‘I am not a virus’: How We Need to Fight Coronavirus Racism and Xenophobia

“I am not a virus.”

This statement was written on a sign by a Chinese-Italian man in Italy as he offered “free hugs” to passersby.

A Thai-American woman on a New York City subway was verbally abused by a man screaming about coronavirus. In a separate incident on the subway, another woman wearing a face mask was punched and kicked by a man who called her “diseased”. Similar incidents have been reported in countries all around the world. 

Hearing stories of racism and xenophobia makes my chest tighten in anger. As anti-Asian sentiment increases due to fears of the novel Coronavirus, COVID-19, I am reminded of how Asians and Asian-Americans are perpetually perceived as foreigners in the US. 

Harvard runs an Implicit Association Test that measures the time it takes for one to associate Asian and White faces with “Foreigner” or “American”. The vast majority of test takers have unconscious biases associating Asian faces with being “foreigners”, reinforcing our outsider status. It begs the question posed by many Asian-Americans of “where do I belong?” if not accepted in the US as American, and not accepted in Asian countries as Asian. 

It’s exhausting to constantly be reminded of my otherness, and this case is no different. Yes, COVID-19 originated in China, but now that it has spread, there are many outbreaks worldwide including in Italy and Iran. It does not discriminate based on age, gender, or race and you’re as likely to get it from an non-Asian person as you are from a Asian person here in the US. 

In order to fight xenophobia:

1)    Call out racism you see in the media or in person – NY Post misattributed images of Asians as carriers. It’s time to bring back twitter and speak up against these instances. 

2)    Call it COVID-19 or Coronavirus. Kevin McCarthy and Donald Trump are calling it “Chinese Coronavirus” which creates unwarranted negative associations. Stay away from “Wuhan virus”, “Chinese virus”, and “Asian virus”.

3)    Work to understand your biases – the Harvard IAT test is eye-opening to anyone who wants to see more equality. Knowing your biases is the first step to balancing them. 

4)    Don’t shy away from people of Asian descent or businesses. Chinese restaurants are reporting drops in business. Overall consumer spending is down and it’s hurting the greater economy. 

Dang, the Asian-American snack company I founded, has seen a double digit increase in ecommerce sales as people stock up in preparation for quarantine, but we anticipate slower sales the rest of the year as the Coronavirus hinders the broader economy. 

Growing up in NYC, which has a significant population of Asian descent, I was subjected more to what I’d call casual racism than the blatant racism taking place today. Microaggressions like getting confused for the otherAsian kid in my class, or hearing “Hey Jackie Chan!” while walking down the street were typical, constant reminders of my differences. In order to cope, I hid parts of my background in order to fit in – pretending to like certain types of music and foods just because they were more mainstream, and downplaying my Chinese ancestry since Thailand was more loved by Westerners.

The Coronavirus hysteria reminds me of how the US in WWII used propaganda to paint people of Japanese descent as dirty, miserly drags on society. It’s become sound political strategy to blame so-called outsiders for the woes of a nation, and ride the wave of fear to elected office. Trump did this effectively when running for President under the guise of “America First”, and painting China as a trade villain worthy of unilateral tariffs. Now that another challenge has hit our shores, it’s more important than ever to condemn associating a virus with an ethnic group by being vocal when racism rears its ugly head. 

About the Author: Vinent Kitirattragarn is the founder and CEO of Dang Foods, the Asian-American snack brand best known for its health-forward product portfolio of Coconut Chips, Thai Rice Chips and keto-friendly Dang Bars. Inspired by Eastern and Western ingredients and flavors, Dang Foods is committed to using plant-based whole foods and nothing artificial. Founded in 2012, Dang Foods is a family-run B-Corp based in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

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