CW// Racism, Slurs, Violence, Mental Health
‘Look, it’s Coronavirus!’
My mother went on holiday to the seaside town of Whitby, North Yorkshire, in the summer, and instead of telling me about the lovely time she had had, she told me about an incident when a white family pointed and exclaimed this at her. For context, my mother is Japanese and works in retail. When coronavirus first came onto the radar, she became used to an increase in members of the public not wanting to sit next to her on the bus, crossing the road to avoid her or refusing to be served by her in the shop. These were all things which occurred in general everyday life beforehand, but, in the vacuum of lockdown, such behaviour felt even more stark.
A few months earlier, in April, she texted me to warn that there were more racists about in public, and that I shouldn’t leave the house alone. After that there was a period when I had a mild onset of, if not quite agoraphobia, then a fear of the outside world which was of course partly due to the virus but also the racism which it had enabled. Whether it be when going for a walk in the park or when doing the weekly supermarket shop, I felt a slight pang of fear whenever someone looked at me or approached me, scared of whatever prejudice my mere presence had ignited within them.
According to the group End the Virus of Racism, there was an increase of 300% in hate crimes towards East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) people in the UK. According to the same group, up to 15% of the Chinese community in Britain had experienced racial discrimination pre-pandemic, which apparently is the highest percentage for any other ethnic group in the United Kingdom. Another sobering fact they reveal is that more Filipino nurses have died serving the NHS in its fight against Covid-19 than in the entire Philippines, and in total amount to around 1 in 4 deaths of healthcare staff in the NHS; South East Asian healthcare workers are disproportionately being sacrificed in this pandemic, yet this point has been rarely mentioned in the media.
The Coronavirus pandemic did not create anti-racist sentiments amongst the British population out of nowhere. It merely made bigots feel legitimised, sometimes even to the extent that they felt emboldened to attack Asian people in the street. Doubtless to say that many people will have seen and shared Facebook posts where ESEA people have recounted their experiences of being threatened or even beaten purely because they look Asian (and thus, according to the perpetrators’ flimsy logic, are personally to blame for the current predicament), but almost all of your ESEA friends will have experienced verbal abuse at some point; we see these posts and wonder if and when something physical will happen to us too.
Part of the British-Asian (or to be honest, probably Western-Asian experience generally) is having to internalise the everyday racism you experience. Growing up, I was pretty normalised to having strangers say ‘Nihao’ to me, sometimes whispered, sometimes tauntingly shouted, but always unsolicited. Speaking to other East Asian people in the UK, it is obvious that I was far from unique in my perspective. A student at King’s College London had told me about a time when ‘I was waiting outside a train station for an Uber with a friend (who is Chinese passing and from Malaysia) and there was a white man who passed us by and said, “ni hao leng lui (hello sexy girl), why don’t you come over to my place tonight”’.
I will admit that I too, have been made to feel uncomfortable as a half-Asian woman. For instance, during my first term at Oxford I was locked in the room of a fellow student at my college…before he proceeded to tell me about how he had been learning Japanese. Gripped with fear about how to navigate this bizarre situation, I asked to allow my friend to join us before he panicked and refused. Luckily nothing happened, but I was incredibly worried that he could well do much worse to other female Asian students.
Another person whom I spoke to came from a predominantly white town in England, and referenced ‘people doing ‘chinky eyes’ at me when they passed me on the school bus… being asked why I didn’t have a Chinese accent, occasional sexual harassment aimed at me rather than other women’ and even within professional institutions: ‘being asked on a psych ward whether living up to the cultural expectations of my family was the cause of my mental illness’.
A common issue which stems from the ignorance of the general population is an assumption of the homogeneity of all ESEA people. The aforementioned King’s student went on to lament the aestheticisation of her background during a conversation with someone: ‘I told her that I was from Malaysia and for some reason she said, “oh cool I’ve always wanted to go to Thailand to take pretty pictures”, and I guess it was also this generalisation that annoyed me because she thinks that SE Asia is one big country with one culture’.
Yet I always felt a hesitancy about making a concerted point about my experiences of racism; whilst my family had experienced uncomfortable incidences like those aforementioned, I felt immense privilege compared to my Black and other Asian peers who experienced systemic and institutional racism and barriers in British society. Perhaps I had internalised this perspective and felt reticence about speaking out because of, in part at least, the ‘model minority’ myth – that ever pernicious tool which divides immigrant and minority communities on their perceived value to society.
Even supposedly intelligent and worldly students, our peers at university, can make Asian students feel out of place. Quite a few students mentioned to me their discomfort at how Western students immediately jump to the assumption that they are agents of the Chinese government, for example. One international student told me an anecdote which demonstrates this phenomena: ‘one of the things that really concerned me during my freshers week were comments primarily aimed at Chinese international students. I sat through a very awkward event where two students spoke about how Chinese students are simply unable to think critically because they supposedly are unable to be critical of Chinese state narratives. It was frustrating for a lot of reasons, not only because there was an incredible lack of self awareness from this person, who was a white European, about how they’ve also internalised their own state narratives, but the attempt to paint all Chinese international students as “incapable of critical thinking” is simply false and racist.’
‘I didn’t want to be the one who’s like “hm well I’m Asian, does that mean I’m incapable of critical thinking?” because I know they’d be like “we’re not talking about you, but Chinese international students” and there’s just no winning. I’ve never seen this in undergrad, partially because my undergrad was in California so it was just so normal to see so many Asian (both Asian American and Asian international) students’.
One thing which can be drawn from this testimony is one of exasperation at the lack of discussion of racism towards East and South East Asians – we are far behind the level of awareness that is more commonly expected in the US. In part, this is because our communities in the UK are more disparate and lower in number, so in conversations about ESEA experiences, we can feel as if there is little alternative to having basic discussions, including this article, which focus on the foundational issues affected all ESEA people as at least some discussion is better than none.
Furthermore, the Stop the Virus Against Racism group has also pointed out that, as most ethnic groups which aren’t ‘Chinese’ require people to tick the ‘Other’ box on forms, it is difficult for the government to gather specific information about the ESEA community, once again meaning that our experiences and issues cannot be easily accounted for at the highest levels of government. Indeed, whilst researching this article it became clear that data on prejudice against ESEA people in the UK was much harder to find than comparative information in the United States. Meanwhile Sarah Owen, the MP for North Luton and the first Labour MP of East Asian descent, has noted that two other MPs referred to the Chinese as “those evil bastards”.
The Sewell report on race relations which was released by the government in April had serious criticisms, and far too many which could be meaningfully addressed here. However, it is worth highlighting how the experiences of ESEA people who are not Chinese are not included, and instead the model minority myth of the Chinese community is unhelpfully perpetuated. Chinese people are deemed as an example of a successful community in an effort to create a narrative which disregards the issue of inequalities within communities and instead pits them against other minorities. This does not help anyone who wants to tackle the systemic racism and divisions in society.
There is also, generally speaking, a pitiful representation of ESEA people in the British media. Growing up, if there was ever an Asian person on TV my (white) father would feel the need to point it out to me. As an indication of how deep my internalisation of racism was, he would also joke about ‘my relatives’ whenever we were watching a nature programme that features monkeys, but I didn’t realise the troubling implications of that until I sat down to write this article.
The inspiration for this article came from the most tragic of circumstances. In March 2021, 8 people, including 6 Asian women, were killed in a horrific shooting which was the worst incident of its kind in America since 2019. Yet despite the obvious racial motivations behind the killer’s actions, the police sought to downplay this and instead point out that he had a “sex addiction” and he was trying to “take out that addiction”. Such a framing seemed totally tone-deaf and ignorant of the basic fact that these victims were women and women who had existed in a society that constantly dehumanises and hypersexualises Asian women.
The media has also been complicit in stoking the flames of prejudice: 33% of images used to report on Covid in this country have featured Asian people, likely as a reference to the virus’s origins in China, but it provides an inaccurate portrait of the realities of the pandemic – everyone of any ethnicity is able to contract and spread the virus. As a more general point of the lack of care paid to ESEA communities by the media, the Sunday Times published an article (on their front page, no less) on Prince Philip’s passing by describing him as “an often crotchety figure, offending people with gaffes about slitty eyes, even if secretly we rather enjoyed them”. One would have hoped that you would think twice before publishing such casual racism right after a mass awakening to the realities of the ASEA community with the #stopAsianhate campaign, but clearly, that is asking for too much.
However, let us not kid ourselves, there have certainly been some members of our communities who have taken advantage of the ‘privilege’ awarded through the designated model minority status. When the world was coming together in the wake of George Floyd’s death last summer, some observers of the video footage noticed the Hmong-American policeman Tou Thao doing nothing in response to the horrific act which Derek Chauvin was doing right beside him. Whilst Asians are far from immune to experiencing racism, we need to recognise that we can also perpetuate such pernicious behaviour amongst other ethnic minority groups.
Times are difficult right now for the ESEA community, but it would be fallacious to point to a time when everything was perfect for us in the UK. Hopefully, however, these experiences of coming together to tackle anti-racism with the #stopAsianhate campaign will continue to develop in the future, and we will feel more confident in tackling the issues which we face, as well as recognise through full and frank conversations about how we need to stop upholding racist behaviour towards other minorities. For far too long, many of us have tended to keep quiet in the face of abuse and victimisation, but no longer.
Image Credit: Heidi Fang