Race Matters

Speaking up: Anti-East Asian racism during Covid-19

A year of unprecedented events has led to more discussion about the structural racism experienced by different groups in the UK than we've had in a generation. Here, Claire Lee, a Reframer on the Reframing Race programme, explores her own experience of anti-East Asian racism, and considers where this fits in the context of the wider landscape of Black Lives Matter and widespread racial injustice.

The months of February and March 2020 are forever etched into my memory as a period of intense pride (Parasite winning the Academy Awards) and fear (the start of the COVID-19 spread to the Western hemisphere).

I silently seethed as I heard individuals who watched Parasite judge my native Korea based on one film, and make disparaging remarks about China. Before anyone could rope me into a conversation, I would excuse myself. It is too exhausting to discuss, let alone explain. I wanted to ask people to stop generalising about nations based on one incident, to care more for the East Asian students who would inevitably be faced with challenging (racist) circumstances, and to educate themselves before jumping to wild conclusions. But I chose to silence my voice.

During the same period, I noticed empty seats next to me on the train more often. ‘Do people think I have Covid?’ I wondered. But  then someone would sit next to me, and I would let my paranoia dissipate. 

Though we know that Covid-19 has led to a spike in racism towards East Asian people, the relevant data has not been collected in one place. A new organisation, Covid-19 Anti-Racism Group (CARG), was set up this year with the purpose of monitoring the situation, and to that end has released several press statements and a petition.

Reflecting on these events has made me realise the extent to which I was self-policing. 

When I first arrived in the UK, I learned for the first time that I am part of the ‘BAME’ category.  Growing up in the US, I had never heard of this category before and was even more confused when I realised through my interactions that in the UK, ‘Asian’ referred to South Asian nationalities. When I introduced myself as East Asian, I might as well have said that I am Chinese. The astounding lack of knowledge of the diversity of Asia has floored me. 

Yet, I tried my best to smile and politely answer that I am an Asian American expat. Of course, this concept of an Asian American expat has not resonated within white society. When pressed further with questions such as “where are you really from?” I would respond that my ethnicity is Korean. I would tune out their inevitable comments undermining the safety of Korea. I know it is not my burden to educate others about my culture, but I decided that for my mental wellbeing it was better to play to my American side, even with the accompanying microaggressions. 

When I mention that I am from Boston, I see colleagues visibly relax in front of me; courtesy of my American accent, I am a ‘good immigrant’ and ‘safe.’ Somehow, bringing up the US inescapably transforms into an open mic session of colleagues freely commenting on American politics: “Can you believe [insert incident here] happened there? [Insert incident here] would never happen here.” Again, I usually stay silent. It is impossible to speak on behalf of an entire nation. 

But just as fast as I am deemed ‘safe,’ I am pushed aside. After attending a panel, I received feedback that reads: “You don’t have enough UK experience.” I should clarify: that was what was written between the lines. The microaggression was delivered with such a sleight of hand that I had no direct evidence of it being discriminatory. As a former Equality, Diversity and Inclusion officer, I often responded to and reported issues of racist attacks against students. “You might have seen this in America, but that doesn’t exist here,” I was told by senior executives. I am silenced again. 

It is no secret that I am struggling to reconcile my Korean American identity with my assigned roles of ‘foreigner’ and ‘BAME.’ In the UK, society’s traditional refusal to acknowledge and confront racism, the reluctance to diversify the curriculum, the portrayal of ‘good immigrants’ alongside the engrained belief that violence and racism only exist in the US are the ongoing barriers that prevent me from reconciling my identity. As an Asian American woman, I have been socially conditioned to believe that my voice should stay silent. 

Here I am breaking my silence to emphasise the importance of being an ally. I have seen Asian communities questioning why they should advocate for Black Lives Matter when they feel that their voices were forced into silence. Although I empathise with feeling silenced (we should also remind ourselves: who is doing the silencing?), I believe it is crucial to remember that all of our voices, as people of colour, are worth uplifting. Listening to the experiences of others and sharing our own fosters solidarity while providing living proof of the systemic racial inequality that bleeds into every sector. We should all raise our voices to highlight the priority: black lives. Moreover, within the UK, this is an urgent situation because there is a complicit and complacent attitude towards racism, let alone black lives. 

“That can only happen in the US” is a dangerous and false notion that we must challenge. It is essential to consume information consciously as we educate ourselves, and continue the conversation to propel the movement forward. 


Picture credit: Prachatai via Flickr

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