I coughed at a Bojangles’ about two weeks ago.

I know everyone hates coughing now; when the world’s facing a pandemic, it feels both personally scary and socially irresponsible to appear sick in public.

But I’m half-white and half-Filipino. Even before the reality of COVID-19 had sunk in for most people, my first thought was, “Do I look Asian enough to freak people out?”

I’m ashamed to have even had that thought. I’m extremely proud to be Filipino, and I know I’ve taken the same precautions that anyone else has to stop the spread of COVID-19. But because the disease originated in China, Asian faces like mine are the ones people associate with the threat to their health. At a time when a united response to the disease is the only thing that will keep our most vulnerable people safe, this is a disgrace.

You don’t have to look very far for examples of anti-Asian rhetoric right now. It starts, predictably, at the top: President Donald Trump’s first formal address to the nation about coronavirus made multiple references to “the coronavirus outbreak that started in China” and efforts to “confront a foreign virus.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was even less subtle when he tweeted a guide to the “Chinese coronavirus.” And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose job is to coordinate the United States’ interactions with other countries, has settled on the term “Wuhan coronavirus.”

Media outlets are still figuring out how to report responsibly, too. The New York Post ran an image of Asian people in Queens on a story about a white woman in Manhattan being diagnosed with COVID-19. The News & Observer illustrated a story about the cancellation of Raleigh’s international festival with a picture of an Asian dance group. (To be fair, this seems to have been an unthoughtful use of promotional photos rather than active racism, and the paper quickly changed the image when one of our writers called them on it.)

I’ve certainly noticed these trends in COVID-19 coverage. Apparently non-Asian people have, too. In Wake County, a Chinese-American woman said she was denied service at a dentist’s office in Apex on March 4, after a white patient complained to staff about her sneezing in the waiting room.

“They didn’t ask me whether I traveled or whether I have other symptoms,” the woman, who asked not to be named, said in a phone interview. “They just said, ‘Because of the sneeze, we have to take extra precautions to protect our patients and our staff.’”

Those “extra precautions” evidently didn’t involve looking up the actual symptoms of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that COVID-19 can cause fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Any sneezing right now probably has less to do with a scary new virus and more to do with the start of spring-allergy season.

“I feel like this is just totally because I have this face,” the woman said. “They were panicked.”

The dentist’s office did not respond to two voicemails from the INDY asking for comment.

I was relieved to hear from Chinese restaurant owners in Chapel Hill that, while business has been slow since the COVID-19 outbreak, they think it has more to do with people staying home generally than the type of food on their restaurants’ menus.

When I asked David Yu of Carrboro’s Gourmet Kingdom if he was worried about the potential for anti-Asian backlash, though, he said, “Of course.”

“With discrimination, stereotypes, that sort of thing, I just hope that’s not finding its new soil to grow,” Yu said. “It has always been there at different stages of time, but I hope it doesn’t become something because of the virus.”

At the moment, he’s mainly concerned with how to pay employees during the pandemic, how to keep himself and his family healthy, and how to stay informed. Kevin Zhu of Red Lotus in Chapel Hill said he’s trying to figure out how to keep his kids—and himself—busy (hopefully, he’ll see our advice).

Instead of fearing for his own safety, Yu pointed to his faith in exactly the kind of unity the United States needs right now.

“At a time that a lot of things are down, it is important to be a part of our great nation’s morals, to respect each other, no matter what background,” Yu said. “That’s always the number one.”

Let’s all try to prove him right.


Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

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