It is curious how even when confronted with the absoluteness of mortality, human capacity for prejudice prevails steadfastly. As COVID-19, caused by a novel coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, rages around the world, Sinophobia has woven its way into the global narrative with as much alacrity as a global hunt for a cure. So, on one hand, we have people clamoring, as they should be, for a universal cure; and on the other, a section of humanity is being ruthlessly slandered on the basis of unfounded, preconceived racial notions. How shameful is that? Very.
2019-nCoV has killed more than 1,000 and counting; this is a battle zone. The virus doesn’t know one nationality from another, one culture from another, or one prejudice from another. It indiscriminately hunts for a host that it seeks to destroy.
As the virus spreads, from California to New Zealand, so does Sinophobia and by extension, xenophobia. Reports abound of Asian children being publicly beaten, parents petitioning schools to shut out children of certain ethnic origin, students stranded in foreign universities, tourists being spat on, and mask wearers being challenged on public transport.
The virtual games that people play endlessly in order to phantom-feel the dystopian depths unimaginable to man have suddenly taken on a hue of reality. This is the 21st century, we are into a new decade, and yet blind racial prejudice is alive and well. Adults are openly doing things they tell their children not to. On online forums and in private discussions, people with little or no medical training are probing with impunity the cause of the outbreak and squarely laying the blame on a particular ethnic group. In recent times, this is probably the largest-scale expression of racial hatred that is churning globally and could eventually prove even more toxic than the virus.
So, what is being done about it? Is the hue and cry loud enough? Is the world exploding in indignation yet? Not quite. Authorities around the world are insisting that they won’t stand for hate, yet people are being resolutely hateful. The persecuted can ring helplines when they feel perceptible danger to life and property. But what about covert glances of dismissal on public transportation, sudden withdrawal of friendly-until-recently neighbors, tears drying on a child’s face because of unspoken but deliberate exclusion in the playground? Slights silent as an assassin and just as threatening? Who will compensate for reputations destroyed and self-esteem slain? The relentless, racially motivated micro-aggressions?
Far too long, the natural reticence of an Asian has been mistaken for an uncertainty about self. Structured outrage is seen as a Western preserve. Structured outrage is by definition selective and what is selective cannot be universal. For example, the #MeToo movement — embodying structured outrage — can seem to be universal, but it is not. An illiterate, exploited female farm hand in Liberia doesn’t even know such a thing exists. Does it mean she is uncertain about self or is the movement meaningless? Neither.
Cultural difference is such a thing. It cannot be labeled and it cannot be dismissed. And it cannot be a one-size-fits-all concept. But what it can be unquestionably rendered is respect. In these conflicted times, while it might be a little unrealistic to aspire to what American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler refers to as “radical equality”, we could certainly try some “radical acceptability”.
After all, the deadly virus neither reads fake news nor practices discrimination.
The author is web editor, in charge of www.chinadailyasia.com.
HONG KONG NEWS