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  • Jeson Souvannarath

Rhetorical Racism: A Deadly Virus That Continues to Plague America

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

On November 09, 2016, I had just woken up to an upsetting election result. Donald J. Trump was announced as the President-Elect of the United States. I met up with my mother shortly after and gave her a big hug. Not a hug from excitement, but a hug for comfort because the man who ran a campaign with such hateful rhetoric towards immigrants will now assume the most powerful political office in the free world. My mother, being a Laotian refugee who was sponsored to the United States in 1981, was also concerned about what this presidency would have in store. And we were right. This presidency would trouble America with its boldening of rhetorical racism. From labeling Black Lives Matter protestors as thugs and calling the movement a threat against democracy, to empowering white supremacists at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville by calling them “Very Fine People,” there are endless examples of how the Trump administration provided rhetoric that perpetuates racism and hate against marginalized communities. In today’s piece, I would like to share my thoughts on why Trump’s xenophobic handling of COVID-19, or in his own words the “Chinese Virus” or “Kung Flu,” exacerbated anti-Asian rhetoric and plagued America with anti-Asian hate crimes and violence.

Naysayers will argue that Trump’s referencing of the COVID-19 virus as the “Chinese Virus” is politically correct, and that “Kung Flu” has nothing to do with the rise in anti-Asian crimes. However, in the midst of a global pandemic occurring just as America’s fighting to heal racial wounds, there is no room for these insensitive, divisive, and racist labeling of the COVID-19 virus. They can deny all they want, but the reality is that Trump’s rhetoric does and continues to affect Asian Americans.

... many news outlets had to cover whether or not it was safe for citizens to order food from a Chinese restaurant.

While people were social distancing, violence against Asian Americans has increased 170%. As of March, 2021, there had been over 3,800 reports of hate crimes against the Asian American Pacific Islander community (STOP AAPI HATE NATIONAL REPORT, 2021). Many of these attacks targeted elderly Asian Americans. Sadly, some of these attacks resulted in deaths. Asian businesses were targeted and vandalized. And yes, many news outlets had to cover whether or not it was safe for citizens to order food from a Chinese restaurant. What the media should have covered more consistently was this rise in anti-Asian crimes. It wasn’t until the Atlanta massacre that occurred on March 16, 2021, that the media began to bring Asian hate to the forefront. Out of the 8 victims, 6 were Asian women. This was the event that caught a lot of people’s attention. Whether it was racially motivated or not can be a separate discussion. What’s important to note here was that the Atlanta shootings were the trigger to get Americans to realize that hate against the AAPI community is real, and it has escalated exponentially since COVID-19 began.

I received a number of text messages and phone calls from friends regarding the Atlanta shootings. My friends were feeling frustrated with what was going down. They reached out to see if I was OK and to hear my thoughts on the situation. For them, the coverage of Asian hate crimes may be new, or at least, finally settling in. However, anti-Asian rhetoric, and just racist rhetoric in general, was not new to me. In fact, racism and racist rhetoric is very much a part of US history. From the Chinese Exclusion Act, to putting Japanese Americans into internment camps, one can google how deeply rooted anti-Asian rhetoric is in America.

A glaring way that this anti-Asian rhetoric manifests is the way in which society views us as the monolith of the model minority, ignoring the complex ethnic identities and histories of all these groups.

The concept of the model minority is based on stereotypes that perpetuates Asians as an exemplary minority group that achieves success and stability in education, morals, careers, and economic statuses. It paints Asians as hard-working individuals who are docile and obedient. It’s important to note that the standards used to perpetuate this myth derived from expectations and characteristics observed by White Americans. This rhetoric is a racist tool used to exemplify the Asian race against other minority groups. It also dismisses the fact that Asians are not a monolith, but rather a diverse race with many different ethnic groups that have different cultures and characteristics.

For example, my parents came here as refugees from war-torn Laos. Unlike the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos who arrived in America earlier on, our history is a bit more complicated. When the United States decided to heavily bomb Southeast Asia and enact a secret war to fight off the communists, my parents fought alongside the United States. When the American efforts had failed, they had to escape or suffer the consequence of execution. The United States government sponsored over 1 million refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to the United States between the late 1975 and 1994. The government settled the refugees into low-income housing and immediately directed them to take on low paying jobs in order to survive. Their coming to America was not premeditated like the Asian groups that preceded them. They came here with no money and only clothes on their backs. They had no education that was leverageable. The only goal they had was to survive in a land that was so foreign.

Like many Lao American households, my parents spoke little English and worked long hours to keep a roof above my head. Aside from the hard-working aspect, we were definitely the opposite of the model minority myth. We were very poor. Education was not a priority in the household. I was only expected to pass my classes and stay out of trouble. My parents were barely home so there was no ordeal to stress family values like academic success. Just like other first-generation Lao Americans, I had to fend for myself while my parents were making ends meet. The only moral I had to live by was to survive. As you can see, my family does not fall in the model minority expectations. Stereotyping Asians, whether it be the model minority myth or anything else, is incorrect and racists. It must be understood that “Asian” is a broad racial categorization of very different people. We are not all the same.

Growing up I did experience various moments of racial bias or prejudice against me. For the most part, these moments were so subtle that I didn’t let it bother me. Again, my mind was in “survival mode”. I remember grade school teachers would refuse to say my full name because they couldn’t pronounce it. Within days of starting kindergarten, they assumed I didn’t speak English so they placed me in ESOL, despite me speaking to them in fluent English. Kids would call me Chinese and make fun of my eyes while they pulled the corners of their eyelids and shouted “ching chong chong”. There were moments where I felt extremely different from other kids, but I was pretty mature to understand that something like this was just ignorance with a dash of racism. Not enough for me to be crippled. So, I kept my life moving.

As I grew older, many of my family members began to marry into other races. Most of them married into black families. This was a beautiful thing because I could now enjoy non-Asian foods during the big holidays. More importantly, these relationships allowed me to see racism not only from my lenses, but also through the perspectives from non-Asian family members. From their experiences I became more and more aware of the reality that racism wasn’t just subtle remarks I experienced when I was child. It could be systematic. It could come in all shapes and forms.

Prior to Trump’s handing of COVID-19, my experiences with racism/hate against Asian Americans had been mostly subtle. It was less common to hear high-profile politicians spew anti-Asian rhetoric and half of the population would be OK with it. Today, however, is a different story. Trump’s “Chinese Virus” debacle empowers people to perpetuate anti-Asian rhetoric and act on it.

In April, my uncle was pushed off his bicycle in Fairfax, VA. He was doing his daily exercise routine when suddenly a white lady ran up to him, pushed him to the ground, and ran off yelling Asian slurs.

Earlier this year my high school friend went for a morning run in the neighborhood we grew up in. An SUV drove by and someone threw a cup of hot coffee at her while yelling racial slurs.

As America began to shut down, I remember walking into Costco and seeing a family react strangely when I walked by. Though I maintained a safe distance from them, I could hear whispers as they quickly grabbed their things and walked away from me as if I was carrying the virus. Could this have been anything other than racism? I don’t think so as I heard the words “Chinese” and “COVID” from their whispers. No big deal as this wasn’t going to cripple me. However, my family members and friends have experienced more unfortunate events. In April, my uncle was pushed off his bicycle in Fairfax, VA. He was doing his daily exercise routine when suddenly a white lady ran up to him, pushed him to the ground, and ran off yelling Asian slurs. My uncle is physically OK; however, his hand was slightly injured. Earlier this year my high school friend went for a morning run in the neighborhood we grew up in. An SUV drove by and someone threw a cup of hot coffee at her while yelling racial slurs. She had minor injuries but is probably still traumatized from the experience.

It is a direct consequence of rhetorical racism. If Trump cared to make an effort to consider the pains of the AAPI community and value their request to refrain from using xenophobic language, I strongly believe that the anti-Asian hate crimes would be much lower. Unfortunately, his rhetoric influences his followers to perpetuate xenophobia. It empowers white supremacists and encourages them to be more aggressive with their views. This very rhetoric desensitizes these racially motivated attacks and empowers people to take part in the anti-Asian crimes.

Because of his rhetoric, we are not only fighting a deadly virus, we are also fighting a racist plague. If we do not tighten the stitches that hold America’s racist wounds, we will continue to bleed from the attacks motivated by racism. America’s racist history, the slurs and ignorance that permeate everyday culture, the burden of the model minority myths, and now the violence caused by the GOP’s racist COVID virus rhetoric continually deny people of various Asian ethnicities from truly being accepted into American society. They are constantly one incident away from being othered and vilified.” Rhetoric is a powerful tool. I challenge all who read this to please stand up against rhetorical racism, whether it be against Asians, Blacks, Latinos, etc. We must fight for a more inclusive America and heal her from her racist wounds.

Jeson is a first-generation Lao-American and is the sound of refugees who immigrated from Laos in 1981. He is a project manager in Washington, D. C. Jeson co-founded CLAY (connecting. Lao American Youth), a nonprofit that aims to connect Lao Americans and advance the Lao-American profile through advocacy and dialogue. Jeson earned his Bachelors of Arts in Political Science and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia and a Master’s in Public Administration at George Mason University. In his spare time, Jeson likes to cook and travel while vlogging his adventures on YouTube channel, KINGJEYYY.

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