Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Co-Editor Prof. Jeremiah Ho submits the second part of his writing reflecting on being Asian American during the time of COVID-19.
When President Trump and other politicians refer to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus,” there is meaning and blame underneath that handy reference. Simply put, one can say that what the world is dealing with is the “Chinese virus” because Covid-19 was known to have originated in Wuhan, China. But adhering to that meaning is denying the phrase’s other slippery and sinister meanings—perhaps as a not-so-subtle gesture of the finger-pointing to China or to Chinese people as the cause of the virus; or an implication that Covid-19 is a virus inhabited and carried by Chinese people; or even worse, an implication that Chinese people are viruses. As a parallel to The Plague, herein lies the moralizing that funnels the narrative of the pandemic into a narrative of blame. In times of crises big or small, we all want to find the root cause and we all want to determine fault. In law, this tendency to make meaning is a prominent, almost-daily ritual. It’s only human.
Yet, in this context, it’s also absurd; and unlike Camus, I am using that word here to discern. Scapegoating and blaming Asians and Asian-Americans during this pandemic is a fall-back strategy for those interested in stirring up racial bias and hatred in order to make meaning in this crisis and permit them to usurp this moment to their advantage. We saw this with the AIDS crisis with queer and gay people. Within white supremacy, this type of othering conjures a false sense of security and control at the expense of a minority group.
In part, the historical narrative of Asian-Americans has always been one that fluctuates between proving our worthiness and proving our loyalty for a sense of belonging in the American society. The model minority myth plays into the meritocratic values of institutional and structural racism, making Asian-Americans appear as worthy of being recognized as the “good Americans” for working hard, keeping quiet, and abiding by dominant values. The myth was originally imposed upon Asian-Americans but it also has been leveraged by Asian-Americans as part of the negotiation for acceptance by the dominant status quo. At the same time, the yellow peril symbolism casts Asian-Americans as economic, physical, and national threats to American society so that individuals of Asian descent have to constantly prove their loyalties to the U.S. in order to gain security. The treatment of Japanese-Americans by the U.S. government during World War II exemplifies this strand of that narrative. In one quick month in 2020, we saw the materialism and meritocratic benefits of the Asian-American narrative replaced by the rise of yellow peril symbolism, breathed into the collective air by the antagonizing phrase “Chinese virus” and then quickly manifesting to displays of racial hatred and violence as the American public tries to find meaning in this crisis.
What the model minority myth and yellow peril symbolism underscore for the Asian-American narrative is an idea that those embodying white supremacy want us to believe: that people of Asian descent in the U.S. are perpetually foreigners. They don’t belong here and they only cause trouble. But Camus in The Plague would want us to find fault with this kind of blame during the pandemic. Although the production of meaning is a human tendency, what is effectively and instrumentally meaningful in a time of collective crisis is not blame and descension, but common decency. The main character in Camus’ novel a doctor who treats the diseased comes to realize this after months of treating patients and watching them die from plague. The only meaning he finds in his work is not something as highly-charged as a kind of heroism but rather a sense of common decency. It’s useless during the time of plague to uncover blame as a way to combat the sickness. Rather, The Plague’s central character, Dr. Rieux asserts, “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” When asked to clarify the meaning of decency, he answers, “In general, I can’t say, but in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.” In the novel, the way he externalizes his common decency to help fight the plague by working in solidarity to help those suffering from plague. This present moment is one in which we need common decency to determine what will most equitably serve all of us. We need to act with common decency in solidarity against this disease, rather than finger-pointing and creating fragmentation. According to Camus, who wrote The Plague as an allegory about Nazi occupation in France during World War II, that common decency in solidarity is the needed resistance against a common pestilence—whether pathological or ideological, or both.
In this pandemic, the leaders who are lacking serious epistemic responsibility are adhering to a narrative of American exceptionalism that is both absurd and dangerously untrue. It can cost lives. This is a moment to change that narrative by resorting together to find common decency to resist the urge to blame. For Asian-Americans, and other minority groups, it is important to see where we all are in this system of white supremacy, to see how we are all being used, and to decide to reject the exclusion. We matter. We belong. We don’t have anything for which to apologize. Instead, we are in this together and we have work to do to help ourselves and others move beyond this searing disease.