Outside of the Louvre, a guard stands in front of the endless queue, controlling eager tourists and admitting them in an orderly fashion. Somewhere around noon, he will cut the queue and close the entrance, then tell that unfortunate traveler who was just cut, “Sorry, come back tomorrow.” These days, when no one can actually get into the Louvre, I feel like that unfortunate traveler. This is about when the entire country draws the line right in front of you.
Amid the crisis, I am living in the United States as an Asian and a foreigner. It would take an hour for me to explain how this situation has unleashed racist sentiment against Asian people, but there is another important aspect: How COVID-19 has forced me to recognize my position here in the U.S. At the White House press conference on March 17, a reporter pointed out that President Donald Trump’s use of the term “Chinese Virus” is racist against Chinese Americans. It is not even worth discussing his remark, but the phrasing of the question itself was upsetting. She criticized him for being insensitive to the discrimination against “Asian Americans,” not Asians in general. Other media coverage also addresses this as an Asian American matter. At first, I wasn’t sure if I read them correctly. What about Asians in this country who are not Americans?
I have been living in the U.S. for almost two years as a “Korean Korean.” Observing American reactions to coronavirus-related racism, I felt like the queue was cut right in front of me. Even when being discriminated against, there is a priority to be recognized as a victim. If there was a queue to enter the category of victimhood, they let Asian Americans in, but not us. The most depressing part is that even the journalists and so-called liberals who claim to defend minorities against the current administration draw the line to first recognize “their people” as victims. Intersectionality creates different tiers of “minority-hood.” While Asian Americans are prioritized over Asian foreigners, racists attack both groups on the same basis. If we are not even recognized as victims, who will care about us?
The ugliest part of this intersectionality is that our nationality alienates us institutionally. In other words, if someone says “If you don’t like it, just go back to your own country,” I have nothing to say, unlike those who are “from here.” This devastating reality becomes even more apparent during hard times. Canada closed its border and decided to only let their citizens and permanent residents in. The University pushes all students to go home, but there is no guarantee that international students can return to the U.S. someday. What I see from this panic is the priority of inclusion.
Of course, I am aware that U.S. citizens have always been entitled to more rights in the first place. For instance, in the Supreme Court case Kleindienst v. Mandel (1972), it is decided that foreign nationals are not entitled to the same degree of due process as citizens when entering the U.S. It is institutionally accepted that foreigners are not even second-class “citizens.” However, when it comes to a national emergency, aside from my value judgment of whether this is right or wrong, countries prioritize their citizens even more explicitly.
To clarify, what I am pointing out here is the priority of recognition, not the priority of privilege. I don’t expect the same degree of legal privilege with the people who have no other country than the U.S. that will protect them. I, too, have my own country that will take care of me as much as, or even more than, the U.S. does to its people. But by choosing to stay in Ann Arbor, I am denying myself that opportunity by my will. However, that doesn’t mean that I am willing to risk more than what I would have received in my country of origin. As long as I am living here, paying more than any domestic students would, as well as taxes, I want the same degree of respect as a member of this community. At least, I want the recognition as a victim who needs protection from racist attacks. Maybe my analogy to the Louvre was wrong: It is more like a queue rushing into a tornado shelter. This is a more serious and desperate situation, where no one should be left outside. So, don’t draw the line.
Sungmin Cho can be reached at email@example.com.