Emma Nance, postgraduate student on the LLM programme in Medical Law and Ethics at the School of Law, University of Edinburgh, shares her thoughts and personal experience of racism in the context of Covid-19.
Type “kung flu” or “Chinese virus” into your search engine—how many results do you get? By my last count, both search terms combined return over 1 billion results. Though the WHO officially termed the novel coronavirus“COVID-19” in February 2020, this measure did not deter people from continuing to use these slurs and to justify attacks against Asian people. Since news of the coronavirus first began making headlines, there has been a documented rise in acts of anti-Asian discrimination, with people reporting being yelled at, spit at, bullied, verbally assaulted, threatened, and attacked.
This discrimination has been especially apparent in the US,where racial tensions are already high given the context of Black Lives Matter and police brutality protests. President Trump has consistently reminded his followers that the virus originated in China, continuing to use terms such as the “Wuhan virus” to discuss the pandemic. Leaders in countries such as Italy and Brazil have also spread misinformation and fear about Asian people, culture, and dietary practices. While journalists have heavily criticised the use of xenophobic terms and other world leaders have condemned the ongoing stigmatisation of China and people of presumed Asian heritage, it is extremely difficult to reverse the tide of racism.
As Cecilia Wang, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in an op-ed, immigrants and minority ethnic groups have historically been scapegoated for bringing and spreading infectious diseases. She concludes her piece with explicit directions: “any response to COVID-19 should be grounded in science and public health, not xenophobia.” However, it is clear that many institutional responses to the pandemic have exacerbated xenophobic and racist sentiments rather than promoted global solidarity and scientific validity.
For me, it has been interesting to have the opportunity to study global solidarity and public health through my course in Medical Law and Ethics, discussing terms such as quarantine, isolation, and choice elimination in abstraction in class just weeks before putting them into practice. Now in my 16th week of quarantine in Scotland, I have experienced liberty-limiting principles designed to protect and promote public health, something which I had previously only researched and written on. And, as an Asian-American person, while I have experienced racial discrimination before, this is the first time that I have experienced people abruptly turning away from me in supermarket aisles when they see my face, pointedly applying Purell when I am nearby, and yelling at me on the street for spreading coronavirus.
As an adopted Chinese girl, I am used to people making incorrect assumptions about my heritage, ranging from the “no, where are you really from?” questions to the “wow, you speak such good English” comments, to the “you’re not really adopted, right?” incredulity. I have never wanted to entertain these pointed questions and enjoy the look of confusion on an insistent stranger’s face when I reveal that my mother’s family is originally Irish and that my father’s family can trace their ancestry back to the Celts. While I am by no means ashamed of my heritage, an explanation of my identity is not something which I owe to a belligerent observer. This discrepancy between my race and my cultural upbringing is certainly not a nuance that I can, or want, to summarise quickly to the casual racist in the store or on the street.
Growing up in a predominantly white environment, it has often felt akin to appropriation to acknowledge my Chinese heritage or refer to myself as a woman of colour. I find myself downplaying incidents of racism that I have experienced as “not that bad”. While rationally I know that recognising all instances of prejudice and inequality are key components of social justice and global solidarity, it is sometimes difficult to internalise this fact emotionally.
It is important to identify and combat racist slurs, microaggressions, physical attacks, and other instances of racism whenever they occur. For me, that starts with adding my experience to other narratives of injustice such as Joey S. Kim’s, Kenya Evelyn’s, Ibram X. Kendi’s, and Bruce Y. Lee’s, to name a few voices. To answer a question posed by Dr Agomoni Mitra Ganguli in a previous blog post, I want to build the kind of society that does not glorify hate speech nor pretend it is colourblind but instead one which is actively anti-racist and seeks to learn from the past. I want to build a society that, when I search the term “kung flu”, returns one billion search results which promote the voices of those who have been affected by racism, not the views of those who seek to weaponise it.