I hadn’t anticipated writing about this issue because a couple of weeks ago, it didn’t seem like a prominent problem to me. But as lucky as I am to belong in a school environment that cultivates acceptance and understanding, I realize that it has sheltered me from experiencing the hardships that residents from my city, who I share the same skin and culture with, have had to deal with on a daily basis. As COVID-19 and the stigma it carries becomes more and more serious in the United States, I think it’s about time to remind people that the struggle to contain this pandemic does not serve as an excuse to perpetuate racism and hate.
In New Orleans, we frequently praise our melting pot of culture, crafting the finest foods, music, and ways to party in our little inlet enclave. Yet despite our “party hard” mentality, we never fail to display our overwhelming Southern hospitality; it’s not uncommon for complete strangers to take time out of their morning stroll to help you fix up your garden or lift moving boxes. It’s this network of trust, this quilt of diversity, that makes me feel so proud to say I’m from New Orleans.
However, my love for my multicultural community does not erase the racist sentiment that prevails in not only New Orleans, but in all of the US. And more recently, this sentiment has been rising again in response to the global spread of the coronavirus as insensitive comments and sinophobic attitudes heavily target Asian Americans. People assume that because the virus originated in China, it is automatically a virus spread by all Chinese people, with many AAPI being lumped into that ethnicity. Just today while having dinner, my 12-year-old brother told us that he was asked at school if he was the one who brought the coronavirus to Louisiana. His classmates laughed as the “joke” flew past their heads. Logan said he didn’t care, and that “Americans can be ignorant”, but I could see that it still bothered him. Although this may seem like a surface-level jab by a couple of immature sixth graders, I believe that comments like this negatively affect the way kids like my brother think about their ethnic identity, creating a sort of internalized confusion, or even worse, self-hatred. As it became apparent that this was going to be the dinner table discussion for the evening, my dad pitched in his five dollars. His colleagues from China were at the local marketplace, wearing face masks for extra precaution. They were greeted by the sound of phone cameras hitting ‘record’ and subject to obscene gestures by other shoppers. Ultimately, I ended up cutting dinner short in frustration.
These racist attitudes toward Asian Americans, supposedly “justified” by the virus, unveil a bigger issue on how xenophobia, often covertly hidden, continues to persist under the skin. Traditionally, minorities and other disadvantaged communities have always faced a stigma that pervades everyday life and affects us in an internal, physical, geographical, and historical way. For Asian Americans specifically, propaganda posters and exclusion acts in the late 19th century, coupled with negative media portrayal and yellowface that continues on to the 21st century, make it clear that America has always perceived us as undignified, uncleansed foreigners. It is this perception that fuels those responses to the coronavirus.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-path solution to this multifaceted problem. The undertones of American racism will subside, but it is hard to predict when. But as this pandemic takes priority, we must all remember that perpetuating sinophobia won’t solve the problem any better than the hospitals and doctors scrambling to find a cure right now. Rather, it is supporting each other (what New Orleanians do best) that creates a stronger shield for safety.