Jokes Can Be Racist, Too

Stop calling COVID-19 “the Chinese Virus.”

Last month, before school went online, junior Seth Lim, a member of the Student Group on Race Relations, was teased about his eyes while speaking to a group of middle school students. 

He said he could also hear students talking behind his back about COVID-19.

This one moment in the classroom is an example of the larger problem: racism surrounding COVID-19.

The coronavirus is not an excuse to be racist.

The pandemic, understandably, terrifies people. The widespread panic is causing some people to attack Asian Americans. It’s saddening to read headlines such as “Asian man kicked, told to ‘go back to China’ in coronavirus hate attack in East Harlem” and “Spit On, Yelled At, Attacked: Chinese-Americans Fear for Their Safety.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation warns of an increase in hate crimes amid the spread of COVID-19.

Back in March, our president called COVID-19 “the Chinese virus” despite growing pushback globally. He has defended himself, saying that the virus comes from China, so therefore, calling it “the Chinese virus” is not racist. However, according to a New York Times article, “the term has angered Chinese officials and a wide range of critics, and China experts say labeling the virus that way will only ratchet up tensions between the two countries, while resulting in the kind of xenophobia that American leaders should discourage.” 

Although Trump tweeted that he would no longer be calling COVID-19 “Chinese virus” and that the virus is not Asian-Americans’ fault, xenophobia is still on the rise. And this deplorable behavior does not stop with Trump. CBS reporter Weijia Jiang tweeted March 17, “This morning a White House official referred to #Coronavirus as the ‘Kung-Flu’ to my face. Makes me wonder what they’re calling it behind my back.”

Trump’s administration is also pushing the United Nations to explicitly state that the virus originated in China. This effort outraged Chinese diplomats, who called for their own language praising China’s containment efforts.

I’ve seen memes on popular social media platforms such as Tik Tok, Instagram and Snapchat calling COVID-19 the “Kung-Flu.” These cheap jokes may make you laugh for a few seconds as you scroll, but they are contributing to an attitude and behaviors that harm Asian people, sometimes severely.

I heard of people calling the virus the “Kung-Flu,” or the “Jew flu” because one of the area’s early cases emerged among people who attended the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington D.C. March 1-3. I saw these names for the virus on peers’ social media accounts and heard them say them in class. I did not endure anti-Semetic comments about COVID-19,  but three students told me of instances of people calling it the “Jew flu.” 

On April 18, when people gathered at the statehouse in Columbus to protest Ohio’s stay-at-home order, one man in a minivan held up a sign depicting a rat with the Star of David on its side. The rat had a big nose and wore a yarmulke and a beard. It rubbed its paws together, and the words “The Real Plague” appeared next to it. The sign was far more offensive than joking comments such as “Jew flu.” But joking comments such as “Jew flu” or “Kung-Flu” are the antecedents of vicious attacks, whether they are physical assaults or hateful speech.

I trust that most people calling it “the Jew flu,” at least in Shaker, do not truly have racist or anti-Semitic sentiments. In a country in which people are kicking and spitting on Asian Americans and displaying viciously anti-Semitic images, we must watch our words.

It takes no more effort to say “the coronavirus” or “COVID-19” rather than “the Chinese virus.” It also reduces the risk of offending someone. 

We joke about things that worry us. I am guilty of this behavior, too. I’ll admit I laughed at some of the COVID-19 jokes as I scrolled aimlessly through my Tik Tok feed. Laughing made me feel more connected in a way, since I could see everyone is in the same boat as I am. No matter how natural and helpful it is, joking to cope is harmful when our comfort comes at others’ expense. Often, we don’t realize when the joke goes too far. For example, when we say, “Don’t order Chinese food or you’ll get Corona” or call it the “Kung-Flu,” we don’t realize how angry, embarrassed, sad or afraid our coping joke makes an Asian classmate feel. Or how someone with an Asian loved one feels. 

As Lim said, “Being respectful of everyone’s opinions right now, especially during these chaotic times, is the best thing we can just really do.”

Whether we or our families are members of the targeted group doesn’t matter. There is something at stake for all Shaker residents, all Ohioans, all Americans. We isolate people when we make these jokes, and in these uncertain times, we need to be united. 

I know everything is hard to deal with right now, and joking makes things seem easier. But people are being attacked over a disease that is out of their control. So the next time you’re about to share a racist joke, think about the three Asian-American family members, two of whom were 2 and 6 years old,  who were stabbed at a Sam’s Club in Midland, Texas. The assailant indicated that he thought the family was Chinese and did not want them infecting people with COVID-19. 

Think about those people. And hold your tongue.

You can report COVID-19 related attacks to the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council along with the Chinese for Affirmative Action.

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