On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global health emergency, increasing concerns around an already contentious situation that has caused the U.S. government to issue a travel advisory on visiting China, where the outbreak occurred. In response, many universities, including Princeton, have issued advisories on dealing with the ramifications of the outbreak. The University of California at Berkeley recently came under fire for an Instagram post advising students on how to navigate the outbreak that listed xenophobia among common reactions, with numerous parties questioning this normalization of racism.
Though this post has since been taken down, it highlights the potential for racist attitudes to develop in reaction to the outbreak. Although the gravity of the coronavirus should not be underestimated, the racist and Sinophobic reactions prompted by the outbreak are not only inappropriate, but are detrimental to the formation of a more understanding, open-minded, and collaborative global culture.
In addition to UC Berkeley’s post, other media sources have also contributed to this worrying trend, including a French newspaper which ran the headline “Yellow Alert” and other outlets which spread an old video of a Chinese blogger eating bat soup. Many in the west have adopted an attitude of disgust in reaction to this video. Numerous voices on social media have blamed the outbreak on Chinese cultural eating habits. On Twitter and Facebook, comments arguing the Chinese “deserve” the illness for eating “disgusting” things garner tens and hundreds of likes. This casual racism does not stay online: Asian students have reported coronavirus-inspired racist comments against them, often focused on their diet and culture.
The intolerance towards other cultures evidenced in these reactions reveals a level of Eurocentrism that is damaging to any attempts towards true globalization, an oft-cited goal in the modern world. These Eurocentric attitudes are deep-rooted — the West has long portrayed Asian cultures as bestial and threatening, and this viewpoint played a large role in the xenophobia of the 19th and 20th centuries. Media sources portrayed Asians in such derogatory and fearmongering ways that immigration policy actively prevented them from coming to America, and state and local laws placed discriminatory taxes and regulations on existing Asian Americans.
Today’s controversy surrounding the eating habits of Chinese people is just a continuation of such racist beliefs. As a kid, my classmates would ask me if I ate dogs and cats — I didn’t, but I still felt compelled to deny it strongly out of shame, often to no avail as my friends continued to make fun of me. People in America grow up hearing about the bizarre eating habits of other cultures and learn to turn their noses up against such “disgusting” practices, even though what they hear often gets incredibly distorted.
This casual racism is perpetuated on a day-to-day basis, and it is especially virulent because it often slips past today’s filters for what constitutes racism. If not kept in check, it will continue to promote distorted views of foreign cultures and denigrate people who trace their heritage to these cultures.
The reaction to the coronavirus outbreak highlights our need to grow as a society and approach other cultures with a more open mind. There are vast differences in customs and beliefs that must be seen as simply differences, not deficiencies. Condescension and disgust may give one a feeling of superiority, but they have never been conducive to harmony and progress. If unchecked, they lead to discrimination on a damaging scale — an illness far different from the coronavirus, but in a similarly urgent need of redress.
Richard Ma is a sophomore from Kirksville, Miss. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.