OPINION / COLUMNISTS
Regardless of speaker's intentions, 'Chinese virus' is racist
Published: Mar 27, 2020 02:58 PM
 

Photo: IC


On Monday morning, a tweet purported to be from President Donald Trump's Twitter account began circulating on WeChat. It said, "I am sorry I called it the Chinese Virus thousands of times. I really regret it. Are we still friends China?"

It was a joke and Chinese people knew it and chuckled, but it turned out to be prophetic. A few hours later, the real Trump spoke out. "It is very important that we totally protect our Asian American community in the United States, and all around the world. They are amazing people, and the spreading of the Virus is NOT their fault in any way, shape, or form," Trump wrote on his Twitter account. "They are working closely with us to get rid of it. WE WILL PREVAIL TOGETHER!" 

He reiterated the message later that day at the White House daily briefing on the pandemic. 

This tweet and statements fell well short of an apology and his demeanor seemed to indicate he was having difficulty eating his own words. His use of the phrase had already fueled anti-Asian sentiment in the US, and legitimized physical or verbal attacks against Chinese and other Asians here.

His pivot is at best a bandage on the bleeding wound the president created in the hearts of Asian Americans. 

His change in tone was also well calculated. From March 16 when Trump first used the phrase on Twitter to ending its use a week later, the timing of opening and shutting this dangerous valve was meticulous. 

Trump has indicated his use of the Chinese virus terminology was triggered by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian's earlier suggestion that the virus was brought to China by American military personnel during the Military World Games in Wuhan. Yet Trump didn't seem bothered by Zhao's allegation when he was first asked about it at a previous White House briefing. Trump basically just shrugged it off. 

It's an unlikely coincidence that the phrase was first tossed when criticism of his handling of the pandemic was mounting, and dropped when the heat he has faced had eased somewhat.

Trump's political tactics aside, I am also unnerved by a question asked by Chanel Rion, a White House political correspondent for One America News Network, at the March 19 White House briefing. The pro-Trump cable network reporter asked, "Do you consider the use of the term 'Chinese food' racist? Because it's food that originates in China and has roots in China?" 

Despite the rising racist attacks against Asians, I am confident that the majority of people in the US know the difference between right and wrong. 

Yet even some of Trump's cabinet members, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, publicly repeated Trump's dreadful terminology. 

But Rion's argument could confuse people, even Asians (the reporter is of Korean descent). Immediately, I saw Chinese Trump supporters in WeChat groups adopting the logic to defend him. Of course "Chinese food" and "Chinese virus" are as comparable as chalk and cheese. 

Racist derogatory words, such as negro and Chinaman, were often used without recrimination. They became ugly and abusive over time as they were recognized as insults and scorn. 

In this sense, even if you believe "Chinese virus" and "Chinese food" are neutral linguistically, it is clear that the president's use of the former cannot be equated with someone going out for Chinese food. 

And even if you think the President didn't intended to sound racist when he spat out those two words, it doesn't give him a pass. 

People associated with different histories and cultures always have different understanding of the same word. For examples, the word "Ching Chong" and "oriental" may be of little concern to Chinese people in China but are highly offensive for American-born Chinese. 

But regardless of the speaker's understanding and intention of choosing a word, it is the listener's feeling that matters in the judgment of the legitimacy of a word. 

After all, in today's diverse world in which people from different backgrounds are constantly interacting, trying to understand and respect the scars and taboos of one another is more important than ever. 

The author is a New York-based journalist and Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow. rong_xiaoqing@hotmail.com
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