Around the world, we are witnessing the spread of a dangerous disease. Unlike coronavirus, which does not discriminate, the contagion of hate does. And the latest victims of coronavirus-related xenophobia and racism are people and communities of Asian descent.
Earlier this year, as I began to see stories of coronavirus appear, local Chinese restaurants and commercial districts struggled as patrons avoided such businesses. As the virus began to infect more and more people globally, I began to experience suspicious glances if I happened to cough or sneeze, with the need to explain — allergies, a tickle in my throat, my sip of water went down the wrong way.
At first, I thought everyone was experiencing these same insinuating glares, but after comparing notes, I realized there was much more at play.
Every pandemic has its scapegoat. "Jewish communities were targeted during the bubonic plague in the 1300s. Irish immigrants were blamed for typhoid in the 1800s. Haitian Americans were thought to be responsible for HIV in the 1980s. Mexican Americans for swine flu in 2009, and West Africans for Ebola in 2014," according to Matthew Lee, a health policy researcher.
In periods of stress, particularly when we are fearful, our unconscious biases can be enhanced because the stress prevents us from critically thinking and overcoming quick, automatic judgments about people, according to Dr. Bentley Gibson, associate professor of psychology at Georgia Highlands College.
Out of curiosity, I began conducting my own informal research among those of Asian descent, including people in PR and comms. Among the 37 respondents, one in four (27%) said they had been treated more negatively during the pandemic. When asked if they knew anyone personally who had experienced racism or xenophobia the number jumped to 62%.
"A stranger on the street told me to quit spreading the 'corona' around and 'to go home, [racial slur].' That was upsetting. I talk about it as a joke, but I was pretty shaken up. It was another reminder that I'm different and that there's a constant visible marker — my face — that makes me a target," said Kristin Fontanilla from Porter Novelli in Seattle.
Via Twitter, Jeff Yang, a VP at Sparks & Honey said he "went out for groceries and an older masked white woman passing by the line shouted "F*CK YOU!" at me for no apparent reason. As I stared at her, she pulled off her mask, coughed directly at me, turned on her heel and walked off."
As of this writing, the tweet has over 12,000 comments, 26,000 retweets and nearly 200,000 likes. When I checked in with Jeff, he said even worse than the racist encounter, have been the hateful direct messages.
Sadly, others I polled were fearful for their personal safety or the safety of loved ones, some 62% acknowledged they were indeed concerned.
"I am fearful for my parents who live in the South and have experienced racism in the past," said Suzy An from Porter Novelli, New York. "I'm concerned for my cousin who lives in Brooklyn and may be double targeted because he's gay and for my sister who is an Asian woman living in Brooklyn, as I've heard more Asian women being attacked in New York City."
As communications pros we know our choice of words have impact. Terms like "Wuhan virus" or "Chinese virus" exacerbate the issue.
When establishing best practices in naming new human infectious diseases the World Health Organization wrote: "This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected. We've seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for peoples' lives and livelihoods."
In order to overcome our biases, Gibson said, we have to focus on positive information about negatively stereotyped social groups. One such person of Asian descent, who asked to go unnamed, extends that grace, as well.
"I believe that the majority of people are still decent, helpful and kind. I understand that circumstances vary and ignorance is a major contributor to racism or xenophobia, but I choose to remain optimistic."
It's important we each do our part to flatten the curve for racism and xenophobia in the face of a pandemic. Unlike coronavirus, racism and xenophobia thrive in isolation, when our prejudices and stereotypes go unchecked.
It is my hope that we learn from this time and come out on the other side cognizant of the impact of our words and actions, and more kind and understanding as a result.
Soon Mee Kim is an EVP and leader of Global Diversity and Inclusion at Porter Novelli.