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An upsurge in racism and xenophobia against people of Asian descent has emerged as one of the most troubling repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the virus’ global reach, many Asian Americans are being targeted and treated as carriers, with reports of verbal and even physical attacks increasing at alarming rates. Confusion and anger over the virus’s origins have been clumsily and dangerously misplaced, enabled by President Trump’s insistent references to the “Chinese virus” as he blame-shifts away from his administration’s scant response. In March, when the outbreak had already reached several European countries, a New York dealer asked Vietnamese artist An Nguyen not to attend an art fair because she believed her presence would “create hesitation” for visitors.
With exhibition spaces and other traditional forums for dialogue shuttered, what role can the art world play in its efforts to halt these patterns? In the US, a group of Asian diasporic artists and arts workers have come together to form StopDiscriminAsian (SDA), a coalition dedicated to combatting racism and violence against Asians and Asian Americans by making visible incidents of abuse during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) has announced a new collection that highlights Chinese diasporic citizens who have contributed in positive ways to their communities, a meaningful effort to counter insidious stereotypes.
The two separate initiatives illustrate the ways in which some of the processes involved in art work — research, resource sharing, community building — can intersect with the realm of social justice. In an art world that often touts progressive values but falls short in tangible action, SDA and MOCA are building veritable archives of experiences that validate the urgent need for societal action during the current health crisis and beyond.
In an e-mail to Hyperallergic, SDA — whose members have asked to remain anonymous — said the project came about when several Asian diasporic art workers in New York teamed up with GYOPO, a Los Angeles-based group of diasporic Korean cultural producers. In late March, artist Kenneth Tam had begun circulating a Google spreadsheet titled “WE ARE NOT COVID” to document the rapid escalation of anti-Asian incidents; SDA’s website shares those testimonies and provides a submission form that feeds into both its own platform and Tam’s spreadsheet.
“On both coasts, many of us were personally experiencing racist attacks that ranged from persistent micro-aggressions to physical harm,” said SDA. “Ken’s Google spreadsheet offered a place where people could not only report their experiences, but they could also see that the incidents weren’t just local or sporadic. The rates of violence against Asians were rising internationally.”
SDA clarified that other groups, such as Stop AAPI [Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders] Hate (run by AP3CON) and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, are spearheading larger information-collection efforts; however, SDA is also making the full details of each incident they record public: when and where it happened; whether it was witnessed or reported; and the gender of the victim, if they choose to provide it. One account, submitted by “Anonymous Victim Number 6,” said she took a seat on a NYC subway and watched the woman across from her do a double take before quickly moving to the other side of the train.
While wary of instrumentalizing the victim’s experiences, SDA recognizes the power of rendering them visible, especially as hackneyed tropes such as the “model minority” myth continue to propagate. “Making a visual space for our collective pain to be registered, seen, heard, and catalyzed feels deeply empowering in light of the erasure of Asian American Pacific Islanders in mainstream US culture — especially when we speak up about racism,” the group says.
Their efforts are yielding tangible results. PBS Newshour recently contacted someone on the spreadsheet and interviewed her for a story they produced, and researchers at Harvard have integrated SDA’s data into their aggregated racial aggression map.
Racist sentiments against Asian Americans is, of course, not a phenomenon unique to the pandemic. A recent online panel co-organized by SDA, GYOPO, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) plumbed its long and painful history, from the emergence of the “Sick man of Asia” stereotype and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the burning down of Chinatowns and the current intensification of bigotry.
“And so all this — these are the reasons why those of us who hear the term ‘Chinese virus’ or ‘Wuhan virus’ feel fear in our hearts,” said Jeff Chang, vice president for Narrative, Arts, and Culture at Race Forward and one of the panel’s speakers. “Because there’s some part of us, deep inside our DNA, that really holds that trauma that goes over centuries, that crosses continents.”
Along with Chang, the panelists included artist Anicka Yi; writer Cathy Park Hong; actor Bowen Yang; and San Francisco State University’s Russell Jeung, moderated by Commonwealth and Council gallery partner Kibum Kim. Racism is a Public Health Issue was the first in a series of in-depth discussions around racism, inequities, and injustice in relation to the pandemic and had around 2,200 registered attendees.
Challenging the deep-seated stigma surrounding Asian people spurred MOCA’s latest initiative, the OneWorld COVID-19 Collection, only months after the museum’s Chinatown building suffered a five-alarm-fire fire that threatened its archives. The OneWorld trove will house materials from photographs and letters to videos and oral histories that document the contributions and experiences of Chinese Americans during the current crisis.
It will also highlight the stories of everyday heroes in their community, like that of small business owner Joanne Kwong, who had to shutter Pearl River Mart’s three stores in NYC’s Chinatown when the virus broke out. Kwong launched a “Masks for Docs and Nurses Campaign,” and along with other businesses, donated N95s and other PPE to the badly-hit Elmhurst Hospital in Queens and to the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center.
“There were a lot of people covering the negative, and we thought, let’s also document the positive,” said MOCA President Nancy Yao Maasbach in a call with Hyperallergic. “There’s power to the individual, and there’s power in positive relationships. And when they are multiplied, they will overcome and be stronger than false narratives and rhetoric.”
Maasbach says the experience of documenting the aftermath and recovery of the fire earlier this year made her team keenly aware of the significance of keeping records and creating repositories of information. OneWorld will eventually exist as a virtual platform that visitors can discover, similar to the museum’s bilingual “150 Stories” page featuring key figures of Chinese American history, produced for the 150th anniversary of the first transcontinental railroad in the US.
Despite MOCA and SDA’s focus on the spike of aggression toward Asian groups witnessed in recent months, both ultimately bring attention to the systems that have enabled disenfranchisement and marginalization, grounding the conversation within America’s legacy of race-based violence. Maasbach says she reflected on the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, a young Chinese-American bludgeoned to death by two white men in Detroit who accused him of taking away their jobs, when she learned of the recent, brutal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man murdered in April by a white man and his son while on a jog in a Georgia suburb. In her introduction to Racism is a Public Health Issue, LACMA curator Christine Y. Kim also invoked Arbery’s assassination, speaking on behalf of the panel in a collective call for “justice for Ahmaud.”
Later in the panel, Russell also spoke of Afro-Asian solidarity. “Even in the 19th century, there were a lot of alliances and allegiances where communities of color worked together,” he said. “They went on strike together. Mexican and Asian laborers in the sugar cane fields and farms in California — United Farm Workers. Bowen talked about Yuri Kochiyama working with the Black Panthers. And we just celebrated at San Francisco State the anniversary of the Liberation Strike.”
“I think what we’re seeing with the coronavirus is also just the stark racial divisions that have been here since the founding of this country,” said Park during a questions session at the end of the conversation. “It was always there. But I think it’s hyper-present right now. What’s happening with the kind of premature opening of this nation is a slow genocide of Black and Brown bodies.”
SDA encourages those who are confronted with anti-Asian racism to prioritize their safety and disengage to de-escalate the situation, as verbal conflicts can unexpectedly escalate into physical violence. Everyone, but “especially white people,” the group told Hyperallergic, should familiarize themselves with bystander intervention tactics. The group recommends Hollaback!’s 5D’s: Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay, and Direct. “Alternatives to calling the police if the person doing harm is a fellow person of color should always be considered, especially if you are not in acute physical danger,” they add. “We know all too well that the police consistently inflicts more harm than protection in BIPOC communities.”
If they feel prepared to do so, victims or witnesses might report the incident to at least one reporting website, such as SDA’s own or the aforementioned Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council (A3PCON) platform, which offers incident report forms in 12 languages.
And to non-Asians, SDA says: “Listen to us. We’re tired of being rendered invisible and silenced, and we are not here to justify to anyone that anti-Asian racism is real. The violence speaks for itself.”