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Asian American Discrimination And The Coronavirus Crisis

Jessica Wong, of Fall River, Mass., front left, Jenny Chiang, of Medford, Mass., center, and Sheila Vo, of Boston, from the state's Asian American Commission, stand together during a protest, Thursday, March 12, 2020, on the steps of the Statehouse in Boston. (Steven Senne/AP)
Jessica Wong, of Fall River, Mass., front left, Jenny Chiang, of Medford, Mass., center, and Sheila Vo, of Boston, from the state's Asian American Commission, stand together during a protest, Thursday, March 12, 2020, on the steps of the Statehouse in Boston. (Steven Senne/AP)

Asian Americans face a wave of intense racism during the coronavirus pandemic. George Takei reflects on our past and this present moment.


George Takei, actor and activist. ( @GeorgeTakei)

Erika Lee, immigration and Asian American historian. Professor at the University of Minnesota. Author of “ America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States.” ( @prof_erikalee)

Cathy Park Hong, poet and author of “ Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning.” ( @cathyparkhong)

Interview Highlights

On Asian American discrimination

George Takei: “Asian Americans are Americans. Certain segments of the Asian American community have been here since the 1840s. We are many generations here. We are Americans. And as a matter of fact, Asian Americans are a part of the front line doctors, nurses, researchers looking for a cure. We are a part of America. And still we are seen in the context of our ancestral land. My grandparents came from Japan.

“In the case of many of my Chinese American friends, it’s their great-great-grandparents that came from China. We are Americans. And still we are compared in the context of our ancestral land. Yes, there are a lot of first generation and second generation Asian Americans, but it’s the same as with our German or Italian or Irish friends. They have been here a long time and they are part of America, despite the fact that we still have immigration … immigrants coming from Germany or Italy or Ireland.”

Have we made enough progress when it comes to racism against Asian Americans in the United States?

Erika Lee: “The answer to your question is really yes and no. Certainly there is progress. There is much more visibility of Asian Americans. The fact that people are speaking out today and that governments are acting — local governments are acting with help lines. And there are shows like this one to highlight acts of discrimination and racism. That’s new.

“You know, when the Chinese were excluded in 1882 and when Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes, there was very little public response and public support for those Asian American and Asian immigrant communities. So what we’re seeing is new in that way. However, the stereotypes, the ideas that simply because you have an Asian face you must be a carrier of the virus, the hurtful and damaging political rhetoric around the Chinese flu, or this idea that the coronavirus was quote unquote ‘made in a Chinese lab,’ these have all revived much larger racist and anti-immigrant narratives that never go away in the United States.

“It’s part of the U.S.’s long history of xenophobia. And in particular, it highlights the ways in which immigrants have often been tied to disease. As a plague, or as an invasive threat or as carriers of a contagion and disease that will then ruin the United States. We’ve heard this before and unfortunately we’re hearing it again today.”


On existing stereotypes and racism around immigrants

Erika Lee: “When German immigrants were coming over, they were blamed for bringing yellow fever. The Irish were blamed for spreading cholera in the early 1900s. Jewish immigrants were blamed for a typhoid epidemic at the end of the 19th century, etcetera. And certainly this does absolutely intersect with whatever immigration debate we are having. Mexican immigrants have long been described as being dirty, living in homes with filth and disease, bringing typhus and plague.

“You know, the Border Patrol was tasked in the early 20th century up through the middle of the 20th century with delousing Mexicans who came across the border. This would include gasoline bags that required migrants to stand there naked while they were poured with gasoline. And then in later years, being sprayed with DDT. So the public health concerns and the rhetoric around immigrants and disease, what it does is that it helps to — it feeds and then it justifies existing stereotypes and racism around immigrants. And then leads to discriminatory public health policies that disproportionately impact specific immigrant groups and minority groups.”

On what this moment means for the Asian American community today and in the future

Cathy Park Hong: “It’s a really scary and vulnerable time for Asian Americans, that they are being scapegoated. Anyone who looks East Asian. And what I want to say is I would say, allow yourself to be scared, but also allow yourself to be angry. I think some of us — I wouldn’t say all of us — some of us are activists, but some of us are afraid to even be angry. And be enraged. And I’m hoping that we speak out about this hate as much as possible and that we could be proactive about this and we could fight the racism in this country.

“Yes, we are American. But, you know, for so long, Asian Americans have lived a conditional existence where belonging is always promised, but belonging is never had. And what we need to do is stop following that carrot and just demand racial justice. And also ally ourselves with other African Americans and Latinx and indigenous [communities], other minorities. And really really fight for social justice. And I think we are strong. We are empowered. We’re going to get through this. But I really hope that we can take our fear and then put it somewhere where it’s much more proactive, where we could take our rage into something productive.”

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning” by Cathy Park Hong

“Patiently educating a clueless white person about race is draining. It takes all your powers of persuasion. Because it’s more than a chat about race. It’s ontological. It’s like explaining to a person why you exist, or why you feel pain, or why your reality is distinct from their reality. Except it’s even trickier than that. Because the person has all of Western history, politics, literature, and mass culture on their side, proving that you don’t exist. In other words, I didn’t know whether to tell this guy to f*** you or give him a history lesson. ‘We were here since 1587!’ I could have said.

“‘So what’s the hold up? Where’s our white Groupon?’ Most Americans know nothing about Asian Americans. They think Chinese is synecdoche for Asians the way Kleenex is for tissues. They don’t understand that we’re this tenuous alliance of many nationalities. There are so many qualifications weighing the ‘we’ in Asian America. Do I mean Southeast Asian, South Asian, East Asian, and Pacific Islander, queer and straight, Muslim and non- Muslim, rich and poor? Are all Asians self- hating? What if my cannibalizing ego is not a racial phenomenon but my own damn problem? ‘Koreans are self- hating,’ a Filipino friend corrected me over drinks. ‘Filipinos, not so much.’ It’s a unique condition that’s distinctly Asian, in that some of us are economically doing better than any other minority group but we barely exist anywhere in the public eye.

“Although it’s now slowly changing, we have been mostly nonexistent in politics, entertainment, and the media, and barely represented in the arts. Hollywood is still so racist against Asians that when there’s a rare Asian extra in a film I tense up for the chinky joke and relax when there isn’t one. Asians also have the highest income disparity out of any racial group. Among the working class, Asians are the invisible serfs of the garment and service industries, exposed to third world work conditions and sub minimum wages, but it’s assumed that the only group beleaguered by the shrinking welfare state is working- class whites. But when we complain, Americans suddenly know everything about us. Why are you pissed! You’re next in line to be white! As if we’re iPads queued up in an assembly line.”

Excerpted from “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning” by Cathy Park Hong © 2020 by Penguin Random House. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Penguin Random House. All rights reserved.

USA Today: “ George Takei says he’s ‘chilled’ by Trump’s coronavirus rhetoric; Awkwafina addresses ‘cruelty‘” — “George Takei and other stars are calling out President Donald Trump for his use of the term “Chinese virus” to refer to the coronavirus.”

Washington Post: “ Hate crimes against Asian Americans have been declining for years. Will the coronavirus change that?” — “Recently, the FBI warned that hate crimes against Asian Americans are likely to increase as the coronavirus pandemic spreads.”

New York Times: “ The Slur I Never Expected to Hear in 2020” — “Early in February, I read unsupported speculations that a virus ravaging a distant city called Wuhan was due to a Chinese taste for a strange scaled mammal called the pangolin, which resembles an anteater but is cuddlier than its lumbering tube-snouted look-alike. Around that time, during a dinner party, I laughed when a friend quipped: ‘How do you eat a pangolin anyway? Do you dip its scales in butter like an artichoke?’”

MSNBC: “ George Takei: Trump’s usage of ‘the Chinese virus’ is a ‘signal to the haters‘” — “Actor and activist George Takei says President Trump calling COVID-19 ‘The Chinese Virus’ sends ‘a cold chill throughout the Asian-American community, because he’s sending a signal to the haters.'”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.