemic is history in the making and Asian American communities require advocates more than ever. With the following tips, we hope to encourage a national identity built on solidarity and support, instead of scapegoating and blame-shifting.


How to advocate for yourself as an Asian / Asian American:

  • Report incidents to Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s Stand Against Hatred website. This organization has been documenting hate crimes, harassment, and discrimination since January 2017. Your report is invaluable to the effort to monitor and push back against hate, whether it is something you experienced or an event that you witnessed.
  • Need language assistance? The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council offers incident report forms in 12 different languages.
  • Call the Stop Hate helpline (1-844-9-NO-HATE). The Stop Hate Project offers assistance with legal and social services, including access to counsel and mental health service, as well as educating local law enforcement. The Stop Hate website also offers overviews on Federal Hate Crime Law and State Hate Crime Laws.
  • Hollaback!” is a non-profit organization powered by global activists whose mission is to end harassment in all forms. Check out their tips on how to respond to street harassment and a digestible graphic on counter speech do’s and don’ts when facing online harassment.
  • Mental health is rarely discussed in Asian American communities and non-Asian health practitioners may not be aware of beliefs and values unique to Asian cultures. The National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association is a non-profit that focuses on providing Asian American communities with mental health resources as well as mental health facts sheets in Hmong, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Mandarin, Thai, and Vietnamese. 
  • HeartMob, a community focused on ending online harassment, wrote an article, “Self Care for People Experiencing Harassment” to offer tips on asking for help, finding a community space to speak out, meditation, and more.
  • Self-care for the entire family. Many Asian Americans live in intergenerational households and the experiences of a 1st generation immigrant and a 3rd generation American will be deeply unique. To support the breadth of emotional needs and experiences, Each Mind Matters has compiled resources that include youth testimonies, interviews with family members, and family-oriented help sheets in multiple languages.
  • Share your story! Talk to trusted loved ones, write down how you’re feeling. You are not alone and your experience matters. Check out this collection of Asian American publications to find a community you can share your stories with.


How to become an ally for the Asian / Asian American community:

  • Learn how to identify racism. Racism can be overt, intentional actions and verbal insults, but it can also be covert and subtle. The first obstacle to bystander intervention is the inability to register the incident as racist.
  • Partake in active bystander training. Speaking up against harassment has a powerful effect on providing a sense of comfort to victims. “Hollaback!” is an organization whose mission is to end harassment in all forms and they offer free, virtual, 30 min bystander intervention in the workplace mini-training.
  • Teaching Tolerance is a program that provides free resources for educators to incorporate social justice and anti-bias approaches in their curriculum and practices. Their article, “How to Respond to Coronavirus Racism” uses a 4-step process to speak up against bias including:
  1.  Interrupt: pause the conversation and rewind to address the racism: “Hang on, I want to go back to what you said.”
  2. Question: ask the person to explain why they said the racist remark: “What makes you say that?”
  3. Educate: continue the conversation, providing not just the facts about the topic but explain why they need to rethink their words.
  4. Echo: when someone speaks up against racism, vocally and visibly support them and amplify their message.

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