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Asian American Experiences During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Metropolitan subway train in China. Photo taken by Gauthier Delecroix.

For nearly seven months, COVID-19 has consistently dominated our news stories but a majority of mainstream media continues to ignore how the virus has fostered and exposed anti-Asian xenophobia and racism. PBS reported that Asian Americans worldwide have experienced hate crimes and increased social and racial hostility when the virus became a political argument.

Soon after the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in the United States, blame against China and the Chinese government initiated in the media, largely because of politicians and partisanship in the United States’ government. 

UW student Katie Hardie recalls her first encounter with anti-Asian racial hostility. “Republican senators are calling it the Chinese virus, the President started calling it the Chinese virus,” Hardie said. “It seems like we need someone to blame because we don’t want to blame ourselves.”

Sijia Yang, assistant professor at the UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication, conducts research on how the messaging effects of media persuasion combined with social influence affects how individuals view and understand their environment. 

Yang said the early impacts of how journalists covered COVID-19 and discriminatory comments on social media created a joint impact on Americans and how they perceive Chinese people and the Chinese government.

“You noticed examples of Asian faces wearing masks and using that as a major picture in their news stories,” Yang said. “These kinds of visual cues and reflecting Asian faces, all of that I think will have consequences in people’s understanding of this issue and their attitudes and behavior and opinions towards Chinese people, including Asian Americans.”

Additionally, Yang recognized how our political climate encourages persistent racism and discrimination in our community. When President Donald Trump first tweeted and used derogatory terms to describe COVID-19, there was an increased search for similar terms that followed on Twitter and social media in general. This correlation was then associated with higher rates of national instances involving racially hostility.

According to Yang, this behavior and language used by politicians especially affect those who strongly identify with a particular politician or political party and is even more prevalent as the United States approaches the presidential election. 

“On one hand we’re dealing with a pandemic. There’s a lot of blaming going on and who should be accountable for it,” Yang said. “There’s also this political dynamic, saying this is the enemy and we should fight against that enemy. Those rhetorical strategies, unfortunately, will play a role especially during an election year.”

Yang described a close encounter with racism in Madison where one of his graduate students reported an incident to his department. The student and her boyfriend were in their car when a woman in the car next to them rolled down her window.

“The woman started cursing at them and shouting to go back to your country and things like that. I read a lot about this in news from other sources but this is the closest encounter to me,” Yang said. “I think this made me really aware that these types of issues and incidents are real and they do exist.” 

Hardie shared stories from her peers around campus and in their communities too. A group of students refused to go to a Chinese restaurant, joking that it had the virus and her friend witnessed a threatening letter on a Chinese neighbor’s doorstep after they got COVID-19. Hardie also received a message on social media saying she brought the disease to the United States and she should not be in the country anymore. 

Yang urged individuals across all racial minorities to take these events as an opportunity to seek allyship and build a better future for everyone.

“Historically, the Asian community hasn’t been put on the front stage when talking about discrimination and racism but it doesn’t mean that it’s not there. It’s just taking a different form,” Yang said. “I think it’s important to recognize that racism can exist for different kinds of minorities.”

Cui Li, owner of Poke It Up in Madison, immigrated to the United States about 10 years ago. She has seen the constant coverage of COVID-19 in the media since March and was affected by the nation-wide shut down soon after. 

“The shutdown made everybody’s lives difficult. Even now, many people don’t have jobs and restaurants have permanently closed,” Li said. “This is scary and has affected everyone, even children. I hope it passes soon. I know many people view China in a negative light but we’re all trying to survive.” 

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has become politicized, she directed attention to the fact that every country, including China, has experienced deaths and have been negatively affected by the pandemic. 

“All we can do now is come together as a community and take preventative measures to help each other as a human race,” Li said.

Madison-Based Youth Organization Pushes for Legislative Change

Madison, Wisconsin Capitol Building. Photo taken by Edward Stojakovic.

Impact Demand is a newly-formed organization led by Madison youth with three primary demands — community control of police, outlawing no-knock warrants and the Hands Up Act. 

Founded by a group of youth protesters, Impact Demand has approximately 15 to 16 active workers leading departments within the organization and over 300 volunteers throughout the community. 

Member of Impact Demand Juliana Bennett said their mission is to empower young people in Madison to make positive change throughout the community. 

“We are organizers, you are the leader. Together we are making strides in the common goal of demanding change for the betterment of Black Lives — to mold a more equitable tomorrow into reality today,” Bennett said. 

Ayomi Obuseh, a founding member of Impact Demand, said outrage from the murder of unarmed Black man George Floyd by Minneapolis police spawned the organization.  

“It is not an organization that [had] a foundation already created for us,” Obuseh said. “It was started by protesters coming together in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.”

Obuseh has been advocating in the Madison community since high school, before helping create Impact Demand.

Obuseh said Impact Demand has started hosting educational events for the community.

“Our mission is to impact communities and demand change through policy, education and activism,” Obuseh said. “And through that, we host events [where] we try to educate everyone in the community as a whole.”

Members of the organization emphasized they are not leaders in the movement, but rather the organizers of individuals in the community looking to affect change. 

Since June, Impact Demand hosted and organized multiple events such as the Paint Your Pride event held July 12 to celebrate Black LGBTQ+ lives and remember those who have passed away. They also organized the Glow in the Dark March for Black Lives on June 18 during the fourth week of the Madison protests. 

Additionally, Impact Demand works closely with other organizations such as Freedom Inc. and Urban Triage, both of which are non-profit organizations who describe themselves as working toward social justice and empowerment for Black communities and other communities of color.

Some of these organizations’ efforts include removing police from Madison schools and distributing funds in support of COVID-19 relief efforts — Impact Demand supports and pushes for both efforts simultaneously. 

“We plan on having more events, tied into a youth-led movement, to showcase the kids that are also part of [the movement] and how the stuff that we’re doing affects their future and amplifying the youth voice,” Obuseh said.

Impact Demand focuses on modern-day society when drawing up event concepts and targets their message toward young people to drive their desired structural changes.

Obuseh and Bennett both highlighted the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement in fueling their efforts.

“I think this whole [movement] has been a progression,” Bennett said. “The Civil Rights Movement never really ended. With George Floyd igniting the momentum again [amidst] COVID-19, it brings a spotlight on the inadequacies in our current system. This is not a riot, this is a revolution.” 

Bennett drew attention to a quote uttered at one of the open-mic peaceful protests in Madison, “I do not want my grandchildren fighting for the same thing my grandfather fought for,” accentuating the long-term, deep-rooted injustices that she said have been present in the United States.

Impact Demand is still a fledgling movement and, according to Obuseh, the organization has a number of plans in place to launch its next steps.

Bennett said Impact Demand has met with local officials and alders, and revealed the organization will meet soon with Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes.

Obuseh shared her own aspirations for Madison and the United States and said she hopes protesters will work to hold those in power accountable.

“My hope is that everyone continues to question everything,” Obuseh said. “Question their city, their representatives, because when you question and when you challenge people, you get answers, and that changes your perspective of what your reality looks like.”

Impact Demand has a webpage and is active on social media platforms such Instagram and Facebook, providing a space through which individuals can acquire information and contact the organization to volunteer and get involved.

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