I was a graduate student in Oxford when the planes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York. After hearing the news, I met up with a friend. We had been planning to attend a book reading, but instead, we held each other tightly and sobbed.
At that moment, I did not understand that I was about to face even more heartbreak. In the ensuing days, Americans of Muslim, Arab and South Asian backgrounds – who were still grieving for their compatriots – were themselves assaulted, killed and blamed for the attacks.
On the 19th anniversary of that devastating day, a similar tragedy is unfolding for Americans of Chinese and East Asian ancestry. These communities are facing the challenges and uncertainties of the global pandemic compounded by a “second pandemic” of anti-Asian violence.
Almost 2,600 incidents were reported between March and early August, including attempted murder, death threats, verbal assaults, and a huge spike in online racism across the United States. During this pandemic, 31 percent of Asian Americans report being the subject of slurs or jokes and 26 percent worry about being threatened or physically attacked. These numbers are higher than for any other racial group.
Just as September 11 prompted a resurgence of Islamophobia, the pandemic has catalysed a new wave of Sinophobia. Historians have chronicled American Sinophobia dating back to the 1850s and its government sanction in numerous laws including the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
While much has rightly been made of US President Donald Trump’s jingoistic emphasis on the origin of the coronavirus and the tepid response of the Justice Department to anti-Asian violence, focusing solely on these actors detracts from an uncomfortable truth.
Millions of liberals and conservatives across the country – consciously or unconsciously – harbour anti-Chinese sentiments. They view those of Chinese ancestry and other Asian Americans, as competent and hard-working but also cunning, unidimensional and clannish. After all, if the virus had originated in Sweden, would we be seeing the same kinds of attacks on Scandinavian Americans?
The prevalence and intensity of Sinophobia has shifted with the changing political, economic, and social relationship between the US and China. According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, 73 percent of Americans hold an unfavourable view of China, up from 47 percent in 2018. The escalating trade war, China’s human rights abuses, and Trump’s rhetoric have triggered the shift.
Given the longstanding perception of Chinese Americans as alien, policy positions against China often lead to negative actions against Americans of Chinese ancestry. A similar fate plagues other immigrants and people of colour who are considered perpetually foreign, despite their allegiance to and investment in the US. One of the most egregious examples is that of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II due to suspicions about their loyalties.
Sinophobia is a byproduct of a racialised state. While the history and experience of the Chinese in America is different from other racial groups, anti-Asian sentiment forms a powerful, self-perpetuating foundation that undergirds the violence we are witnessing today. Most of us readily denounce anti-Asian bias, but we have not acknowledged our tacit complicity in it. Nor have we taken seriously the power and responsibility we have to prevent it.
Acknowledging Sinophobia cannot come at the expense of the overdue focus on anti-Black racism. Addressing both of these as part of a broader agenda exposes the shared origins of racial oppression. It also cuts against the dominant narrative that pits minority groups against one another rather than uniting them in solidarity.
Confronting bias against Asian Americans or any other racial minority is a daunting task. Doing so requires three things: acknowledging biases and recognising that they can be altered; engaging friends, family, and co-workers who make disparaging remarks and confronting hate in public settings; and identifying institutional racism and demanding changes from schools, media organisations, and employers.
As the events of the last few months have so tragically demonstrated, racially-based violence remains pervasive in the United States. Not all forms of racism are the same, but they share a goal to subordinate and dehumanise a group of people.
It is time to recognise and confront the forces that seek to perpetuate inequality, regardless of the group affected. This requires us to end the silence at our dinner tables, in our classrooms, and at the (virtual) water cooler. As risky as it feels to step into the fray, our continued inaction is even riskier.