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Coughing while Asian

In the midst of the coronavirus, guides on how Asian Americans should deal with threats and prejudice are being circulated, as well as concerns about ‘breathing while Asian.’

The Chinatown section of BostonCraig F. Walker/Globe Staff

One of the common claims voiced time and time again amid the coronavirus pandemic is that we are at war but with an invisible, faceless foe. For many Americans, this is not true; to them Asians and Asian Americans are the faces of COVID-19. They are the faces of the enemy.

An Asian American father and his children in Texas were slashed by an attacker blaming them and others who looked like them as the cause of the pandemic. An Asian woman in Brooklyn, who was taking out her trash, was attacked by a man who doused her with a substance that left burns. Across America, Asian Americans have been subjected to threats, physical attacks, and myriad discriminatory acts. Countless thousands of other maxi- and micro-aggressions have added more stress and anxiety to an already amply stressed and anxious community. Guides on how Asian Americans should deal with threats and prejudice are being circulated as well as concerns raised about what is dubbed “breathing while Asian.” Indeed, early on, all things Asian became suspect. Chinatowns, including Boston’s, became ghost towns long before mandatory closings and stay-at-home orders were imposed.


Many Asians who wear masks in public have been subjected to derision, suspicion, and shunning. At the same time, health care providers at all levels in emergency rooms, ICUs, and nursing homes, at bedsides, and in medical labs also wear masks, and behind those masks are a disproportionate share of Asian faces. Asian Americans are also among those who prepare and deliver meals, stock grocery shelves, work in plants to manufacture face masks and respirators, comfort the living, and care for the dead. They are the heroic ones called upon to venture into danger rather than shelter from it.

Before college classes moved online, a student of Asian descent told how she feared going to class and perhaps coughing and incurring the wrath of her teacher and classmates. She then asked me whether I thought that the treatment of Asian Americans and the manifestations of prejudice would weaken after the pandemic subsides and we can address more clearly the wages of intolerance and xenophobia. I replied that the long experience with race in this country suggests that lessons are often not learned and, as often as not, trauma elicits scapegoating and prejudice again and again. But I also told her that I hoped that I was wrong.


Change can begin with small steps. Perhaps the next time we brush our teeth, wash our hands for the umpteenth time, or tackle the challenge of our unruly hair, we can glance at our image in the mirror. And, when we do, choose to see ourselves among the faces joined together in their determination to fight the spread of two dangerous foes — COVID-19 and hate.

Paul Watanabe is director of the Institute for Asian American Studies and a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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