British Association for American Studies


“We Are Not A Virus”: Challenging Asian/Asian American Racism in the 21st Century

The first time I collaborated with U.S. Studies Online: Forum for New Writing was when serving on a panel discussing Asian American historian Gordon H. Chang’s book Ghosts of the Gold Mountain in November 2020. [1] Sitting in front of my computer and seeing my colleagues from afar, I find the discussion nonetheless intimate and moving. We mourn my Cantonese ancestors who migrated to the West Coast in the 1800s—who worked hard to build the railroad yet were never recognised until recently—as Asian American scholars work together to exhibit the stories through online archives, documentaries, and books. And Gordon Chang is one of them.

As a Cantonese person who grew up hearing the Gold Mountain myth, their works deeply touch me and are among the reasons I am a researcher in Asian American studies. But the content of the work is not all that moves me. The community the panel manages to build in an isolating time affects me as well. Professor Chang at Stanford, I in Houston, and three others across Europe made up the panel. We also had a diverse audience from all around the world, including Asia. For me it was 11am, but for some it was very early in the morning, and for others it was late at night. Yet we all got together for the intellectual inspiration Asian American studies provides us; and this amid the anti-Asian racist currents the pandemic has brought our way.

Readers, I am sure you can name numerous experiences you have had like this during the pandemic. Since the pandemic hit and the world crumbled to pieces, fear and anxiety have taken hold of many. Asian Americans have innocently become victims of racism and stereotypes, symbolised by the terms “Wuhan virus” and “Chinese virus” that some politicians and ordinary citizens have insisted on using. Anti-Chinese sentiment and Sinophobia have risen as one of the virus’s most serious side effects. In April 2020, STOP AAPI HATE received almost 1500 reports of anti-Asian racism, discrimination and physical attacks. In Feb 2020, at the beginning of COVID-19 in the States, Houston’s Chinatown was severely struck by vicious anti-Asian hostilities. Business there has furthermore been lowered by 35 to 60 percent daily, and many businesses were forced to close down. Asian Americans, once seen as a submissive, compliant, assimilationist and well-behaved model minority, have thus suddenly become the target of attacks, with many now viewing Chinatown and Asians as contagious.

Perhaps the swift shift from model minority to contagious pariah should not be shocking. After all, the other persistent stereotype of Asians in America has long been that of so-called “yellow peril”, the diametrical twin of the model minority. In these two incongruous ways, Asians have been stereotyped in the manner that best fits contemporary U.S. mainstream discourse. The echoes of these “Chinese virus” cries resound far beyond the current pandemic and into a long history of anti-Asian hostility in the U.S.

The xenophobic attacks have made the Asian diaspora vulnerable, even though some targeted are not Chinese or have never been to China. My Asian friends of diverse identities feel self-conscious about wearing a mask in public, fearing ridicule. In some cases, people have harassed them for wearing masks because of their race. For instance, Stevens Point Police Department statement claims, “customers were called names and harassed for wearing masks because of their race.” Mask wearing has become a symbol for not only racial but also political division. Republicans frequently mention masks or mask wearing as one of the most challenging changes in the year 2020, much more than Democrats report concern over the same issue. These views emphasising the inconvenience of the virus and mask wearing extend to mainstream society’s prejudice against Asian communities in the United States. Asians have been wearing masks for decades before the pandemic, so mask wearing was taken as a symbol of Asian etiquette during the pandemic. Therefore, anti-mask is a gesture of anti-Asian.

Besides the numerous attacks Asian Americans receive abroad, we also face travel restrictions. Although this is a shared restriction with people of all ethnicities, a lot of Asians who have strong ties to their homeland and families in China are more severely struck. Many cannot travel back home to Asia this year because of the travel restrictions, nor can we feel at home in foreign countries because of the racist attacks. We are lost in limbo, with doors shut to us, and borders hardened. We have turned from a supposedly assimilated model minority to targets of discrimination and xenophobia, as if the time machine had taken us back to the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

During this time, I believe Asian American scholars must intervene in the mainstream discourse. We must not allow anti-Asian racism during the pandemic to be forgotten or dismissed. We must join forces to fight against it academically, intellectually, as well as socially. The October issue of the Journal of Asian American Studies presents on its cover a cartoon image of an Asian girl with a scarf and mask. Above her are the words, “I am not a virus.”[2] This clear and profound message calls all Asians and Asian Americans to join forces fighting against the insults and racism against Asians during the pandemic.

Returning to the content of the meeting that sparked these meditations, I am inclined to draw a parallel between the Transcontinental Railroad and the network technology that connects us to discuss it. The Transcontinental Railroad was a critical infrastructure in 19th-century America in the same way that the internet today is a powerful mechanism for inter-personal connections and disconnections. We are together, yet we are not. Similarly, the Transcontinental Railroad connotes both connection and isolation. As much as there is the romance of rail travel, there is also the cold, isolated struggle of the Chinese railroad workers, many of whom left their families behind. Today, the internet helps many to connect. Yet, at the same time, it also disconnects—it lessens our opportunities for intimate, in-person contact. Besides, it is prone to restrictions not only by the speed of the internet, but also the government, like the recent threatening ban of Wechat reveals.

We can only maximise the connections and minimise isolation. Significantly, many institutes and educators, like the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Institute, have established platforms to support Asian and Asian American students through COVID-19 and its related racial challenges. Others have made statements against anti-Asian racism and violence, like Duke University. This organised reaction against recent nationalist and racist political regimes will hopefully recover some of the destruction to the community. Meanwhile, many individuals of this community shout out to fight against discrimination. Indeed, numerous Asian American writers and artists have actively voiced their sentiments and emotions. Across social media, there are many Asian American collections like “the Unmargin Collective,” which provides a space for Asian Americans to share their stories and perspectives during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many news reporters have featured incidents linked to anti-Asian discrimination during the pandemic. Since May, Sakaguchi has been photographing individuals who faced anti-Asian aggression in New York City. These individual experiences recorded by writing, photographs, and interviews portray a collective, traumatic experience to the Asian community abroad.

There is no doubt that previous studies on racial identity and diaspora have not addressed Asian American matters enough. As Yih Ren points out, “the racialisation of international students especially from non-White and non-European countries is often ignored or included into Asian American matters.” As she calls for scholars’ attention to international students, whose lives have been directly affected during the pandemic, it nevertheless becomes clear the extent to which Asian American studies—now, more than ever—is being actively mobilised to address the racism and xenophobia that Asians and Asian Americans face in our multi-racial and globalised society. Thus, as I log onto my Zoom classrooms and Flipgrids and ask my students to share their experiences during the current COVID-19 pandemic, I feel as if we are sitting in a railroad cart together, travelling to a better place where anti-Asian discrimination and xenophobia may slowly be dying out.


Works Cited

Hee, N. (2020) ‘Houston’s Chinatown in trouble over coronavirus concerns’, FOX44NEWS.com, 21 February. Available at: https://www.fox44news.com/health/coronavirus/houstons-chinatown-in-trouble-over-coronavirus-concerns/ (Accessed: 7 January 2021).

In One Month, STOP AAPI HATE Receives almost 1500 Incident Reports of Verbal Harassment, Shunning and Physical Assaults (no date). CAA & A3PCON. Available at: http://www.asianpacificpolicyandplanningcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/Press_Release_4_23_20.pdf.

Jennings, R. (2020) ‘Not Just Coronavirus: Asians Have Worn Face Masks for Decades’, VOA, 11 March. Available at: https://www.voanews.com/science-health/coronavirus-outbreak/not-just-coronavirus-asians-have-worn-face-masks-decades (Accessed: 18 January 2021).

Kambhampaty, A. P. (no date) ‘“I Will Not Stand Silent.” 10 Asian Americans Reflect on Racism During the Pandemic and the Need for Equality’, TIME. Available at: https://time.com/5858649/racism-coronavirus/ (Accessed: 7 January 2021).

Kessel, P. V. and Quinn, D. (no date) ‘Both Republicans and Democrats cite masks as a negative effect of COVID-19, but for very different reasons’, Pew Research Center. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/10/29/both-republicans-and-democrats-cite-masks-as-a-negative-effect-of-covid-19-but-for-very-different-reasons/ (Accessed: 7 January 2021).

‘Let’s Talk! Supporting Asian and Asian American Students Through COVID-19’ (no date) MGH Institute of Health Professions. Available at: https://www.mghihp.edu/Asian-American-Webinar-Series (Accessed: 7 January 2021).

‘List of incidents of xenophobia and racism related to the COVID-19 pandemic’ (no date) Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_incidents_of_xenophobia_and_racism_related_to_the_COVID-19_pandemic.

Mentzer, R. (2020) ‘Police: Wisconsin Man Harassed Asian Americans For Wearing Masks At Grocery Store’, Wisconsin Public Radio, 19 May. Available at: https://www.wpr.org/police-wisconsin-man-harassed-asian-americans-wearing-masks-grocery-store (Accessed: 18 January 2021).

Qiang, V. (2020) ‘Advancing Justice | AAJC’, WeChat and the impact on Asian Americans and communities of color, 18 September. Available at: https://medium.com/advancing-justice-aajc/wechat-and-the-impact-on-asian-americans-and-communities-of-color-5ac5d1bca1fc (Accessed: 7 January 2021).

Ren, Y. (no date) ‘The Need for Teachers to Address Racism During the COVID-19 Pandemic’, E-International Relations. Available at: https://www.e-ir.info/2020/05/10/the-need-for-teachers-to-address-racism-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/ (Accessed: 7 January 2021).

‘Reported incidents linked to anti-Asian discrimination during the Covid-19 pandemic in the US and Canada’ (no date). Available at: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1pa57Vny25GCpHVX3qnmQ-IifMnpOUF9DsuH3PMtY5Vw/edit#gid=0 (Accessed: 7 January 2021).

‘Statement of Solidarity and Support Against Anti-Asian Racism and Violence | Asian American & Diaspora Studies Program’ (2020) Duke Asian American & Diaspora Studies. Available at: https://asianamericanstudies.duke.edu/covid-19-resources (Accessed: 7 January 2021).

‘STOP AAPI HATE’ (no date). Available at: https://stopaapihate.org (Accessed: 7 January 2021).

U.S. Studies Online (2020) #USSOBOOKHOUR with Gordon H. Chang: Writing History without Documents. UK (USSOBOOKHOURS). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihLEPefzp3M.

‘Voices from Asian America During the COVID-19 Pandemic’ (no date) UNMARGIN. Available at: https://www.unmargin.org/asian-am-voices-from-the-pandemic-part-1 (Accessed: 7 January 2021).


[1] https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/Ghosts-of-Gold-Mountain/9781328618610. For USSO BookHour Event, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihLEPefzp3M

[2] See the cover of this issue: https://muse.jhu.edu/journal/86.

About the Author

Dr. Melody Yunzi Li is currently an Assistant Professor of Chinese at University of Houston. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Washington University in St. Louis, an MPhil degree in Translation Studies at the University of Hong Kong, and a BA in English/Translation Studies from Sun Yat-sen University, China. Her research interests include Asian diaspora literature, modern Chinese literature and culture, migration studies, translation studies and cultural identities. She is working on her manuscript on literary cartography of home in Chinese diasporic literature. She has published in various journals including Pacific Coast Philology, Telos and others. Besides her specialty in Chinese literature, Dr. Li is also a Chinese dancer and translator.