Why We Need To Talk About Xenophobia In The Wake Of Coronavirus

Two days ago, two teenagers approached German-born Chinese Instagrammer Kicki Yang Zhang and screamed at her the words, “coronavirus.” Walking through the streets of Berlin, Zhang noticed people switching seats on public transport to avoid her and Uber drivers covering up their faces as she entered the car.

Kicki Yang Zhang does not have the virus and she was born and raised in Germany. But, ever since the first report of the coronavirus, she and other Asian people have been on the receiving end of unjust treatment. Why? 

Well, that’s got an awful lot to do with xenophobia, paranoia and their relationship with the media’s representation and the development of COVID-19.

What is xenophobia?

Associate Professor at Australian National University (ANU) Naomi Priest is a researcher on racism and discrimation towards children in Australia, and a world leader in the field. As she explains to Syrup, “Xenophobia [is a] fear or dislike of people who are perceived as foreign. This is a form of prejudice and racism.”

While it is a form of prejudice and racism, “it is conceptually different,” adds fellow Associate Professor at ANU, Nicholas Biddle. “The latter refers to the treatment that someone receives based on observed characteristics (including race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, age, etc).”

And many among us have experienced it before. Ever experienced someone making a micro-aggression towards you because of your skin tone? Or an assumption that you’re from a certain country (usually, China)? Or had someone literally change seats on the bus because you sat near them and not known why? That all stems from xenophobia.

Historically, Australia has a pretty ugly relationship with xenophobia. Our nation’s shameful history with the White Australia Policy, a series of policies forbidding any non-European immigration into the country, was enacted purely to prevent people of colour from migrating into the country. It’s a bit hard to imagine now, given how multicultural our population is, but, according to Asian-Australian Director of ANU’s Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership Jieh-Yung Lo, the policy was met “with exaggerated claims that Chinese people were “dirty, disease ridden and insect like.””

Incredibly big yikes.

What does that have to do with the Coronavirus?

The coronavirus originated in a free market in Wuhan, China. When the news first broke, misinformation and paranoia ran wild. Nothing was clear about the disease except one thing: that it came from China. 

“Because the coronavirus first emerged in China, some people are incorrectly blaming people who are Chinese or from other Asian countries for the disease and wrongly stereotyping Asian people as unhygienic, more prone to disease [and] unhealthy,” Priest says.

“This has resulted in people avoiding Chinese restaurants and businesses and in social exclusion and discriminatory behaviour towards those from Asian backgrounds, including in schools and on public transport.” 

And, to make things worse, conservative media and politicians like the U.S. President Donald Trump (shocker) have continued to perpetuate this narrative by describing the disease as a “foreign virus” or “China’s virus.” Said instances, Biddle explains, have led to organisations like The American Centres for Disease and Control Prevention needing to publicly state the obvious: “people of Asian descent are not more likely to get COVID-19 than any other American.”

“Science tells us that ‘race’ is not a meaningful biological definition,” adds Priest, “and what society uses as ‘racial’ categories do not play out in our genes.”

“Events like the foreign influence debate and now coronavirus have made me realise for us Chinese-Australians, it doesn’t matter how Australian and integrated into Australian society we are,” added Lo. “As soon as a crisis relating to China appears, we are treated differently and seen not as Australian but Chinese who are nothing more than outsiders, who are disloyal and untrustworthy.”

Of course, now that the virus has spread internationally and has Italy in total lockdown, non-Asian people are likely to experience xenophobia. But still, as this, SARS and most epidemics like this have shown, people of Asian descent are the most likely to experience this, and it fucking sucks, man.

What does xenophobia look like?

“At an everyday level between individuals, xenophobia can look like both hurtful, harmful and explicit comments as well as avoidance behaviours,” Priest answers, listing sitting next to someone on public transport, changing sides of the street or avoiding shops as most common examples.

“Xenophobia and racism can also play out at societal and structural levels, such as the way certain groups are portrayed in the media, in school and university curriculum, or in stereotypes and recruitment of people considered to have foreign sounding names in the workplace.”

Travel bans that restrict travel from some countries and not others, despite similar levels of illness, can also be considered an example.

What should I do if I am experiencing xenophobia?

While there are various institutions you can contact depending on where you experienced xenophobia, the most important thing is to “remind yourself that this is not a reflection on you or your culture or family, but is an expression of other people’s false views and beliefs is important.”

“Xenophobia is unfair and unjust, and it is ok and reasonable to be angry and upset at it,” stresses Priest. “Debriefing with friends and family and if you need to find a professional to talk to is also important.”

“If what you are experiencing threatens your safety or violates your legal rights, you may consider contacting police authorities,” adds Biddle. “If what you are experiencing is occurring at work, your workplace should have mechanisms to help you report unacceptable behaviour and get the support you need. If you feel that your health or wellbeing is being adversely impacted, you may consider visiting your GP for advice.”

And, if it’s affecting your mental health, the Australian Department of Health Coronavirus (COVID-19) health topic website has a variety of support services who will listen and help you. They include, Head to Head, Lifeline, BeyondBlue, headspace and MensLineAustralia.

As Biddle reminds us, “please know that there is always someone that you can talk to if you are experiencing a crisis or require immediate support.”

What should I do if I see others experiencing xenophobia?

So, given how horrible it is to experience, what can I, as a white person, do to help my friend whose experiencing xenophobia on our train ride home? How do I make the old man or woman I see being yelled at on the bus for merely coughing or sneezing because the damn bus seats are dusty, know they’re not alone?

“The first thing to do is assess the safety of the situation,” explains Priest, “sometimes it is safe to confront the perpetrator and let them know their comments or behaviour are not ok, but sometimes this is not safe and may escalate the situation.”

“It can be easier to do something to show the person experiencing racism that you support them, such as going and sitting next to them on the train or asking them if they are ok or going and getting back-up help and reporting the situation.”

And, to prevent these sorts of instances from occurring, Biddle says you can help reduce social stigma and discrimination simply by “spreading the facts about COVID-19.”

“Accessing reliable sources of information and talking to your family, friends, and colleagues about the most up to date health information on how COVID-19 is transmitted and treated can help combat misinformation and discrimination. The World Health Organisation’s EPI-WIN platform is one source of reliable information about COVID-19.”

At the end of the day, it’s as Canadian actor and Marvel’s Shang Chi, Simu Liu, wrote on instagram, “racism and xenophobia are far more contagious than the novel coronavirus, and can’t be prevented by wearing a mask.”

“As the threat of the viruses intensifies in China, so too has the hateful rhetoric surrounding the country I was born in…Do me a favour and don’t use this crisis to excuse your prejudice or your bigotry—there’s no cure for those.”

Hear that, Trump?

To know more about the coronavirus, including how to test for the disease and take care of your mental health, check out our coronavirus hub

Julian Rizzo-Smith is a writer and producer. He also claims to be a vine historian, avid connoisseur of low-fi beats, indie hip hop and Kermit memes. In a perfect world, he’d be married to Tyler the Creator, own an Arcanine and a Lapras, and don his own Sailor Scouts uniform. He tweets @GayWeebDisaster, which is also, coincidentally, how one might describe him.

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