Racism in the Time of Coronavirus by Former Editor Rain Ji ’19

2 mins read

by Rain Ji ’19


February 20, 2020

Over the years, The Highlander newspaper has seen many writers graduate and continue their careers working for college newspapers. Rain Ji ‘19 was a four-year international student at The Gunnery from Beijing, China. Formerly the editor of the Highlander Newspaper, Rain is now an Arts and Academics editor for Middlebury College’s newspaper, The Middlebury Campus

Recently, Rain published an article about the Coronavirus outbreak in China. This is a topic that we as a community have been discussing for weeks now. Many of our international students are unable to return home for Spring break as the results of the virus continue to unravel and effect travel overseas.

With an important take on the virus, The Highlander newspaper’s Staff decided to share Rain’s article, “Racism in the time of Coronavirus,” which was originally published in The Middlebury Campus on February 20, 2020. 

–Juliette Gaggini ‘20, Editor

I’ve never been too popular anywhere. But recently, more people have — as some like to call it — slid into my DMs to send me funny memes. What’s the secret to my newfound social status? The coronavirus. A virus which has inspired so many derogatory and inappropriate memes that people on and off Middlebury’s campus can’t resist sharing a moment of laughter with their dearest Chinese friend: me.

I’m no stranger to racism. After all, it is my fifth year living in the United States. However, the amount of blatant xenophobia emerged since the outbreak is simply impossible for me to process. Besides the number of derogatory jokes I’ve heard this week alone, my friends all over the world have been impacted in different shapes or forms. Jane, who is French-born Chinese, had her Airbnb reservation canceled in Switzerland simply because her host saw her profile picture. Fourteen days ago, “Wuhan virus quarantine zone — keep off” was written in Chinese on a blackboard at Columbia University’s Butler Library while my friend, Jojo (a Wuhan native), was studying in the very same place. Most absurd of all, a SiriusXM radio show host steered people away from Panda Express. Now, let’s be clear: Panda Express has never been and will never become authentic Chinese food. Next time a flu breaks out in Italy, you should cancel your Green Peppers order. You never know.

“Racism under the disguise of humor is still racism.”

Now that I’ve sufficiently trashed Panda Express (and potentially contributed to a decline in pizza consumption), let’s talk about why these memes and jokes are especially offensive. Back in the late 19th century, white labor unions in the U.S. promulgated the idea that Chinese bodies were disease carriers. In particular, they used this kind of xenophobic rhetoric to promote nativist fears of Asian migration. And their agenda worked: the 47th U.S. Congress passed the infamous 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting immigration of Chinese workers. Almost 120 years ago, Chinese were perceived by many Americans as filthy and revolting. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, similar disturbing attitudes of apathy, discrimination and ridicule can be observed across the U.S., and beyond. Fashion goes in cycles; so, it seems, does racism. 

Racism under the disguise of humor is still racism. People only feel comfortable laughing at xenophobic coronavirus memes because of intrinsic power dynamics stemming back hundreds of years. It is okay to make fun of the Chinese for eating revolting food, but obviously casu cundídu is a delicacy. 

Funny or harmless though they may seem, these jokes inflict emotional anxiety and pain on me and other members of the Middlebury community. When I’m hit with a corona beer joke or meme, I don’t laugh, or think of fun Saturday party scenes; instead, faces of my family, friends and loved ones flood me all at once. My anxiety spikes every morning as I check my phone for the latest updates on the number of people affected. Often, these numbers represent names to me. They are tangible and all-too real. 

I urge the Middlebury College community to refrain from and stand up against offensive jokes targeted at marginalized groups. Nothing too dramatic (no need to “cancel” anyone just because they send you an inappropriate meme). Simply let them know what’s problematic and, if you can, why.

Starting this week, I pray for less social media popularity.

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