There’s Really Only One Way Asian Americans Can Fight Racism in the Age of COVID-19

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.

In the early days of COVID-19, commentators often chose to describe the novel coronavirus as an affliction that would not discriminate. “While the well-connected certainly have better access to testing and treatment than others,” James Hohmann wrote, “in this world of inequality, viruses are equalizers.”

I find this a strange sentiment — especially when all the evidence points to an ever-deepening divide. In a country where key institutions, including our healthcare system, still operate with their roots planted firmly within the history of slavery and Jim Crow, COVID-19 is no “equalizer.” People of color, in fact, are bearing the brunt of the brutal pandemic.

On April 6, Keith Gambrell of Detroit learned his grandfather had passed away from COVID-19. Just hours later, he would learn that his father Gary Fowler had also passed away from the virus — after three failed attempts to receive emergency treatment from a local hospital. “They tell him his fever is from bronchitis, they said go home but act as if you have this virus and isolate yourself, drink tea and stay hydrated,” said Gambrell, whose 56-year-old father also suffered from diabetes — putting him at higher risk of severe complications. “Days later, my dad dies in his chair.”

Let’s be clear: The global pandemic is unkind to anyone who is unlucky enough to stumble into its path of destruction. But for African Americans like Keith Gambrell and his family, their risk of infection is especially dangerous and compounded by the systemic failures of our country. His story is a tragic example of an irrefutable truth: Higher rates of chronic disease, a persisting lack of access to healthcare, and a shocking degree of racial bias within medical settings have led to drastically worse outcomes for Black and Brown communities.

The pandemic is also affecting Asian Americans in a particularly brutal manner. Bigotry, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiments have led to a documented uptick in hate crimes towards Asians as more Americans erroneously associate Asians — of Chinese descent, or not — with the global pandemic. A random sampling of this phenomenon: A 16-year-old boy was sent to the emergency room after a racially-motivated attack by his classmates; a Korean woman was grabbed by the hair and punched in broad daylight; a two-year-old, six-year-old, and their father were stabbed at a Sam’s Club by a man who assumed they were “Chinese and infecting people with the coronavirus.” (Neither assumption, it turns out, was true.)

So what can be done? In the face of a global pandemic that takes advantage of the worst elements of our society — and will likely upend the businesses and livelihoods of people of color long after the masks have been put away — what will be the antidote to the structural racism that has plagued Americans since the founding of our nation?

Let’s rewind for a moment. Back in 2013, I wrote an article for NPR Code Switch, where I argued that Asians were being excluded from conversations about women of color. The piece resonated with many of my fellow Asian Americans, but also drew plenty of critique. One reader pointed me to activist and feminist Loretta Ross, who explained that the term “woman of color” was meant to unite non-White women through political action and purpose, not by the simple biological fact that they were non-White. In her own critique, author and activist Mikki Kendall reminded us: Black women were never given a space. We made a space.” 

Years later, Kendall’s words still resonate with me as I watch Asian Americans grapple with the repercussions of COVID-19 — and as I also try to find clarity in a time of extreme sorrow and fear. I’ve watched as Asian Americans call out bigoted individuals on Instagram and Twitter. I’ve listened to community leaders attempt to counter anti-Asian sentiment by proclaiming that Asians, too, can do good deeds like donate masks. I’ve read a controversial op-ed by one of our community’s most prominent leaders, Andrew Yang, in which he argued that Asian Americans should “prove” their Americanness“help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations,” he suggested — to somehow convince misguided individuals with hostile intentions to leave Asian Americans alone.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but here’s what I can tell you: The man who tells me to “go back to China” does not care that I’ve done any good deeds in my life, or that I’m actually Korean, or that I was born in the United States. Racism is without logic, as evidenced not only by our own history as Asian Americans, but also by the despair and anguish suffered by Black and Brown people of color — by the senseless murders of Atatiana Jefferson, Joseph “Joey” Santos, Ahmaud Arbery, Jordan Edwards, and all too many others. History has taught us, over and over and over again, that showing off our good deeds, good grades, and “respectability” will never save us. It never has.

If we are to effectively fight racism, the way forward is not through assimilation or a checklist of good deeds; it’s through solidarity and sustained political action. For Asian Americans like me, this will require showing up consistently for other people of color — not as superficial “allies,” as community organizing group 18 Million Rising (18MR) is careful to point out, but as co-conspirators in building a new political and economic system that prioritizes equity for all.

On the broadest level, that solidarity means understanding our history, and acknowledging that racism stems from our country’s long legacy of colonialism and anti-Black racism. It means showing up for Black and Brown people who, through their own organizing, have fought for and won many of the rights all people of color enjoy today. It means supporting Muslim communities when they’re targeted, year after year, for being “terrorists” — when in fact the true terrorists are the White supremacist groups gaining legitimacy across the country. It means supporting people of color and fighting for our rights whether or not we’ve “done good deeds” or “proven our Americanness”— because neither should be the basis of our access to basic human dignity.

In the words of Japanese American political activist Yuri Kochiyama, “Unless we know ourselves and our history, and other people and their history, there is really no… real understanding.” 

On the ground, solidarity requires coalition building — and supporting the efforts that already exist through our dollars and advocacy. And if you don’t know where to begin, here’s a small sample of work spearheaded by members of the Asian American community — members who are also committed to supporting other people of color. Groups such as 18MR and CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities have a long history of mobilizing for sustainable political, social, and economic change. Media publications such as NextShark are raising awareness and encouraging collective action by regularly documenting the burgeoning caseload of anti-Asian hate crimes. Projects like “Racism is Contagious” are empowering victims and collecting invaluable data on racially-motivated attacks.

On an individual level, solidarity begins by asking some tough questions — of ourselves and of the ones we love. How do we react when friends and family perpetuate anti-Black racism? When we’re described as a “model minority,” do we relish in the praise, or recognize that the model minority myth homogenizes Asian Americans and delegitimizes the fight for racial justice? When students organize for affirmative action, do we choose to see their movement as an “affront” to Asian American enrollment, or do we see it as an essential fight against structural racism within education? When we are called out for our mistakes, do we double down — or do we listen, learn, and organize?

The road ahead is long and difficult. No one will ever claim that unlearning implicit biases, confronting anti-Blackness within our communities, or coalition building is easy. But our basic dignity as Asian Americans, as people of color, as humans of the earth, depend on those actions. We must declare, through our voices and actions, that a system that sees all people of color as expendable pawns cannot and will not stand.

Frederick Douglass once said, “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.” 

Let’s keep those words in mind as we all try to make sense of the devastation of COVID-19. Let’s fight racism by agitating for the world we want — not the world as it was before.

About the Author: Lindsey Yoo is a Korean American writer, storyteller, and anti-racism advocate. She’s launching Share The Salt, a quarterly publication celebrating and highlighting the creative pursuits of people of color.

Feature Image via Getty

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