How to Respond to Coronavirus Racism

As COVID-19 infections increase, so too does racism and xenophobia. Use our “Speak Up” strategies to let people know you’re not OK with racist or xenophobic comments about coronavirus or anything else.
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Across the United States right now, people are feeling isolated and afraid. As schools and businesses close, people are worrying about their health, their families, their jobs and their future. All of these worries make sense, and of course there’s nothing wrong with being afraid. But as people share news, fears and concerns, some people are sharing something else, as well: racism and xenophobia.

Obviously, Chinese people are not responsible for a virus simply because the first reported cases were in China. But some politicians and media figures have taken to referring to the “Chinese Coronavirus.” They’ve used stereotypes about the different foods people eat around the world or made jokes that rely on “Chinese-sounding” words or phrases to make light of the crisis and somehow suggest that Chinese people are to blame. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that China should apologize for the virus.

While it might be tempting to think we should just shake this kind of language off and focus on larger concerns, the truth is that racist and xenophobic words have real-world effects. Across the U.S., Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders report being harassed at school, in stores, on the streets and on the subway. Last month in London, a Singaporean man was assaulted, kicked and punched by a man who said, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country.”

We know that racist “jokes” can quickly become racist rants, and those rants can turn to violence. So it’s up to all of us to make it clear that we’re not OK with racist responses to this crisis.

To do that, Teaching Tolerance recommends a four-step process for speaking up against bias:


Here’s what speaking up against racism during the coronavirus might look like now.


Interrupting means taking a time out. It shows the person you’re talking, texting or chatting with that what they’ve said is important enough to pause your conversation to address—that you need to talk about the racism before you talk about anything else. Here are a few phrases to try:

“Hang on. I want to go back to what you called the virus.”
“Just a second—let’s get into your point that the virus is somebody’s fault.”
“Before we talk about that, I want to talk about the language you just used.”


We’re all familiar with “questions” that are really warnings: What did you just say to me? or Are you really going to do that? But in this context, the goal of questioning really is to better understand why the person said what they did. You might ask:

“Why did you call it the ‘Chinese Coronavirus’?”
“Why do you think that?”
“Where did you get that information?”

One note: Asking someone to explain why a racist joke is funny is a great way to stop them from making racist jokes to you again. But if you want to have a real discussion about what they’ve said, it might work better to ask something like, “What made you say that?”


The key to educating is to continue the conversation. The goal here isn’t to just provide facts about the topic generally to the person you’re talking to with, but to explain why what they’ve said needs rethinking. 

That means that, to educate folks around racism associated with the coronavirus, we need to understand not only the virus but also the racism.

For example, you might explain that it’s actually not common anymore to name a disease after its place of origin, that there’s a long, bad history of associating diseases with specific groups of people and that the name COVID-19 was chosen very carefully to avoid repeating those mistakes. 

If someone doesn’t understand why a comment they made was racist, you can educate them about the long history of stereotyping immigrants—and Asian people, specifically—as people who bring disease. You can explain how this stereotype is both wrong and harmful.

And if someone tries to play down racist phrases as “just a joke,” you can educate them about the discrimination and racism many AAPI folks are facing right now, so they better understand the impact of their words.


It takes an effort to speak up against racist ideas and language. This is particularly true of people who are targeted by that language. That’s why we need to have each other’s backs. When someone else speaks up, echo them. Thank them, and emphasize or amplify their message any way you can. This not only encourages more speaking up—it also ensures that no one thinks your silence in response to biased ideas or language means you’re OK with it.

Of course, echoing is harder while we’re social distancing, but there are many ways to do it. Online, we can re-share antiracist messages. And in chats or conversations, we can respond to offer support and agreement. 

In the coming weeks, we’re all going to have to make an effort to take care of one another. We’ll probably need to make some more sacrifices to ensure that our communities stay as safe and healthy as possible. Speaking up against bigotry, particularly if you’re not the target, costs very little. 

If we all commit to interrupting, questioning, educating and echoing to fight racist rhetoric, we can start making our communities safer and healthier today.