By Aphinya Jatuparsakul, Laura Na Blankholm and Elisabeth Bruun Gullach
This article was originally published in Danish on Eftertryk Magazine.
As a result of the Corona pandemic, we’re currently experiencing an increase in global anti-Asian racism. This growing number of racist incidents is rooted in a historical trend of linking dangerous diseases with Asians.
Aphinya is on the 4A bus. Somewhere between two Copenhagen neighbourhoods, Valby and Frederiksberg, a woman sits down next to her. The woman looks at Aphinya, frowns, and drags her scarf up to cover the lower part of her face. Aphinya gives her a reassuring smile, to no avail. From the woman’s point of view, the damage is already done – she sat next to an Asian person. When looking at Aphinya’s face, she clearly didn’t see a fellow human being, but a virus-infested time bomb waiting to explode. If nothing else, Aphinya is relieved that she didn’t have her daughter with her. How could she have explained to her child that this woman turned away in disgust because she sees Asian people as dirty because of their race? What if the woman’s reaction had been more than just disgust; what if she had resorted to violence, something Aphinya had personally experienced in the past?
Unfortunately, Aphinya’s encounter is familiar to many Asian people. Elisabeth wasn’t surprised that her white friend had to pick her mum up from Copenhagen Airport, who was worried about how people would react to an Asian person taking public transport towards the city. Just as Laura wasn’t surprised that a woman with a pram avoided queuing behind her at the local supermarket. While there is no shortage of stories about the reactions of white Danes to Asians in public spaces, the point of sharing these stories is to highlight some of the deep-seated racist dynamics that have intensified during the present crisis. The fact that white Danes are offended and surprised to learn of the things that people of Asian descent are experiencing in public spaces right now simply demonstrates their ignorance.
Beneath the news stories and the many incidents of verbal abuse is an undercurrent entwined with a long history of racism. While these stories are abhorrent and not something that many think could happen in Denmark, those of us who look like East Asians or Southeast Asians are not surprised at the way others avoid us in the metro or are afraid to see us walking outside. The three of us are constantly aware of our appearance, constantly reminded of the way we are perceived. This often plays out in subtle ways but nevertheless, it’s a daily awareness. The coronavirus simply reveals what is a persistent, systematic part of our society: racism.
Anti-Asian racism throughout history and today
The irrational and racist fear currently aimed at Asians in Denmark is brought into focus when we look at those who are singled out as the dangerous carriers of the virus versus those who actually brought the disease into the country. We have yet to hear the story of the 40-year old middle class man with a ski goggle tan-line who was attacked because he’s spreading corona. Or, for that matter, an Italian. The fact that the coronavirus in the Global North was mainly spread by white, well-off tourists becomes an irrelevant fact when the mechanisms of racism are at play.
Throughout the Global North, people of East Asian and Southeast Asian heritage are being attacked and abused, and many have been thrown off public transport by fellow passengers because of their appearance. In the US, these conditions have resulted in many Asians stockpiling guns in fear of racist attacks.
Asian Americans buying weapons in fear of their own lives is not something that happens in a historical vacuum. For centuries, Asians have been depicted as dirty, and the racist imagery connecting us to the coronavirus is anchored in what is referred to as ‘yellow peril’. The colour yellow has been associated with Asians since as far back as 1758, when the Swedish natural scientist Carl von Linné categorised the human race into three groups, colour-marking each one. Asians were designated the colour ‘luridus’ — which he also used to describe poisonous plants — and which roughly translates to ‘unpleasant light yellow’.(1)
The expression ‘yellow peril’ has developed and taken on new forms in parallel with historical events. At its core, it is founded on the idea of an ‘Asian invasion’ wiping out the (white) West. During the 19th century, the emperor Wilhelm II harnessed this fear of Asian people to gain support for a colonisation of China.(1) Yellow peril reared its head again when there was an outbreak of plague in San Francisco in 1904. People of Asian descent were forced indoors while white people could walk the streets freely. When the SARS epidemic broke out in 2003, Asian people were subject to massive discrimination – by landlords, on the job market and in public institutions. All of this is also reflected in literature and films, which are brimming with examples of Asians being represented as unclean and threatening.
Since the start of the corona pandemic we’re currently in the midst of, the consequences of this racial stereotyping have already taken their toll. On the 14th of February, a 16 year-old boy was admitted to hospital following a violent attack at his school in California, where he was assaulted after being accused of being infected with coronavirus. On the 24th of February, Jonathan Mok from Singapore was the victim of a violent racist attack in London by a group of men shouting: “We don’t want your coronavirus in our country”. In Italy, on the 26th of February, a man of Chinese heritage was denied access to a petrol station. He was attacked with bottles because the coronavirus was “his fault”. On the 12th of March, a man waiting at a bus stop with his 10 year-old son was hit over the head with a shovel. An American association has created a website to register these racist attacks. In only five days, 150 incidents were reported.
Danish media contributes to the stereotyping of Asians
In Denmark, several media outlets have already reported on racism targeted at Asians. Unfortunately, the racist tropes that we find in history have also made their way to the national media itself.
On Thursday, the 19th of March, a Danish advertising agency, Benjamin Creative, published an animated video for children, explaining the origin of the corona virus and why it’s dangerous to older people. At the beginning of the clip we see a caricature of an Asian person licking a bat. An innocent and childish voiceover narrates that the corona virus originated in China. This is a fact. However, the information is not passed on to children in a neutral way. Instead, in recounting where the virus came from, Benjamin Creative felt it was necessary to include a character drawn in the epitome of ‘yellow peril’ style, with sinister eyes and menacing looks.
At the same time, it’s worth remembering that the origin of diseases is not always deemed relevant. While Trump calls COVID-19 ‘The Chinese Virus’, it should be noted that nobody spoke of the swine flu, which spread to 1.4 million people and killed around 280,000, as ‘the American swine flu’ or even made a point of its American origin.
The video from Benjamin Creative was seen by many families, especially when the news channel that aired the clip, TV2 News, later published an article titled ‘Seven tips on how to talk to your children about corona’. The video and the racist illustration led to many angry reactions and comments on social media, and several people contacted TV2 demanding an explanation. The responses from Benjamin Creative and TV2 were almost identical: the video’s main aim was to inform children about the corona virus in a humorous way. We ask ourselves: humorous to which children? Moreover, the news channel had no intention of admitting to having made a mistake. They argued: “if free and independent media were to remove content each time an individual or a group of people for one reason or the other feel offended, then the aforementioned media would be neither free nor independent. TV2 will not remove this cartoon. Neither fully nor in part”.
According to TV2, they were not to be held responsible for the video being interpreted as racist and offensive, as this was not the agency’s intention. And so, true to form, another chapter is added to the ongoing saga of sensitive followers of identity politics versus freedom of speech warriors.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if national media actually reflected on their social responsibility in this time of crisis and maybe refrained from breathing new life into the historical myth of Asians as carriers of disease and contagion? Imagine a world where the media actually entered into dialogue about their biases and assumptions, with the aim of educating children without the use of racist tropes. The right to publish racist stereotypes should under no circumstances be characteristic of a free and independent press.
The present health crisis, which will have broad implications for our societies, also raises the need for balanced news coverage that benefits the entire population.
It takes time for society to develop a culture in which violent racist actions can occur. These incidents don’t just manifest out of the blue, they grow out of a fear of the unknown and racist notions about Asian people which have slowly developed throughout history. This needs to stop; when we normalise racist stereotypes, through the guise of humour or otherwise, we also accept a normalisation of the violence that Asians are currently experiencing globally.
The current situation is putting pressure on everyone, which makes it even more crucial that we meet each other with empathy, generosity and an understanding of how this situation is impacting us all differently.
The so-called social solidarity which is constantly being evoked by governments here in Denmark and abroad, reminding us to be responsible and to look out for each other, must also mean that we work towards spreading information that does not dehumanise minorities. It should mean that we do not treat some citizens as repulsive, dangerous disease-carriers, making them feel even more alone in this time of isolation.
1. Kowner, Rotem og Demel, Walter: Race and Racism in Modern East Asia – Interactions, Nationalism, Gender and Lineage, Brill Academic Publishers 2015, Chapter 3.
2. Röhl, John: The Kaiser and His Court – Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany, Cambridge University Press 1994, page 203.
Illustration by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom (정울림)
About the authors
Aphinya Jatuparsakul is a writer, co-chair of the NGO The Red Van and engaged in sex-worker rights, migration and feminism from a Southeast Asian perspective.
Laura Na Blankholm is a Copenhagen based journalist and Visual anthropologist. Her research is rooted in the intersection of grassroot movements, collaborative media and processes of minoritization. Her practice is informed by her experience in the media industry and her work in the decolonial collective Marronage, that engages with activist communities, arts, culture and academia to mark links between historical colonization and current policies.
Elisabeth Bruun Gullach has a master’s degree in migration studies and is co-founder of (un)told pages, Denmark’s first literature festival featuring only Black, Indigenous and People of Colour authors.