I had complicated feelings when President Donald Trump finally endorsed mask-wearing last month to prevent further spread of COVID-19. As a future physician, I was relieved. This simple gesture will save many lives. But as a naturalized Asian American citizen, it’s painful to read that he only did this in a tweet calling SARS-CoV-2 the “Invisible China Virus.”
A medical school classmate described how I feel pretty well: “Masks are a damned if you do, damned if you don’t topic for us. You wear one, and you feel unsafe because you look like you have the ‘China virus.’ You don’t wear one, and you harm others.” Sure, the pandemic began in China, but the World Health Organization explicitly warns against naming diseases by geographical origin. If you’re going to use the term “China virus,” you need to know how somebody like me experiences it.
Before 2020, I regularly worked odd hours, despite my partner’s insistence that I stop staying so late. I was doing it for the science, I would tell her enthusiastically. And besides, although I appreciated my partner’s concerns, I had never felt unsafe on my 30-minute walk to the lab. I’ve always acknowledged her different perspective as a young woman living in the city, but I also never really understood it. Now, because of the racist dialogue surrounding COVID-19, 2020 is the first time that I’ve become acutely conscious that my appearance may put me in danger. I never would have imagined a world where somebody might try to stab me just because of how I look, like the hate crime against an Asian American family in Texas in March.
Since returning to my laboratory, I am more cognizant of safety during my commute. I’m proud to wear my mask; it protects people and can help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But I make an intentional choice about which mask I choose to minimize discrimination.
Having grown up in Wisconsin, I’ve always loved my Milwaukee Bucks, so none of my friends thought twice when I showed them my Bucks mask. They just thought it was cool. How could they know that I was also trying to look less Asian?
My hope is that if people know I’m from Milwaukee, maybe they’ll stop asking, “Where are you really from?” I’ve heard this question my entire life, and when people use the phrase “China virus,” I am again compelled to clarify that I’m an American, an identity I have always wished everyone would see.
Even though people may think they are only asking out of curiosity, the rhetoric of 2020 makes superficial questions about my appearance feel as if they’re really asking, “You’re Chinese, right?”
I want to be clear that my choice of mask should not be equated with how others have experienced systemic racism for centuries. Many Black and Latino men are also thinking hard about mask choice, but for a different reason. I realize it’s a privilege to not have had to think about my appearance before 2020.
Regardless of where the virus originated, the term “China virus” is racist. No matter how hard I work, or what I wear to fit in, my fellow citizens will never quite see me as American. Every time the president and his staff and official White House publications choose to weaponize this term, to loud cheers from the crowd, I am reminded of what my face looks like. Will this matter for my safety? I don’t know, but I’m still going to mask up because I’ve taken an oath to protect you.