Speaking Up Against Racism Around the Coronavirus

The coronavirus became racialized, so it’s critical that educators understand the historical context and confront racist tropes and xenophobia from students and colleagues.
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A conversation about coronavirus is happening among young people right now, and the focus isn’t solely on health. When reports of this novel virus—first detected in China in December of 2019—started spreading to other countries, racialized fear began to manifest in public discourse. 

Since the virus began to spread, people who identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander (AAPI) have been subjected to racist comments and jokes online or in person, and to isolating behavior from those who are afraid of catching the virus. 

Times like these remind us that we must continuously disrupt and address issues of hate and bias, which often find their way into schools. 

It’s important to get ahead of harmful discourse because we know students are watching or listening to this rhetoric online and on social media. Many children spend hours a day on devices, so information—and misinformation—is likely in the hands of most of your students. 

What Our Students Are Hearing

So we can assume our students are seeing posts like this one from a college student who considered dropping a class because “only Asians” were in the classrooms, stating, “I hope I don’t catch coronavirus.”

They may also observe the racist tropes that falsely point to Chinese people’s eating habits as the cause of the spread of the virus.  

And these messages don’t come only from misinformed youth or social media trolls. For example, the University of California at Berkley apologized after an official Instagram account shared a post that was supposed to inform students about the virus. Instead, it listed xenophobia when “interacting with someone who might be from Asia” among “common” or “normal” reactions to anxiety around the illness. 

Anti-Chinese sentiment and any racist or xenophobic rhetoric about the AAPI community is not new. Associating this marginalized group of people with disease is also not new. 

Educators need to understand the historical context as they prepare to address this narrative in the classroom or other school spaces.

The Historical Context

Members of the AAPI community are targets right now because public health events have always been racialized. Pandemics that originate in areas populated by mostly people of color get more scrutiny, such as SARS in China or Ebola in West Africa. However, when pandemics occur in the United States and other western countries, such as the novel H1N1, citizens in those countries were not viewed as innately diseased. Many people die yearly from the flu, but Westerners aren’t seen as suspicious. 

Anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States related to disease goes back to when Chinese people began immigrating here. In efforts to bar Chinese workers from entering the country in the late 1800s, white labor unions argued that Chinese people carried diseases that were more virulent than those found in white people. 

In the same way junk science was used to justify enslaving Africans, junk science about people from Asia was used to justify laws leading to exclusion and exploitation of Asian immigrants. It solidified fear and phobia against Chinese people. The “yellow peril” narrative was born. It’s a racist term that plays on the idea that Asian people would disrupt or harm Westerners’ way of life.

These racist tropes are directly tied to the oppression of Asians and Asian Americans in the United States. They were used to justify the Page Act of 1875, which restricted East Asian women from immigrating to the U.S. And they served, in part, as justification for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned most Chinese people from immigrating to the U.S.

Coupled with racist tropes about health and culture, these laws led to racist violence against Asian Americans. The remnants of that legacy remain in public discourse today. 

Interrupting Racism

Educators have a responsibility to interrupt any anti-AAPI and xenophobic narratives. Since students may be exposed to racist posts on social media or racist comments about the coronavirus, you might hear some of this discourse in your classroom or throughout the school building. It is imperative that you interrupt it every time it occurs.

Right now, it’s important to have a heightened sense of what your students are saying in spaces inside and outside of the classroom. Respond immediately to any news of a student repeating racist or xenophobic language. It’s also vital to attend to any students or colleagues who have been harmed by anti-AAPI speech or rhetoric.

Our Responding to Hate and Bias at School guide can help you address issues at any phase of a hate or bias incident. 

Educating Students

Because you won’t always catch xenophobic or racist comments as they occur, it’s important to equip students with the historical context and relevant skills to discern when something is biased and how they can respond. 

Our Speak Up at School guide provides resources to help both educators and students tackle discussions about bias and stereotypes. Let’s Talk! helps guide educators in facilitating critical conversations. 

Even if no incident has occurred yet in your school or classroom, you must still be proactive. Create a welcoming and hate-free environment by ensuring that students can identify hate and bias and then encouraging them to disrupt it. Teachers can use our lessons about upstanders, which show students how to respond to hate speech. 

This is also an important time to emphasize the necessity of digital literacy, as students may become aware of hateful or biased speech online. Students must learn how to glean credible news sources and spot biased reporting. Spend time going through the pitfalls of the internet and help sharpen their digital literacy skills with lessons and activities

Even if your students do not represent the identities likely to be harmed by racist comments around the coronavirus, or you believe they’re not spreading misinformation and repeating racist tropes, exploring anti-AAPI rhetoric around the virus is still worthy of critical conversations in the classroom. 

The truth is all students are affected by hate and bias. It’s up to educators to protect those who are targeted by it and give students and other adults the tools to stop perpetrating harm in the future. 

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