Asian American racism grows amid COVID-19

Xenophobia issue begins to become prevalent


Photo courtesy of Mika Baumeister

here are many reports of verbal and physical attacks against Asian Americans as COVID-19 continues to spread.

Quiet. Intelligent. Proper. Achievers. Listeners.


It all began with a regular, sunny afternoon. I sat at my kitchen table, learning new vocabulary words through the educational website, Membean. As words flickered across the screen, a new word popped up. Demure. I knew that one. Instead of clicking the, “I Know This button,” I clicked the definition so that I would have a chance to review it.

Then, I looked at the image behind the word, which usually correlates with the definition of the word. I was stunned, and I could feel my face getting hot with anger and disbelief. The image portrayed an Asian family wearing traditional clothing. Their faces were emotionless, and they appeared to be very reserved and calm. This was the chosen image to represent the word “demure.”

This image clearly stereotyped Asians in an offensive manner. The image suggested that all Asians fit the mold of a stereotype of quiet, shy and reserved. The image was especially hurtful to my family and me, as we are Asian American. The image was expediently removed after my mom wrote a nice letter to their Facebook account.

Asian Americans have made significant progress in becoming the “model minority.” According to the Washington Post, Asian Americans, in the beginning of the 20th century, were portrayed as “threatening, exotic and degenerate.”

However, in the middle of the 20th century, things began to change, as “newspapers often glorified Asian Americans as industrious, law-abiding citizens who kept their heads down and never complained.” While the change in stereotype may seem a positive one, the reality is any stereotype is harmful to the group it’s perpetuated toward.  

This, and many other stereotypes, have crept into society as a mix of both positive and negative. 

“When people think of Asian Americans, they tend to think of high-achieving Japanese or Chinese or Indian Americans,” says Michael Kraus, a social psychologist at the Yale School of Management. “Maybe the person in mind is quiet and a bit awkward; they are going to excel in  school, probably get a job in medicine, finance, or tech, and have money — those are the beliefs that come to mind when we think of Asian Americans.” 

Asian Americans represent more than thirty different nationalities and ethnic groups, and there are many significant differences in regional dialects, religion, class, educational level and political perspectives. For example, while Mandarin is the official language in China, there are 302 individual living dialects in China. Cantonese is spoken in southern parts of China such as Guangzhou. My grandfather from Shanghai speaks Shanghainese. These factors are some of the many that highlight diversities within the Asian community. 

The demure stereotype could be seen as positive; however, this simplified view impacts our ability to see and realize that there are many groups of Asians out there, not necessarily the ones that fit that stereotype. For example, people have come up to me, saying that I’m smart because I’m Chinese. Putting the ‘smart’ label on Chinese people is something that may come off as positive; however, it is actually negative, and has been shown as “model minority framing.” Sadly, this issue has become more prevalent with the growing COVID-19 pandemic. 

On Tuesday, March 7, President Donald Trump tweeted that “some are being hit hard by the Chinese Virus.” President Trump neglected to mention that his aide used an even more derogatory term, “Kung-Flu,” with CBS correspondent Weijia Jiang

According to Psychology Today, these terms are indirectly linked to “anti-Asian rhetoric and violence.” Chinese and other immigrants have been targeted as filthy vermin and rats, parasitic locusts, rapists, and many other things in the past. As a result, the president’s words have already begun fueling growing racism against Asian Americans. 

“[The] fear of the virus and infection triggers their survival brain, fight-or-flight responses, and then becomes displaced into fear and rage against Asian Americans more generally,” wrote San Francisco-based psychiatrist and writer Ravi Chandra M.D., D.F.A.P.A in Psychology Today. 

There are many reports of verbal and physical attacks against Asian Americans as COVID-19 continues to spread. 

On Monday, Feb. 24 Jonathan Mok, was walking down Oxford Street in London where he was attacked by two teenagers. Mok was kicked and punched in the face as one of the teenagers yelled, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country.” 

Mok is Singaporean, 23 and is a student at the University of London. Metropolitan Police managed to arrest the men, calling the incident a “racially aggravated assault.”

On Wednesday, March 4 a man sprayed an Asian passenger with Febreeze and “verbally abused him” on a train in New York City. 

“The incidents range from name calling, through to spitting, through to someone having been pushed in the road in the path of oncoming vehicles,” said Mike Ainsworth in an interview in the New Yorker. Mike Ainsworth is the Director of London services at Stop U.K., an anti-hate group

ABC News also reports that businesses in Asian communities have suffered with the growing threat of COVID-19. Businesses, particularly the New York Chinatown, reported a 30% to 70% drop in sales since February. In the Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn Chinatowns, business has dropped from 50% to 70% in early February. The owners of the restaurants describe it as a “ghost town.” 

Gary McDonogh is a professor of growth and structure of cities at Bryn Mawr College. He and his wife, Cindy Wong, explained that the staggering numbers from New York are similar to the ones around the globe. Gary McDonogh said in ABC news that the decline is due to “fear-mongering” and a group of “officials looking to place blame.”

In San Francisco’s Chinatown, hundreds marched to protest racism despite the disease. One of the signs read, “Fight the Virus – Not the People.” 

“You can look for causes and cures, but you can’t start looking for blame,” McDonogh said.