Coronavirus: there’s nothing funny about racism, Chinese-American stand-up Joe Wong says

Kristin Huang

US President Donald Trump’s apparent decision to stop using xenophobic language in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t come a moment too soon for a Chinese-American scientist turned stand-up comedian, who says the problem of racism against Asian people in the US is part of the social fabric.

Joe Wong, who moved to the United States in the 1990s and completed a doctorate in biochemistry at Rice University in Texas in 2000 before moving on to a successful career in comedy, said that Trump’s repeated use of terms like “Chinese virus” was fairly typical of the prevailing attitude in the country.

“When I talk about racism against AsAms [Asian-American], people’s attitude is ‘Not you too!’ Anti-Asian racism is not even acknowledged as a thing,” he said on Twitter.

“Asian slurs are pretty well received at live comedy shows. It’s so exhausting to fight it every time it happens.”

After a rise in the number of reports of physical and verbal attacks on Asian-Americans, Trump spoke out at a coronavirus task force news conference at the White House on Monday.

“They’re amazing people and the spreading of the virus is not their fault in any way, shape or form,” he said.

Despite the tone of Trump’s message, Wong said the language the president used was just another example of the division in American society.

“We Asians are referred to as ‘they’, and ‘they’ are not ‘us’,” he said.

Coronavirus outbreak has stoked a rise in xenophobia, Chinese abroad say

A recent study conducted by San Francisco State University recently found a 50 per cent rise in the number of news articles related to the coronavirus and anti-Asian discrimination between February 9 and March 7.

Lead researcher, Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian-American studies, said the figures represented “just the tip of the iceberg”, because only the most egregious cases would be likely to be reported by the media.

He said also that a website written in six Asian languages he helped set up to gather first-hand accounts of racial abuse had received 150 cases since going live on Thursday.

Donald Trump looks at his notes showing the word “Chinese” crossed out, during a briefing on the novel coronavirus. Photo: AFP

“Honestly I don’t know how can you NOT be angry being an asian [sic] in America now,” Wong said on Twitter.

“My son grew up in America, I caught a glimpse of how racial slurs and gestures go around at schools and kindergartens. Yes Kindergartens.

“What worries me is the fact that clearly those bullies didn’t invent the slurs. They learned them from adults around them.”

Authorities in New York on Tuesday responded to the spike in cases of assault and harassment by opening a hotline for people to report hate crimes.

That came after E. Tendayi Achiume, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on racism, mentioned Trump by name in an appeal for governments around the world to stamp out xenophobia in their policies and messaging.

“It's dismaying to witness state officials – including the president of the United States – adopting alternative names for the Covid-19 coronavirus,” she said.

C.N. Le, director of the Asian & Asian-American Studies Certificate programme at the University of Massachusetts, said phrases like “Chinese virus” played into deeply ingrained stereotypes in the US.

“That term plays off of old racist and xenophobic stereotypes of Asians in general, and Chinese in particular, as filthy, uncivilised, subhuman, and ultimately, inferior to whites and incompatible with the national American identity,” he said.

Meanwhile, Wang Yuan, a Chinese student at Northwestern University in Illinois, said she was trying to play her part in fighting Covid-19 by drumming up financial and other support from the Chinese community.

“To combat the pandemic and Sinophobia, Chinese living across the States have devoted themselves to monetary/medical supplies donations for hospitals running short of protective gear,” she said.

“[But] this is not only about any specific racial group’s self interest.

“This is about how we should act in solidarity to combat the pandemic at this critical moment.”

Comedian Joe Wong says it is vital for all Asian-Americans to stand up to those who seek to perpetuate xenophobia and racism. Photo: Bloomberg

Wong said it was vital for Asian-Americans from all walks of life to stand up to those who sought to perpetuate xenophobia and racism.

“I don’t blame Asian-Americans who don’t speak up, because they have enough on their plates. They have their jobs, they have work to deal with, and to make things worse, a lot of people work with or work for a racist,” he said.

“[But] a lot of Asian elites don’t speak up because they have other interests to protect. That’s why I started to talk about this on Twitter, because someone has to.”

Additional reporting by Echo Xie

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