March 10, 2020

WAITE | Unmasking the Racist Infection of the Coronavirus

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My freshman year in high school, I was playing an improv game in my theatre class. Everyone stood in a circle; one person began acting out what object or noun they were and then someone else jumped into the circle, acting as another object or noun that was subsequently added to the scenario. Usually, if people’s instinctive responses to playful prompts are not racist, the game is light-hearted. For instance, if one person jumps in acting like a dog, the next person jumps in acting like a fire hydrant.

But alas, as the second round of the improv game progressed, it quickly turned volatile: One person jumped in saying they were a police officer and immediately after, the next person said they were “an african american” and then the following person jumped in with wide eyes and waving hands, exclaiming that he was “Ebola.” I left the room after this, so I am not sure how the game continued.

Conversations surrounding Ebola a few years ago were certainly racially charged; however, apart from that improv game, I was not particularly tuned into the discourse. But that was my first experience with racialized pathology. Now, with the spread of Coronavirus, I have employed the help of several of my friends to discuss the impact of the prejudicial and ignorant rhetoric that has proliferated alongside the virus.

Gracie Lu ’21 expressed her thoughts, saying that she feels the current situation is just “another reminder that when people see Chinese/other Eastern Asian people we are still viewed as un-American.” She continues,  pointing out how nonsensical it is to associate Asian Americans with Coronavirus: “Because obviously, if we are all in America, Asian people and white people have the same likelihood of contracting the disease because they are offered the same exposure.”

Feelings of being “othered” and feared have affected another friend of mine. Jerry Ahn ’20 voiced: “I am worried about the coming months since I have a pollen allergy, and I don’t want to be sneezing everywhere and freaking people out.”

Jerry’s concern of other people’s uneducated and prejudicial misdiagnosis of his seasonal allergies as COVID-19 actually transpired for Cat Huang ’21, who, a few weeks ago, got sick with the flu. She shared: “A facetious rumor spread that I had the Coronavirus.” Though she was not bothered, because she knew it wasn’t true, at the same time she said: “I kind of realized that this rumor would have never spread in the same way if I had been white … This rumor only held ground because it was attached to my Asian face.”

Jonathan Zheng ’22 agrees, saying that despite the racial “face” the virus has taken, “coronavirus sees no race.” And though “confronting acts of racism isn’t as easy as washing your hands, the implications of containing xenophobia is just as important as containing coronavirus.”

While in many ways the public’s dread of contracting Coronavirus is misguided, the dread Yuan Chen ’22 feels about going back home is not. Yuan relayed a conversation she and a friend were having: “We are scared to go back to NYC because of all the xenophobic attacks that [have] happened.” Jerry expressed similar worries, saying: “The main thing is that I’m sad my parents probably won’t be able to attend my graduation since they live in South Korea.”

Italy — as of now — has the second highest record of COVID-19 cases, and while many Chinese restaurants have become financially decimated, Niko Nguyen ’22 points out, “Olive Garden is still doing well.” Though he says this in jest, he expands on his point, saying, “there should be an awareness of who you are thinking of when you are thinking about Coronavirus.” In a Code Switch podcast episode focused on Coronavirus, historian Erika Lee discusses the weaponizing power of xenophobia. Since this weaponization is compounded by stereotypes and prejudices attributed to “threatening” races, she doubts “that we’re going to see the same types of exclusions or informal acts of discrimination targeting Italians or Italian restaurants or Italian communities in the same way that we’re seeing this with China.” Italians, unlike the Asian community, are white, and — historically, presently and continually — are thus, harmless.

There is a double crisis happening in this world, of both health and injustice. Because while a global viral outbreak is distressing and scary, so too is the profound racism and xenophobia that it has unmasked.

Sidney Malia Waite is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at swaite@cornellsun.com. Waite, What? runs every other Monday this semester.