What Are We Really Fighting? COVID-19 Racism and Xenophobia

Viruses don’t discriminate, only people do.

Posted May 09, 2020

"I was shouted at and harassed by the cashier, workers, as well as customers at the store to get out of the store. 'You Chinese bring the virus here and you dare ask people to keep social distance guidelines?'”

"A guy came behind me and called out, 'Hey!' As I turned around, he started spraying me with Lysol and calling me all sorts of names."

"My kids were at the park with their dad (who is white). An older white man pushed my 7- year old daughter off of her bike and yelled at my husband to 'take your hybrid kids home because they’re making everyone sick.'"

These are just a few of the quotes published by Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council’s Stop Hate Initiative which reported over 1,100 incidents of verbal harassment, shunning, and physical assault in the first two weeks after launching a reporting system tracking coronavirus discrimination. Reading these quotes and hearing similar stories from our friends, colleagues, and community members is both heartbreaking and enraging. 

Our nation is facing an extraordinary crisis that requires us to come together, not reopen and further deepen wounds. In a time where some of our government leaders have further perpetuated hate, racism, and xenophobia by labeling COVID-19 as the “The Chinese Virus” or “The Kung Flu,” we must turn to wiser leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who so poignantly advised, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

The Asian American community’s response to the pandemic has been a shining example of responding to hate with love and light. For example, national and local associations including the Coalition of Asian American Independent Practice Association and the National Association of Chinese-Americans—Atlanta have rallied and raised significant amounts of money and resources to support frontline healthcare workers. 

Here are some ways that we can likewise promote unity and stand against hate so that we can effectively face this pandemic together. 

1. Educate yourself, friends, family members, and co-workers about COVID-19.

Lack of knowledge can lead to misconceptions, fear, stigma, and hatred. When we are afraid, we have an urge to place blame on something or someone we perceive to be associated with the feared situation. This can temporarily reduce our distress by allowing ourselves to say “it’s not my fault.” However, when we make widespread generalizations and falsely place blame on innocent individuals and communities, we promote hatred.

COVID-19 does not recognize race, nationality, or ethnicity. Individuals of Chinese ancestry, or of any other Asian nationality, are not more likely to be infected by the virus than anyone else. Keep yourself informed and stick to reliable public health sources of information, such as the CDC

2. Be careful with your memes and jokes. 

Words have incredible power to shape our perspectives and behaviors. Psychology research shows that exposure to racist or sexist jokes increases tolerance of subsequent racial or gender discrimination (Ford & Ferguson, 2004). In fact, prejudiced humor can create local prejudiced norms (Ford et al., 2007). 

We need to acknowledge that we have a powerful history of racism and oppression of Asian Americans in the United States that was supported and perpetuated by political systems. It only takes one spark to start a wildfire when the conditions are right, and our history has laid plenty of kindling to spark hate crimes. 

3. Talk to children about racism, stigma, and treating all people with dignity, warmth, and compassion. 

Children look to adults for guidance on responding to stressful events and repeat behaviors they see. Therefore, we must lead by example by responding with kindness and compassion during this crisis and directly talking to children about respect and bullying. The National Association of School Psychologists provides tips for caregivers to counter COVID-19 stigma and racism.

4. Stand up and speak up—don’t be a passive bystander. 

When witnessing an incident of racism, hate, or discrimination, we often feel paralyzed and unsure of how to respond. However, these are critical moments where you can make a difference!

For tense situations, remember the guiding principles of interrupting using a calm firm tone or distracting to de-escalate the situation. Ensure safety and seek help if needed, and offer comfort and support to the victim. In calmer situations, be guided by the values of curiously questioning racist beliefs and statements, providing education in a non-judgmental manner, and echoing or re-sharing anti-racist messages.

Organizations such as Asian Americans Advancing Social Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center offer educational materials and bystander intervention training. In addition, make your allyship known by reaching out to people within your network who may be impacted by discrimination and encourage sharing, venting, grieving, and other emotions that might arise. It is important to provide validation and support for those communities most impacted. 

5. Demand your elected officials, school leaders, and business leaders denounce racism against Asians and Asian Americans. 

Reach out to your congressional representativesenator, or local elected officials. Sign petitions by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union to support ongoing legislation or start your own petition. 

6. Report discriminatory acts and seek resources. 

If you or someone you know has experienced specific discriminatory acts, there are a number of resources available with information about reporting incidents, including the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council. If you or your family are impacted by these events, make yourself a priority and make space for your personal self-care and that of your community. Reach out to your family, friends, religious and spiritual institutions, and mental health professionals.

By Elsa Friis, MA, Erica Marshall-Lee, Ph.D., and Martha Ward, MD on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates


Ford, T. E., Boxer, C. F., Armstrong, J., & Edel, J. R. (2007). More Than “Just a Joke”: The Prejudice-Releasing Function of Sexist Humor: Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167207310022

Ford, T. E., & Ferguson, M. A. (2004). Social Consequences of Disparagement Humor: A Prejudiced Norm Theory. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8(1), 79–94. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327957PSPR0801_4