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Fears of coronavirus fuel anti-Chinese racism

High school students Kathleen Chen (left) and Helen Deng say news about the spread of the coronavirus has led to uneasy looks and an uptick in racist jokes.
High school students Kathleen Chen (left) and Helen Deng say news about the spread of the coronavirus has led to uneasy looks and an uptick in racist jokes.Craig F. Walker/Globe staff

Fourteen-year-olds Kathleen Chen and Helen Deng are so used to racist remarks from their classmates, they easily brush them off. But lately, as news of the deadly new coronavirus sweeps headlines, the girls — both freshmen at a Roxbury high school — say they’ve endured even more cruel jokes and suspicious stares than usual.

“Since the virus hit, that’s when more jokes started coming up,” said Deng, while she and Chen were hanging out at Tea-Do in Chinatown after school on Wednesday. “They say we eat dogs. They make fun of our eyes a lot, how they’re smaller.”

As fears of coronavirus mount, so too has anti-Chinese racism around the globe. The highly contagious respiratory illness has sickened more than 7,800 people worldwide and is believed to have originated in the city of Wuhan in China. The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a global emergency as more than a dozen countries have confirmed cases of the infection. Yet the anti-Chinese sentiment appears to be spreading widely and fast as well.

In Ontario, Canada, thousands of parents have petitioned their school board demanding that students whose families visited China be kept home. Businesses in South Korea, Hong Kong, and Vietnam are turning away Chinese customers. In France, a local newspaper sparked outrage for using headlines that translate to “Yellow peril?” and “Yellow alert.”

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There’s no escaping the racist stereotypes online, either. On TikTok, the preferred social media platform of high schoolers, racist and misleading videos about coronavirus abound. On Twitter, users are sharing racist memes, blaming the outbreak on Chinese eating habits.

“I think people are acting out their frustrations and their racism and their stereotypes and prejudices, [and] that the floodgates are lifted when situations like this arise,” said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor and director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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In the United States, where more than 8,000 people have died from influenza since the start of flu season in October, anti-Chinese racism centered around the coronavirus outbreak isn’t just ugly, it’s illogical.

“The fact of the matter is we are facing a health crisis right now in the United States, and it’s a domestic one and it’s the flu," Watanabe added. “The flu will clearly lead to the illness and death of more people in the United States than this virus ever will, probably internationally will. And yet there’s no sort of assumption that Americans in general — mainstream Americans — don’t clean their hands or eat strange food or don’t take care of their food properly.”

Xinyi Zhou, originally from Beijing, China, visited the Chinatown section of Boston.
Xinyi Zhou, originally from Beijing, China, visited the Chinatown section of Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Those tropes stem from a long history of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism in the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese workers from immigrating until its repeal more than 60 years later. Racist propaganda at the time depicted Chinese immigrants as rapacious parasites threatening to consume the country. During World War II, the federal government incarcerated more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps.

Still, the threat of coronavirus remains a serious concern. Although no one in New England has contracted the illness — tests on New Hampshire students who showed some signs of the virus came back negative — schools, airports, and other organizations across the region are taking precautions.

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Colleges and universities, including Boston University, the University of Rhode Island, and Middlebury College in Vermont, have suspended study abroad programs in China. The Boston Symphony Orchestra canceled plans for an eight-city tour of East Asia as the State Department posted warnings to all Americans to “reconsider travel” to China, and to avoid all travel to Hubei province, where the virus was first identified.

The virus has prompted changes and cancellations at local events that don’t involve travel to China as well. Earlier this week, the New England Chinese Professionals canceled their annual Chinese New Year gala set for Saturday in Burlington, citing concerns about coronavirus and the flu. The Newton Chinese Language School notified families the school will be closed Sunday in response to worries about the disease.

At Boston Public Schools, the Office of Equity has not fielded any complaints about incidents of bias related to the coronavirus.

“Ensuring safe, welcoming, and supportive school environments is core to our mission,’’ BPS said in a statement Thursday night. “Boston Public Schools has consistently educated students and staff about the vital importance of cultural proficiency, and how to prevent, report, and address bias-based conduct. On occasion, isolated incidents occur that remind us of the work that remains in our schools and our communities to strengthen our efforts to eliminate all forms of bias, and ensure every student is affirmed and welcomed.”

Philip Chong, president and CEO of Quincy Asian Resources, the nonprofit behind Sunday’s annual Lunar New Year Festival at North Quincy High School, said he has fielded numerous questions about this weekend’s festivities and the possibility of spreading coronavirus. He and his staff even considered canceling the hugely popular event. So far, Chong said, he is aware of only one vendor with a staff member who has opted not to attend over coronavirus fears.

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“We’re going to continue, but we will have an information desk at the entrance about the virus,” Chong said. “And of course, if anyone is not feeling well, we advise them to go get medical help and stay home.”

At Wollaston Station in Quincy, Yasmine Lei, 23, wore a blue surgical mask loosely around her neck as she prepared to board a Red Line train to Boston. Lei, a Boston University graduate student from Beijing, bought a set of masks from CVS two weeks ago as news of the outbreak surfaced. At BU, so many international students have begun wearing face masks, Lei said, that she hardly looks out of place on campus.

“My friends, they said some people call this ‘Chinese virus.' But it’s discrimination. It’s not true,” she said. In the meantime, she’ll ignore any wary stares or comments from strangers.

“I know people are afraid because they don’t want to be sick," she said. "So I don’t judge others about how they see me or how they act.”


Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.