Audiences, Participation & Engagement, events

Racism as a Virus: Creative and Collective Responses to Sinophobia and Racist Discourses

Dr. Wing-Fai Leung

The global coronavirus transmission has made the world a volatile place. Racist hate crimes against Chinese, East Asian and Southeast Asian descents in North America and the UK have surged. Singaporean student Jonathan Mok was beaten by a group of youths on Oxford Street, London, in February 2020, which symbolised the rising racism towards East and Southeast Asians during the pandemic. By May 2020, the UK had seen a 21% rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. Some 3800 reported assaults against Asians have been reported in the US over the last year, involving knifing, beatings and murders, with women being the majority victims. In March 2021, six of the eight murder victims during the shootings at three separate spas in Atlanta, Georgia were Asian women. The persistent racist discourse and actions in North America and Europe were highlighted in May 2020 when the killing of George Floyd led to Black Lives Matter protests across the globe. 

Inspired by the BLM movement and in recognition of the UK’s higher education sector as a site of racialised production of knowledge, the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at KCL launched a funding scheme for collaborative projects involving staff and students that would bring about tangible outcomes. Wing-Fai Leung, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries (CMCI) and Victor Fan, Reader in the Department of Film Studies, collaborated on the project ‘Racism as a Virus’, aimed at engendering qualitative data and academic/artistic responses to Sinophobia and racist discourses. In so doing, the team is inspired by Chen Kuan-Hsing’s call in his seminal work Asia as a Method to transform these problematic conditions, transcend the structural limitations, and uncover alternative possibilities. 

There are several elements to this project. Research candidate in CMCI Paola Pofi analysed media reports in the UK from the early months (January-May 2020) of the pandemic and carried out critical discourse analysis of the key themes. Persistent racist ideologies, including yellow peril—racist fear towards the imagined East—and stereotypes of the ‘Chinese and China’ permeated news reports, demonstrating that, as Mika Aaltola suggests, epidemics can legitimise strong actions aimed at reaffirming or reinventing a sense of survival and safety within a threatened community. As the discourse around the pandemic shifted when the UK suffered a surge of virus transmission, the popular and political responses can be seen to express nationhood in an age of global connectedness. 

The C-Word

A workshop held on 27 February 2021 acted as a focal point of this creative research project. The research team engaged writer and actor David K.S. Tse who penned a short play The C-Word in response to the pandemic in September 2020, which was one of the five radio plays commissioned by Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge, that explored issues related to social identities including racism, gender and class. Inspired by Tse’s personal experience, inThe C-Word, four undergraduates meet for lunch in the flat of Pat, a British Born Chinese, during the lockdown. However, Steve (white British male)’s use of the ethnic slur ‘chinky’ and other cultural faux pas threaten their relationships. David draws on this play to explore contemporary cultural politics, diversity and racism in the UK. Twenty five undergraduate and postgraduate students from across different departments at KCL volunteered for the project and performed the play in five groups. Their audio and audiovisual performances were available to attendees who could listen and watch them ahead of the workshop.

The workshop began with Victor Fan’s discussion of how the pandemic has been weaponised by racists. At the beginning, the media discourse epitomised the racism behind the term ‘Chinese virus’, rendering the East and Southeast Asian bodies as a viral source and institutionalising racism against these individuals and communities. Then, David Tse invited the five groups of students to discuss their experiences of producing, directing, and performing the play. Students reported they could discuss racism and their own experiences within the groups. There were open reflections on the emotions that impact on both the perpetrators and the targets of racism such as embarrassment, ignorance, and rage. Students from a range of backgrounds related their own experiences to the four characters in the play, including Steve’s point of view. Many of the UK- and Europe-based students recognised the social situations depicted in the story. Interestingly, some of the PRC-based international students asserted that racism had not been their daily experience in China until they attended university in the UK. One group added a quotation from the 1930s British politician Pearl Strachan Hurd, “Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs” in their video production, which stimulated heated debates among the participants about the complex relationships between language and racism. Workshop participants, the organisers and David Tse related that racism against East Asian and Southeast Asian communities in the UK had been ignored and downplayed for a long time. Other topics, such as polarisation on social media, also provoked intense discussion during the event.

These activities were the beginning of a research project that will generate transformative understanding of ourselves and new subjectivities vis-à-vis the Covid-19 realities. The students’ performances of The C-Word and the participants’ sharing, communication and discussion in this open-forum event foster friendly dialogues to promote mutual understanding. The involvement of the students from a wide range of (Asian) backgrounds also demonstrates Asia’s multiplicity, serving to deconstruct the binary of East and West, and highlighting that there is not one Asia, except in the cultural imagination of the Eurocentric knowledge hierarchy. The deeply troubling dismissal of the existence of institutional and individual racism in the recent UK government’s Sewell Report shows how there is an urgent need for the decolonisation and deimperialisation of knowledge production. The research team has plans to organise further workshops and collaborative writing. Through the ‘Racism as a Virus’ project, engaging many supporters from partner organisations and the KCL staff and student body, the team will collectively create a portal to initiate new and diverse understanding of race relations and representations, and to discuss and visibilise East and Southeast Asian people’s experiences and efforts to fight against racism. 

Thanks to Ge Liang (PhD candidate at CMCI) who took notes during the workshop.