When the racist response to Covid-19 hits home

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I was out for an evening walk on Monday, March 16, the very first day President Trump used the term “Chinese virus” to describe the new coronavirus, Covid-19. An enormous, black pick-up truck pulled up beside me. At first, I ignored the pulsing and blaring radio that sought to defy its closed windows. The air was thick and cold. I tried to focus on my walk, but within seconds the side window lowered and, over the deafening music, a man began shouting at me, “Virus!... Asian virus!” More words followed, but they all jumbled together in seeming slow motion as my instinctive fear took over amid the racial slurs being hurled my way. At first, I froze. Then, as the man continued to taunt me, I ran into the closest shelter I could find, a nearby liquor store.

Somehow, I felt the need to justify my sudden presence to the person behind the counter, so I asked a question, one I still cannot remember. On one level, it didn’t matter what I said, as the loud music and angry voices continued to penetrate into the shop. I stood in silence for what seemed like 10 minutes, but was probably only 30 seconds. At last, the truck drove away. I began to breathe more fully. With the truck finally gone, reality set back in: I was a victim of a verbal assault and the target of racial slurs, words I never imagined would be hurled at me.

The author George Fredrickson, in his book Racism: A Short History, calls xenophobia “a term invented by the ancient Greeks to describe a reflexive feeling of hostility to the stranger or Other.” The term and the feelings associated with it have spread far and wide, and Asians, among many other ethnic cultural groups, have long endured xenophobia and racism in the United States. Our history includes the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the U.S. internment camps filled with Japanese Americans during World War II. Today, the flames of this racism are stoked by President Trump’s insistence on calling Covid-19 the “Chinese virus,” regardless of the term’s accuracy. His decision to do so fuels the stress and anger of those looking for someone to blame.

The psychologist Ravi Chandra captured this insight well in a recent article in Psychology Today. He writes:

[W]hen some individuals feel insecure and threatened, they can feel more powerful by blaming and victimizing others. This bluster is superficial and shallow, and does nothing to make us safe. In fact, the president’s racism is paired with his putting the country on “war footing.” This should ring alarm bells. Racist words from the top lead to racist actions by those disinhibited by the president’s rhetoric and dog whistles. Could they lead to actual war, and further actions against Asian Americans? Honestly, can you imagine Asian Americans feeling safe with words like this from the President?

I, too, believe that the unwise use of words can lead to violence against Asian-Americans or anyone, whether that is their intent or not; I have experienced it firsthand. And no, I do not feel safe as a result of this incident.

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Words matter. And the words I wish I had said as I was being taunted on the street are: “I am not an ‘Asian virus.’ I am a human being—a Roman Catholic, Filipino-American, Paulist priest, who was born in Brooklyn.”

I am not an ‘Asian virus.’ I am a human being.

Words matter because of the power they yield. This is one of the first concepts taught by professors of liturgy. I explained this to my students when I was teaching at Santa Clara University in California, always warning them, “Use words wisely!” Our Christian tradition of recognizing the power of words can be traced back to the Old Testament. God spoke us into being in the story of creation. In Psalm 33 we hear: “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe before God. For God spoke, and it came to be; God commanded, and it stood firm.” And let us not forget the words of the prophets. The word prophet comes from the Greek word prophetes: “Pro” means “before, in front of,” and the root of phanai means “to speak.”

Words matter because God’s words and God’s actions were inseparable from each other. As the theologian Mary Catherine Hilkert, O.P., reminds us in her book Naming Grace:

In the minds of the biblical authors God’s mighty actions and God’s word were so closely connected that they had only one word for both—dabar. That word carried a sense of energy of dynamism, like something that pushes or drives one forward. The word of God carried the power of God. It was creative; it brought forth what it promised.

Today, I went for my daily walk wearing black sunglasses, a hat and a scarf. The weather was not that cold, but since the day of the incident I have felt compelled to shroud my ethnicity and particularly my eyes from any potential racist attacks. I have traveled all over the world, yet I have never felt the need to shield my eyes until now, in New York, the city of my birth.

There are no words to sufficiently capture these moments of uncertainty or to soothe my feelings of violation and fear.

As I stood in front of the Lincoln Center plaza, nearly empty and just three blocks from St. Paul the Apostle Church, where I now live, I stared at the grandeur of the Metropolitan Opera House. The Met had only recently announced that it would cancel the remainder of its season. In the unusual stillness, Aaron Copland’s orchestral piece “Quiet City” crept into my head. That I heard only the sounds of these instruments seemed especially appropriate in the moment: I had no words. There are no words to sufficiently capture these moments of uncertainty or to soothe my feelings of violation and fear.

But there will be. New words are needed. These words I write, which give voice to my experience have power but not the power to destroy that was displayed toward me. I hope these words are life-giving. That is what we need as a country, as a global community: words that hold the power to heal beyond hatred, beyond fear, beyond division, beyond anxiety and well beyond our fight against Covid-19.

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