How Covid-19 Has Forced Us to Account for Racism towards East and South-East Asians

“It was pretty shocking but also pretty expected – I feel like everyone could see it coming, especially in the Asian community, but no one could really do anything about it.” These were the words of Anthea Pei, a Hong Kong woman in her penultimate year of law at the University of Leeds, in response to the recent wave of violent events targeting the East and South-East Asian communities in Western nations.


The outbreak of Covid-19 has proven to be strenuous on every individual across the globe, as nations face mass amounts of job losses and loneliness. However, people of Asian descent have been subjected to increasing levels of racism due to the virus being traced back to Wuhan.


On the 17th of March, a man went on a rampage at three massage parlours in Atlanta which left eight people dead – six of whom were of Asian descent – making headlines. The perpetrator told American police that he had a “sexual addiction” and had committed the shootings with the aim of eliminating his “temptation”. This event led to many Asian-Americans shedding light on the discriminative and violent attitudes they have faced over time, such as Twitter user @jasminericegirl, who shared her experience.


Although the shooting sparked anger and fear among the Asian-American community, hate crimes towards East and South-East Asian communities are not unusual in other Western nations. Alyssa Yap-Young, another law student from the University of Leeds who is in second year, and a British-born Chinese, expressed her discomfort at seeing the news of the Atlanta shooting, “It’s unnerving because it feels as though it could leak into the UK and I could possibly be a victim of this, which worries me about the future.”


The UK itself is not immune to anti-Asian sentiment - 2009 collaborative study: ‘Hidden from public view? Racism against the UK chinese population’, revealed that statistical and research reports fail to draw distinctions between the experiences of Chinese people and other minority groups. This has instances of racism faced by individuals with a Chinese background, being underreported and concealed.


In July of last year, the Commission for Countering Extremism reported a 21% increase of hate crimes towards the East and South-East Asian community, merely four months after the World Health Organisation declared coronavirus as a global pandemic. More recently, a British advocacy group known as End the Virus of Racism highlighted that hate crimes towards Asian people have tripled since the wake of the pandemic.


While it is undeniable that racially motivated harassment and assault towards this minority group has soared as a result of coronavirus, the undercurrent of anti-Asian perceptions had plagued the UK long before the onset of Covid-19.


Sarah Owen, the Labour Party politician, being British-born Chinese, attested to this. During a debate in the House of Commons in October of last year, she drew from her own experience and expressed how she felt different from a young age. She further described her alienation by recalling a time in her teenage years when her peer brought a knife to school to stab her because she disapproved of mixed race people.


The British-born Chinese politician also pointed out a grave issue in which discriminatory attitudes towards Asians have exploited the pandemic, by providing legitimacy towards a longstanding history of racism rooted in several aspects. Despite the prominence of increasing violent attacks towards people with East and South-East Asian backgrounds, it is also notable to take subtle forms of discrimination into consideration.


Anthea Pei and Alyssa Yap-Young, both students in Leeds from Asian descent, revealed that while their experiences are mild in comparison to more violent attacks, racism towards East and South-East Asians manifest in several forms that are overlooked.


Anthea explained that people on the street would make condescending remarks such as “welcome to my country” and “ni hao”. She also recalled her first encounter of racism when she was 10 years old, “I was sworn at on the bus in London. They were also pulling their eyes apart and shouting at my mum and I.”


Alyssa has also experienced unease in public as people have called her the derogatory slur “chink” often. She also mentioned going on a date where the guy said, “you’re half Asian, which is a good amount”. Alyssa expressed her desire for changes in these minor aspects, which she believes would pave the way for more significant changes.


Furthermore, Anthea calls attention to the need for Asians to be more vocal “because it’s almost embarrassing to care about something that strongly – which is rooted in Asian culture. But nothing will change if people don’t talk, so that’s a starting point.” She adds that even if East and South-East Asian communities speak about this, it would not reach the wider community needed for change so collectivism is key and leaders of nations should also be more active to lead the way.


Words By: Ellis Idris

Edited By: Laura Murphy