UAAO event discusses racist and xenophobic rhetoric surrounding coronavirus anxieties

Thursday, February 13, 2020 - 10:30pm

LSA sophomore Victoria Minka speaks at the "From Fear to Reality" teach-in in South Quad Thursday.

LSA sophomore Victoria Minka speaks at the "From Fear to Reality" teach-in in South Quad Thursday. Buy this photo
Dominick Sokotoff/Daily

Approximately 30 students gathered in the Yuri Kochiyama Lounge in the South Quad Thursday evening to attend “From Fear to Reality: Yellow Peril Anxieties Over Coronavirus,” hosted by the United Asian American Organizations.

This event was designed to educate students about how diseases have historically propagated discrimination against Asian Americans and address how racially charged anxieties due to the coronavirus outbreak reflect American ideals on health and immigration. 

LSA sophomore Victoria Minka, an intern for UAAO, opened up the presentation by discussing the role of modern pop culture on the frenzy surrounding coronavirus. Minka emphasized the importance of understanding how and why the spread of misinformation online led to the spread and normalization of xenophobia stemming from coronavirus. 

“Where this started was with some false claims being made about coronavirus ... information was spread without all the facts, so this has led to a sort of hysteria around this topic, which as we know is often more harmful than helpful and can feed into xenophobia,” Minka stated, “I know that memes can be funny, but when we start to normalize coronavirus ... then we start to also say that the reactions and the xenophobia off of those is also normal.”

Minka then discussed other reasons behind the widespread panic, such as the lack of a vaccine and its spread outside of mainland China while reminding the audience to put coronavirus in perspective to other, more prevalent diseases such as the common flu.

LSA senior James Lee expanded on the history of Yellow Peril. Yellow Peril was the nationwide fear and systemic scapegoating of Asian Americans that emerged in the 19th century in response to large numbers of Chinese railroad workers immigrating to the American West. He also discussed how laws such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act were created during this time period to specifically discriminate against the Asian American community. 

Lee then spoke on how these laws were created to deny the Asian American community power as well as how this fear of marginalized communities continues to have an effect.

“All of this (the laws) is really about the preservation of power not given to the other,” Lee said. “In the American context, it is entrenched in our system to fear the other, so anyone who isn’t (obviously) ‘American.’ Any medical outbreak seems to justify already existing fears in the American body.”

Engineering senior Kathie Wu compared reactions to the coronavirus outbreak to other prominent health outbreaks such as SARS, HIV and Ebola. Wu noted how common efforts to contain these diseases such as quarantine and marginalization are ineffective and ultimately only serve to hurt and ostracize the affected populations rather than help the general public.

“A lot of the state responses to handling the spread of coronavirus and other diseases in the past have been to quarantine residents … but that isn’t the solution and it honestly just scapegoats already marginalized populations and intensifies the panic that already exists,” Wu said. “Airport (temperature) screening of at least 2.4 million Americans and Canadians coming in did not catch a single case of SARS.”

LSA junior Anna Dang concluded the presentation by highlighting how we can approach the discourse surrounding coronavirus moving forward.

“To talk about resisting the resurgence of Yellow Peril, in the U.S., rather than warning people about coronavirus, (we can) warn them about anti-Asian rhetoric,” Dang said.

Dang also reminded the audience to keep in mind the exact statistics of the outbreak may be unknown given that the Chinese Government historically withheld information from the public during the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s.

In an interview with The Daily after the event, LSA freshman Rose Waas said the event was an opportunity to learn about the different viewpoints on coronavirus as well as how to approach the coronavirus discussion without unintentionally promoting xenophobia.

“I think it was really insightful. It really allowed us to explore a lot of perspectives that are behind coronavirus and other epidemics that have happened in the past and ways that we can stop the spread of hate and racism,” Waas said.

When asked what he hoped the audience learned from the event, James Lee once again stressed why people must carefully walk the line between justifiable fear over a global health crisis and the xenophobia that may stem from that fear.

“A good synthesis that we want people to take away is ... any medical outbreak is not to be taken lightly, but at the same time, we have to recognize how it could contribute to further yellow peril discourse,” Lee said. The fear of the virus really ends up justifying not a fear of medical outbreak … but rather a resurgence of fear that already exists.”

Contributor Sarah Zhao can be reached at srahzhao@umich.edu