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The Daily Tar Heel

'I've heard all the stereotypes': Students, alumni respond to COVID-19-related racism


DTH Photo Illustration.  An Alert Carolina message sent on Saturday, March 21, 2020 confirmed  multiple members of the UNC community have tested positive for COVID-19.

Students living in Granville Towers hung up door decorations celebrating the Lunar New Year in early February, after COVID-19 had spread beyond China and the first U.S. cases were confirmed. 

Twice, the decorations were ripped off the door. Racist and xenophobic slurs were also relayed in one of the instances. 

“It was really heartbreaking to see people without any basis or good foundation or justification being so mean to other people,” an anonymous source who spoke to the victims said.

University police began an ongoing investigation into the incidents, according to a statement Carolina Housing sent to Granville Towers residents in February. 

“Racial and xenophobic insults and vandalism will not be tolerated, and we need to work together to stop these types of incidents from occurring in the future,” the statement said.

UNC alumni and students interviewed by The Daily Tar Heel said the Asian and Asian American community is facing discrimination — including vandalism, harassment and racist remarks — due to COVID-19. Those interviewed referenced that the coronavirus is often referred to as the "Chinese virus," and said Asians are collectively blamed for originating the virus. 

UNC alumni and students emphasized that racism toward Asians is not a new concept. These sentiments have always been present, they said, but now racists have an excuse to express themselves. 

The University Response 

Chancellor Guskiewicz and other University leaders sent a message to campus on March 25 in response to "instances of racism and xenophobic animosity" toward Asian and Asian American people across the country, related to COVID-19.

"Members of our own community have encountered these types of comments as well," Guskiewicz said in the statement. 

In the message, Guskiewicz denounced prejudice toward the Asian community.  

"This behavior is inconsistent with Carolina’s values, which are to celebrate and embrace diversity, equity and inclusion and their benefits, as well as to care for one another and provide for each other’s well-being," he said in the statement. 

The message encouraged those who have faced discrimination or harassment to contact the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office and University Office for Diversity and Inclusion. 

"The Chinese Virus" 

Sophomore Valerie Nguyen said calling COVID-19 the "Chinese virus" or "Wuhan virus" is one act she's seen that perpetuates harmful stereotypes. 

Politicians and community leaders across the United States, including President Donald Trump, have referred to COVID-19 as the "Chinese virus." 

Nguyen said calling the virus by this name makes Asians a scapegoat.

“The virus could have originated anywhere,” Nguyen said. “It just happened to originate in China. Swine flu isn’t called the American virus.”

Experiences of Discrimination 

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UNC alumnus Mackenzie Kwok was late to a comedy show in Brooklyn when the hosts called her out from the stage. It was late February, when the first cases of COVID-19 began sprouting up in America. 

“What kind of Asian are you?” the host asked. 

Kwok said she responded that she was Chinese, and the host turned her response into a bit.

She said no one in the audience laughed, and she responded with a dramatized cough.

She said she sees today’s discrimination stem from stereotypes of Chinese people being dirty and illicit, and connecting that to a sickness.

“I’ve heard all the stereotypes,” Kwok said. “The Chinese people eat dogs, you can’t trust what you eat at Chinese restaurants, people suspecting their cats go missing in their neighborhoods (because of Chinese people).”

Asian American Students Association President June Yom said the organization held a COVID-19 and xenophobia talk and released a statement saying that executive board members would be available as a support method. 

View this post on Instagram

Dear UNC AASA, Since 1989, UNC-CH AASA has aimed to be a source for community, cultural appreciation, and political activism for Asian-Americans at UNC. From General Body Meetings, Journey into Asia, Big-Little Pairings, to AASATalks, AASA's goal has always remained the same: to make Asian Americans feel at home at UNC. As the effects of COVID-19 continue to spread across our nation, communities, and campuses, UNC AASA has decided to permanently cancel all on-campus AASA events for the remainder of the 2020 Spring Semester. Though this is an immensely disappointing decision, it was made in compliance with UNC's COVID-19 policies to minimize potential exposure to COVID-19. We will miss the liveliness and the presence of our community this semester. However, this period of uncertainty and restlessness reminds us of the importance of gratitude and community. We encourage our community to reach out to each other for support and to individuals who may have been affected by this situation. We also highly encourage implementing social distancing, frequent cleaning/disinfecting, washing your hands, and other recommended routines to protect yourself and loved ones around you. In the meantime, AASA also hopes to continue to engage with our community members through our virtual platforms! If you or someone you know would like someone to talk to, please feel free to reach out to anyone on UNC AASA's executive board. We hope to continue to be a source of comfort and community throughout this situation. Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay strong. With care, AASA Executive Board

A post shared by UNC AASA (@uncaasa) on

“With AASA, (the discrimination is) not so much as Asian American students, but more international students,” Yom said. “A lot of our members have parents that are first-generation immigrants to the United States. Us being Asian American students, we have more a privilege of acting more American.”

Alumna Jisoo Yu, who lived in Korea for 11 years, said her friends in Asia are afraid of visiting America because of their fear of violence due to the pandemic.

“We put some Western perceptions on a pedestal to a certain extent,” Yu said.“ I think it takes a hit to people that want to explore that part of the world and how they will be perceived when they go out. They’re Asians, not Asian Americans, so they don't have a lot of insight on how the Asian American experience is.”

Although Yu has American citizenship, she said she is still uncomfortable calling herself an Asian American and has always referred to herself as Asian. She said she doesn’t feel like she fully belongs to either country. During the pandemic, Yu said she feels even more of a disconnect to the rest of the country.

“I feel 100 percent forced to not breathe, talk at all, or clear my throat or I’m scared people will look at me or think that I'm affected,” Yu said. “Just because I go to the grocery store and some people give me dirty looks for no reason. I get scared.”

UNC alumna Rachel Yuan said fear of discrimination and hate crimes can force people to take preemptive measures. For example, she said her mother didn’t allow her to place a headrest shaped like a panda in her car.

“Someone might look inside and then see you’re Chinese,” her mother said in Mandarin. “They might do something.”

Yuan said she had never been concerned about hate crimes happening against Asian people before, but did take note of a United Airlines incident in which an Asian doctor was forcibly removed from the plane. 

"In the past, there have been regular microaggressions, but I’ve never been worried for my physical self,” Yuan said. “It’s a privileged thing to say.”