COVID-19 threat includes racism for young Asian Americans
January 13, 2021
Holly Nguyen was working her usual shift as a hostess during the pandemic when two customers came in wearing face masks donning the words “Blame China.” After some initial discomfort at seeing those words, she continued with her job, and was about to seat them when the couple refused her service and requested a server who wasn’t “Chinese or Asian.”
Speechless, Nguyen asked her white co-worker, who was equally shocked, to serve them.
Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American, had experienced racial microaggressions in the predominantly white town where she grew up, but she said this was her first real experience with such blatant racism.
“It was just a slap in the face,” she said.
A new wave of racism and hate
Instances like Nguyen’s aren’t uncommon or even unheard of, especially during the age of COVID-19. Since March, one of the most intense months of the pandemic, the virus has spurred a new wave of racism against Asian Americans.
For young Asian Americans, this time of increased racial awareness has only made it harder for them to establish their own identities and seek the change they want to see for themselves and others.
In interviews with several young Asian American college students, each shared frustration, sadness and confusion brought on by increased incidents of racism and harassment since the virus became more widespread in March.
STOP AAPI Hate, a coalition that advocates for Asian American and Pacific Islander rights, has received over 2,500 reports of Anti-Asian incidents between March 19 and Aug. 5, all of which include hate speech and harassment. According to the Pew Research Center, compared to other ethnic groups, Asian Americans were more likely to experience racial slurs due to their race since COVID-19, and about 26% said they fear being physically attacked.
What some young Asian Americans have experienced
Matt Deng, a 21-year-old student at Suffolk University, said he has been subjected to a “fair share of racism and witnessed many minor and major things,” including Asians being denied service in a restaurant or in stores, during the pandemic.
“I was at a Chick Fil-A with two of my friends, and as this group of white girls were leaving, they coughed and said ‘corona’ and left,” Deng said. “It was extremely demeaning and made me feel like no one wanted me to be anywhere.”
Deng grew up in Quincy, which has the largest number of Asian residents in Massachusetts at 24% of the city’s population. However, Deng still felt that different communities in the city were often separated in a way, since some areas are more predominantly Black, Hispanic or Asian, and when he attended pre-K and elementary school it was difficult to connect with peers as he attended a predominantly white school.
However, he always maintained an extremely strong connection with his culture because his parents raised him in a deeply traditional Chinese household. When he attended high school, he was able to reconnect with his peers because the school had a large Asian demographic and students were generally more open-minded about different backgrounds, he said.
That’s what made him all the more shocked and disgusted at the range of racism and harassment he witnessed taking place in his own ethnically diverse hometown.
Rachel Ng, a 21-year-old Suffolk student studying marketing, grew up in the same neighborhood in Quincy as Deng. Her mother is an immigrant from mainland China and her father is from Hong Kong, so Ng always wanted to learn more about speaking Mandarin and Cantonese to better communicate with them.
She said that despite the diversity she’s grown up around in her town, she experienced harassment when recently using Uber and Lyft.
“I’ve had Uber drivers straight up saying ‘ni hao’ or asking me, ‘Are you Chinese?’ without having a conversation with me, and it really doesn’t matter what ethnicity I am because I am a person,” Ng said. “One day I even took three Ubers, and two of the drivers made a comment about ‘Are you Chinese?’ saying ‘ni hao,’ and I felt it was very unnecessary.”
The motives behind racial attacks
The backlash against Asian Americans is not only verbal. They have also been victims of serious physical attacks.
In April, a young man was accused of stabbing three members of an Asian American family, including two children who were two and six years old, while they were shopping at a retail store in Midland, Texas.
The man’s motive behind the attack — which sent two victims to the hospital in critical condition — was because he thought they were “Chinese and infecting people with the Coronavirus,” according to an FBI report obtained by ABC News.
The attacks are prompting students like Mei Nichols, a senior studying film and media at Suffolk, to feel like she needs to be more cautious out in public.
“I saw videos online of some Asian college students in Philadelphia who were physically assaulted by a group of people and it was concerning as I feel like I can’t escape that I am Asian,” Nichols said. “And there are a lot of people out there that don’t think before they do something, so you don’t know what could really happen, so it’s forced me to put up my guard more.”
Some students believe that President Donald Trump’s words have only made matters worse, like when he labeled the virus the “Kung Flu” in March.
“The president saying ‘Chinese virus’ and stuff is so racist and just encourages Americans to think that being racist is OK towards a minority group,” Ng said. “It’s not OK because it’s just people assuming Asian Americans in general are associated with coronavirus, which is ignorant.”
On March 23, just a few weeks after his remarks, Trump tweeted,“We totally protect our Asian American community in the United States and all around the world.” But many in the Asian community said it could not erase his hurtful comments.
“Hearing the words from our president makes me wonder: How did America get to this level?” said Leah Magno, a Filipina American junior at Suffolk. “It makes me lose respect for those leaders who pinpoint something on a group of people you don’t have facts about and can harm a group of people.”
And it’s not just the U.S. president who has made such remarks.
The origins and background to this racial scapegoating
At the beginning of the pandemic in March, the governor of the Veneto region in Italy had to publicly apologize after saying Italians were more hygienic than the Chinese whom “he accused of eating ‘live mice’ and in general [washing] little,” according to the Italian website Flashes.
Celene Machen, a 19-year-old sophomore at Boston University and a member of her school’s Asian Student Union, said she wasn’t surprised by the blaming of the virus on Asian Americans, as it only uncovered deeply rooted stereotypes within American culture.
Machen had grown up in the Boston area, where she was teased consistently about her race. Particularly, her eyes. After many years of pushing her heritage away, she made it her responsibility to learn everything about her Chinese culture and even took a gap semester to live in China before starting at BU.
“America has always had a specific type of hatred for China, one that extends deep into American history,” Machen said. “With the cold war brewing between America and China now, it’s not a surprise that Americans/Trump were so quick to point fingers at China for this pandemic and to bring forth so many stereotypes that have been associated with Chinese people — that we’re dirty, we don’t clean ourselves, we eat filthy things, etc.”
Scapegoating and pointing a finger of blame at the Asian American community and also associating the Chinese with harmful, “dirty” stereotypes can also be traced back to when the term “Yellow Peril” became popular on the American west coast in the 1870s.
White laborers were fearful of losing their jobs and having their society overtaken by Chinese immigrants, which soon prompted the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that barred immigration from China.
Boston University professor Takeo Rivera, who specializes in race, sexuality and gender in the U.S., said the Chinese suffered from this labeling and discrimination particularly in the late 1800s.
“I think it is true especially along the West Coast that Chinese people were a lot of the time often associated with disease, uncleanliness, rats, vice, prostitution, sex work, which was largely due to the very conditions that they were forced to live in because they were segregated and seen as trash coolie labor,” Rivera said.
Epidemic outbreaks in San Francisco during the 1870s, especially the smallpox epidemic of 1875 and 1876, were most likely the result of overall poor public health standards, but the city’s Chinatown neighborhood bore the brunt of the blame.
In a resolution issued in 1880, the city’s Board of Health publicly labeled the Chinese as a “nuisance.” Using them as a scapegoat for their failures in tracing the origin of the spread of disease, the board declared, “The Chinese cancer must be cut out of the heart of our city, root and branch, if we have any regard for its future sanitary welfare.”
As history repeats itself with the new coronavirus, not only are the Chinese the main figures of blame, but also other ethnic groups such as Koreans, Japanese and Filipinos.
“People are just using Asians as a scapegoat and using an ‘umbrella’ of categorizing Asians, as everyone pretty much made assumptions and thought, ‘Well, if you’re just Asian you just are the problem,’” said Anna Nguyen, a senior at Suffolk University who also serves as the president of the school’s Asian American Association.
The importance of Black Lives Matter after COVID-19 racism
While the harassment of Asian Americans in March began to shed some light on the struggles Asian Americans still face racially in the United States, the powerful resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement after George Floyd’s death in late May opened up a wider lens of racial awareness and injustice.
Protests not only erupted across the United States within days of Floyd’s death; they sprouted up around the globe — in Paris, Berlin, Sydney, Japan, Zimbabwe. Despite the BLM movement sparking protests in 2012 after the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and the first “#BlackLivesMatter” being created in light of his death, the movement has gained a wider and more powerful reach than ever.
The racism and harassment that escalated in the past months especially has prompted many, including young Asian Americans, to reevaluate who they are and the society they live in.
Thien Nguyen is one of those young Asian Americans who has recently reexamined his racial identity, especially after a girl from his old high school made a racist Facebook post in which she justified calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus” and blamed Chinese people for ruining her senior year.
Nguyen is a senior majoring in economics at Suffolk University and is the treasurer of the school’s Asian American Association. He’s a first-generation Vietnamese American who always had a strong connection to his culture because of his strong ability to communicate in Vietnamese with his family, despite growing up in a white-dominated environment.
Even though he grew accustomed to growing up in a white-dominated town where he sometimes felt excluded from other people as a minority, he was still shocked at the incident.
“2020 made me think a lot more about my identity than I thought could be possible,” Thien Nguyen said. “For the first time in my life, I learned how much power we have as a young demographic to change the way America is perceived by the world.”
The struggles Asian Americans face growing up in less diverse backgrounds
Other students who grew up in a white-dominated environment, like Nguyen, were not always able to have strong connections with their racial identity and are just beginning to come to terms with it.
Grace Richards, a 20-year-old sophomore at Suffolk University, is a Chinese American who was adopted from China when she was one and grew up in York, Maine, where she was one of the only Asian students at her high school. Growing up, her family never wanted her to feel adopted, so it wasn’t until high school and in college when she was able to connect with her Asian roots.
“My Asian roots are very important to me now,” Richards said. “It’s changed my outlook on how I view myself and others.”
Similarly, Mei Nichols, a senior studying film and media at Suffolk University, struggled to become more confident in her racial identity. She was also a Chinese American who was adopted into an all-white family in Michigan, where growing up in a majority white community made her feel isolated.
“It wasn’t until I was 19-years-old where I really started to embrace my identity and stop hiding behind that American label,” Nichols said. “The diversity at Suffolk and the rise of representation in the media with ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and K-pop has really inspired that.”
Cultural clubs like Asian American associations on college campuses have offered students a source of long-needed cultural connection. Responding to COVID-19 racism and BLM, the club at Suffolk University seeks to help students through open discussions and diversity programs.
Anna Nguyen, the president of Suffolk University’s Asian American Association, said her way of making change is to find ways for club members to learn more about their racial identity.
“As a cultural club you need to be more aware so I think that’s why I push for group discussions now,” Nguyen said. “Now we can express that even though we have some similarities as a group, we are all different in a way and that’s important.”
The cultural club even recently hosted a virtual event with alumni where students were able to discuss, in a safe space, topics such as BLM, xenophobia with COVID-19 and how the myth of Asians as a model minority shapes Asian American experiences on and off campus.
The importance of more diversity, and what students think should happen next
Nichols discussed how more awareness about topics like the model minority myth, which pushes the idea of Asian Americans being more prosperous as immigrants than other ethnic immigrant groups, and seeing more variety of Asians in the media would’ve helped her be more confident with her racial identity.
“I could have used more Asian representation. All I had was Brenda Song from the ‘Suite Life of Zack and Cody,’” Nichols said. “If I did have some representation it was through stereotypical Asian characters, and so without that positive representation I just thought we are not an attractive race.”
Some young Asian Americans find that these open and safe discussions, along with more participation in diversity programs, not only maintains strength in their identity but also are a step toward change.
“Discussion and diversity programs are very important and definitely needed in schools so we can try to debunk those stereotypes of Asians and other ethnic groups, especially in the world and society we’re living in today,” Richards said. “As much as we have progressed through history there’s still a lot of racial tensions, and as you can see with BLM, there are people in general around the world that need diversity training.”
Tommy Dong, a junior at Suffolk University who grew up with a strong tie to his Vietnamese connection due to his family, believes it might take more than discussion. During the pandemic, he became more exposed to videos of incidents of anti-Asian harassment, prompting him to reflect on his identity and what was happening.
“Society realistically is focused on the news that generates strong reactions like COVID cases or BLM protests,” said Dong. “However, it would help if society took racial issues more seriously where awareness of racism gets the same attention as the most prioritized news on the media today.”
Similarly, Machen, the BU sophomore, believes it will take more to create a real difference.
“To see real change, we’d have to dismantle Asian stereotypes that have been created on different historical, political and social factors,” said Machen. “But nothing can actually happen until those in power start viewing us as real people — not as a virus, and not as dirty foreigners.”
Professor Rivera said he is proud of how young Asian Americans are taking action and embracing themselves. However, he points out the need for solidarity, as well.
“One thing I want to see more of is this sort of sense of solidarity and understanding that the Black and Asian American struggle are intertwined,” Takeo said. “And that we only gain by helping each other and for us to be examining the ways in which we’ve been complicit in anti-Blackness and also the way in which anti-Blackness helps us too and hurts us too. So building those bridges of solidarity is key.”
Taking all these factors into account, young Asian Americans are truly finding new ways to forge a more inclusive future. Through the intense past few months, they said some good has come from coming together and trying to create something positive from the dark, new wave of racism they face.
“I feel like every minority community should stand with each other, not against each other,” Holly Nguyen said. “We need to all stand together and fight discrimination because that’s the only way to have a more progressive future and the only way we can make a change from here on out.”
Follow Jasmine on Twitter @JFrancoeur18.