A few weeks ago, when COVID-19 was first spreading in the U.S., my Chinese immigrant parents urged me to put on a face mask in public to protect myself and others. Even though the public advice at the time was that healthy individuals aren’t protected by doing so, it is actually common etiquette for everyone in China to wear one in public as a cultural symbol of safety and solidarity with others.
I had heard news of rising anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. Another Chinese-American friend in California shared that he received looks of disgust and disdain when he wore a mask to protect others. I told my parents that, because I didn’t want to do anything to attract attention and potential acts of racism, I wouldn’t wear a mask, and I urged them not to either. That same week, someone on the street yelled at me to “go back to China” and continued cursing at me as I entered the Metro on my way to work. No one intervened. It turns out that with or without a mask, I was a ready target for racial discrimination.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has, from the start, made it clear that the virus does not discriminate. Ethnicity is not a risk factor for transmission of COVID-19. Even still, the fear and anxiety due to the spread of the coronavirus is being unfairly directed as xenophobia toward Asian American communities through verbal harassment and accompanying acts of physical violence. My story is only one among scores of similar, and more severe, hate crimes and acts of racism toward APIA (Asian/Pacific Islander American) communities reported in the last few months. Since the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council established an online reporting center for anti-APIA racist incidents on Thursday, there have been over 150 reports. Last week, an Asian couple in Philadelphia was mobbed by a group and attacked. An Asian man was stabbed in Brooklyn more than a dozen times, leaving him in critical condition. And there have been numerous accounts of verbal assaults, with Asian Americans being called “filthy” and “diseased” and being told to “go back to China.”
This anti-Asian sentiment has been stoked in part by President Donald Trump’s repeated references to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus” on Twitter and in statements, reinforcing misconceptions that people of Chinese or Asian descent are more likely to carry the virus simply by virtue of their ethnicity. Despite the outrage and alarm expressed by numerous APIA advocates and members of Congress, he has not yet issued an apology for his part in fueling this racist narrative.
In this moment, Chinese and Asian American communities are facing the double stress of having to reckon with the racism and xenophobia they encounter, and dealing with the virus outbreak itself. Business in Chinatowns and APIA-owned establishments in major U.S. cities has plunged, as they report sales drops between 40 and 80 percent. Asian American communities are hurting and fearing for their safety; this has real implications on mental health. The outbreak of the virus and the outbreak of racism toward APIA communities are spreading together.
APIA’s voices, stories, and concerns have historically been dismissed, downplayed, or oversimplified — effectively rendered invisible — due to the myth of the model minority. As people of faith, we are called to seek justice, to stand with and defend the oppressed (Isaiah 1:17). So we can’t sleep on our APIA siblings this time; their safety and vitality is being threatened due to misplaced anxieties of COVID-19. In staying silent, we stay complicit in perpetuating the invisibility that APIA communities face in the public square. People and communities of faith — especially churches and community organizations with Asian American members — need to show up and speak up for our Asian American brothers and sisters in this moment and to rally around them in support.
What can people of faith do?
- If you are an Asian American who has experienced racist attacks and discrimination during this season, you can report the incident here and find support and resources in this community care guide written by and for APIAs. You can read this beautiful zine, “care in the time of coronavirus, ” by the Asian American Feminist Collective.
- If you are a bystander of a racist incident, you can show your solidarity with the APIA person being harmed by physically standing next to them, filming the event if it’s OK with them, and challenging and speaking out against the action — even if it is a simple, “Hey, that’s not OK to say.” Check in with the person after the incident. It is not enough to be not racist; we must be actively anti-racist. You can learn more how to act as an ally for APIAs through the Bystander Anti-Racism Project.
- If you are a pastor or leader in a faith community, use the pulpit to speak out against racism toward APIAs during your Sunday message and seek tangible ways to ensure APIAs in your community feel fully seen, affirmed, and supported. In general, use language supported by scientists and public health experts when discussing COVID-19. Call out racism and racist language whenever you see it, and speak up about it on social media. Look after your Asian American friends and check up on them as you would everyone else. Listen to them. Show your support when possible. Stay vigilant.
- There are many actions policymakers and public officials can take to mitigate the racism toward APIA communities, prevent the further spread of false information, and support vulnerable APIA communities. You can learn about them here and encourage your legislators to take these steps.
Chinese and APIA people are beloved members of our society who enrich our communities and our country and they deserve to be protected and advocated for. Let’s step up and be the church for them in this season.