My dad does not have coronavirus. Neither do I. So please don’t treat us like we do.
My father is currently in South Korea. He and my mom decided to live there for a number of years when my grandmother was sick. I am grateful to people who’ve expressed concern and asked how he’s coping during the coronavirus epidemic, but I am also hurt, disheartened, and alarmed by the ignorant remarks and painful stories I’ve heard from others around me.
History has shown that racism bubbles up from the waters of these kinds of health crises and eventually comes to a boil and burns us all.
This is not just about Asians. It’s about how we as humans default to hate and prejudice when we’re afraid and uncertain. It’s about how our knee-jerk response to seek blame and to scapegoat is detrimental to our entire society.
Jews were persecuted and held responsible for the Black Death. Immigrant Irish workers were blamed for causing cholera. Africans were shunned during the Ebola outbreak. In Pennsylvania, a 16-year-old high school soccer player was brought to tears when taunted with chants of “Ebola” from players on a rival team.
Grant Colfax, director of health for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, says coronavirus “is not about race, ethnicity, or culture. The risk of getting coronavirus is based on travel history and contacts with people who are sick.”
Unfortunately, that message is not getting through to everyone. Fear and misinformation are inciting renewed backlash against Asians and against Americans of Asian descent.
I am most concerned about the impact on our children. My heart broke when a friend told me a story about an eighth grader in Philadelphia of Vietnamese descent. He is the only Asian American in his school. “He is being tormented,” she said. “Kids are constantly taunting him about spreading coronavirus.”
In many cases, it is adults who are behaving badly and unreasonably. Another friend shared with me that an instructor at a Philadelphia after-school program is requiring only children of Asian descent to wear masks.
I know firsthand how even “casual” incidents of othering can create little cuts that turn into a gaping wound of insecurity and resentment. I was the lone Asian American child in my neighborhood. Kids teased me, shouting in sing-songy voices, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!” An obscene gesture accompanied their words. And I was constantly asked, “Where are you from?” The message I heard was, “You are not from here. You are not one of us. You are not American.”
I’ve grown up and moved away from my hometown and become a TV news anchor and reporter in a major city. I have often assumed people now see in me the face of a journalist whom they invite into their living rooms every night. I have hoped they see the face of a valued community member. But even today, that is not always the case. Those of you who follow me on social media might remember my viral video response to a woman who yelled, “This is America” at me on a Philadelphia street. Apparently accomplishment is no match against ignorance.
Asian Americans are still struggling for acceptance and belonging in our country. We still struggle to be seen “as American” as everyone else. And misperceptions about coronavirus are causing more people to tell us to “go back to your country.” But this is America. This is my country.
Prejudice and ignorance regarding coronavirus form roadblocks in fighting the disease, too. Colfax also said, “Stigma may make people less likely to come forward and get help and ask questions. This makes it harder to preserve community health. Fear is a deadly epidemic.”
The best way to combat coronavirus is for the best minds around the world to work together, focusing on science and facts to stop it from spreading and keep us all safe.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.” This is my attempt to build one of those dikes. I hope you build your own — be it spending money at an Asian-owned business, learning the facts about coronavirus and sharing that knowledge with others, especially your children, or building a stronger community in other ways to protect us from the infection of hate.
Cuts made during this crisis will last well beyond the disease epidemic, and they wound not just the one who is cut but all of humanity, including those performing the ugly task of cutting. Their souls are hardened, and they sever the opportunity to connect with others and enrich their own lives.
As I write this, I am sitting at Lee How Fook in Chinatown after I dropped off my children at Korean School. I’m delighted that Lee How Fook is bustling at the moment. Right now, I’m watching and listening as 10 people of diverse racial backgrounds toast each other and excitedly talk about the Flower Show. Their joy is palpable ... and also infectious. The Flower Show is here, which means spring is around the corner, and my father will be back home in the states soon. I can’t wait. This is where he and I belong.