by Anya Cheng, Managing Editor, April 2021
About a month ago, I began to see headlines. “Why Has There Been a Spike of Anti-Asian Hate?” “91-year-old man senselessly pushed to ground in Oakland’s Chinatown.” “8 Dead in Atlanta Spa Shootings.” I clicked through Instagram stories decorated with infographics, articles, and videos of elderly Asian people being violently harassed and attacked. I winced, turned my phone off. I wondered why people were surprised.
For my whole life, anti-Asian racism has been a common occurrence. It is tolerated. Joked about. Accepted. I have always resented the fact that this racism is so prevalent. I (and the Asian community) have been conditioned to laugh quietly at throwaway comments about math, driving, and MSG. I’ve perfected the art of pretending I don’t notice when someone tugs the skin at the corner of their eyes. I’ve learned to push down the uncomfortable feeling in the back of my throat when I hear a mocking caricature of an Asian accent.
It should come as no surprise that society weaponized its preexisting anti-Asian sentiments at the onset of the pandemic. Yes, COVID-19 precipitated a spike in violence and hate crimes, but general anti-Asian prejudice existed before last winter.
I remember over a year ago, when the pandemic brought China to the forefront of conversations and those uncomfortable moments multiplied. As weeks passed, the virus spread from its epicenter, and speculation entered nearly all of my conversations at school. Some Asian guy ate a bat. COVID-19 is a bioweapon created by the Chinese government.
During these weeks, I became increasingly aware of my own identity and its relation to the new global crisis. Intellectually, I knew that no one saw me as “to blame.” But in the last few weeks before Nobles went into lockdown, I walked through the hallways a little more self conscious. I chose not to speak in class discussions about the virus. Not because I wasn’t interested, but because I didn’t want to unnecessarily draw attention to myself in these conversations – which, more often than not, included unfounded and uncomfortable jokes about Asian culture.
I want to make something very clear: Nobles is far from immune from anti-Asian racism. Even before the pandemic, that type of prejudiced sentiment has always been tolerated here. Jokes about food, imitations of accents, and general “othering” comments are tossed around without consequence. At Nobles, nearly every experience I’ve had with anti-Asian racism has been in the form of a joke. These offhanded comments aren’t considered shocking, wrong, or even racist at all. I have walked away from situations, a sick feeling in my stomach, knowing that I should have said something but didn’t. Instead, I laughed, ensuring that the other party felt comfortable in their own wrongdoing.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic exacerbated these occurrences on campus. As recently as a few weeks ago, I’ve heard friends and classmates use the word “kung-flu” like it’s the scientific name, rolled off their tongue just like any other phrase. I have heard people complain, “Some Chinese guy ate a bat and now I can’t have a sports season.” They dismiss these comments, both in their heads and out loud, as jokes.
They are reckless jokes. The recent hate crimes and violent attacks are proof. And any joke that tips the scale towards violence simply isn’t funny enough to overcome its obvious and dangerous drawback.
Following the sharp and troubling rise in headlines about hate crimes against Asian Americans, Nobles has finally begun to have this conversation. But we should not have to wait until physical attacks to feel outrage. The seeds of this recent violence have been sown for decades, especially for the past year, even right on this campus: joke by joke, comment by ignorant comment. The outrage should start there.
I urge every person on this campus to keep the outrage going. “Kung-flu” isn’t just a joke. Laughter about eating bats isn’t just a joke. These comments are racist, wrong, and dangerous. They place the blame for a public health crisis on a single identity. They stack on top of each other like piles of rocks, and when the avalanche finally falls down, we start to see violence. So as long as these jokes continue, the violence will, too.