Serene Ho reflects on what it is like to be an ethnic minority in the Western world. Drawing from her own experience, as well as various studies, she argues that discrimination against ethnic minorities is likely to persist, if not worsen, after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The universal superstition of Chinese as carriers of the virus
European, European Chinese, Chinese European, there are many ways in which ethnically Chinese Europeans can identify themselves. During this COVID-19 pandemic, it seems like being Chinese is not the easiest around Europe. Even before the World Health Organisation declared the pandemic, discrimination against Chinese was felt around Europe. My friends in Paris, London, and Amsterdam all posted on Facebook or Instagram about how wearing a face mask in public led to unwanted attention. Wearing a mask whenever there is an outbreak of a new disease and always carrying a bottle of hand sanitiser is a lesson learned from SARS in 2003 for Hongkongers. On the contrary, Hongkongers were in disbelief that most of the West and even some countries such as the UK argued that masks are useless at the start of the virus outbreak.
It is understandable that because the virus originated in China, people would be more alert while being around Chinese. This prejudice against Chinese isn’t limited to other ethnicities. From my own experience on the Tube in London since the day Wuhan locked down, there seems to be an unspoken code of Chinese people avoiding their compatriots. Whenever I got onto the Tube, I could observe that people perceived as Chinese would try to get to the furthest corner from another Chinese person. Such a practice might not make any sense, as it might turn out that a non-Chinese looking person just came back from China, while a Chinese looking person actually has not set foot on Chinese soil for a long time. Moreover, there comes a point when this attempt to socially distance becomes discriminatory.
Being an ethnically Chinese school-age child is not easy as well. I know some children who are already the third-generation of immigrants in the UK, but still suffer from bullying because of their race despite being usually popular at school. It is absurd that kids who normally blend in so well with their class suddenly got discriminated against because of a virus that has nothing to do with them. They are no less European than their classmates but their skin and hair colour distinguish them from the rest of the class. It seems that the virus only exposed to us what we have not yet managed to overcome. Despite initiatives of inclusion and diversity, people are still judged by their ethnicity even though they might not even feel connected to the geographical location of the ethnic origin.
Forced diversity can be damaging
At school, racial discrimination might be somewhat controllable or suppressible by teachers. Yet, it is worrying when diversity is only a lip service, and the reality remains that there is an ingrained perception of who belongs to ‘us’ and who to ‘them’. The pandemic should serve as an impetus for an overall reassessment of inclusion schemes and policies. Is meeting recruitment targets of each ethnic divide sufficient for displaying corporate responsibility? Does encouraging diversity actually mean forcing people who have non-European ancestral roots to identify only with their ethnic origin? If so, diversity initiatives are doing something opposite to their intended purpose.
Inasmuch as many ethnically Chinese Europeans would identify themselves culturally only with Europe, there is a dichotomy in this proposition. The issue lies in whether the majority of people regards them as part of ‘Europe’ or as outsiders. It feels as if there is an overarching narrative that limits who can be included in definitions of what it means to be European. There may be an unspoken limit to allowing immigrants to become a part of the mainstream.
Existing structural inequalities
As I was writing this article, Black Lives Matter protests in the US broke out. Although the entire sociocultural contexts of the US and Europe are fundamentally different, racism is nothing new. On Facebook, there are posts from Korean-Americans explaining how Asians in the US were held as the model minorities for they never spoke out against discrimination, and worked hard for a living, while African-Americans were condemned because they fought for their rights. This prompts me to reflect on my own experience. True, it seems as if there is something cultural about Asians that holds us back from speaking out for ourselves when we encounter discrimination. It could be things as mundane as the cashier at the supermarket being rude because of one’s race.
It is strange that the UK, a place that prides itself on being an advocate of human rights, allows such inequality to continue. If we look closer at the existing inequality issues in the UK before COVID-19, not only is there racism, there are classism and gender issues. According to the social mobility report 2018 – 2019, women and ethnic minorities are most likely to experience downward social mobility. 11% more men are earning £25k or above than women. This means that an ethnic minority woman has a double disadvantage. Moreover, there is a 17% pay gap for workers in the same profession from working class and professional backgrounds. All these figures speak to the general, systematic oppression of women and ethnic minorities. While publishing such data undoubtedly brings more transparency to the actual situation in the country, there is a need to rectify the situation to ensure that COVID-19 does not widen the disparity between white and other ethnicities.
Changes after COVID-19 should include the introduction of genuine equality policies
Whilst Europeans react to racism and inequality that are occurring on foreign soil, to avoid being criticised as hypocritical, changes should happen at home, too. From each turmoil, there comes an opportunity. Will this be the chance for the continent, where human rights are considered as natural rights, to start treating all races regardless of socioeconomic background equally? This will likely depend on the measures taken by the governments in response to the economic downturn following COVID-19. There is little doubt that, as always, it will be the most vulnerable that will be hit the hardest during times of hardship. However, if this situation creates an impetus for governments to encourage the private sector to restructure their workforce balance once they are hiring again, a structural change to the composition of workers may be possible.
In the midst of lifting nation-wide lockdowns, leaders in the public and private sector alike should remember that every worker is a human being, and be aware that some ethnicities are currently dealing with worse treatment than others. Easing lockdown measures or requiring the workforce to get back into the office too quickly would pose a threat to their lives. As Public Health England’s study showed that ethnic minorities have a much higher proportion of serious cases and deaths from the virus, the journey to recovery is likely to be long and tough. Ethnic minorities should not be left to suffer.
It is clear that ethnic minorities’ social mobility had been impeded before the pandemic, and they have suffered disproportionately during COVID-19. It is way past high time for real actions to be taken to tackle inequality, which contributes to, if not causes ethnic minorities’ exacerbated suffering during the pandemic. If measures are not taken in a timely manner, racism may take root once again as ethnic minorities are treated as scapegoats for the economic downturn. If so, even the most Europhile ethnic minorities may start questioning their identity.