On a French newspaper’s front page last weekend, big block letters announced “Yellow Alert” next to an image of a Chinese woman wearing a face mask. Another headline in the same paper read “New Yellow Peril?” above an article about the ongoing Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.
The headlines drew immediate outrage. Readers accused the paper of using ignorant and offensive language.
“Yellow Peril” was an old racist ideology that targeted East Asians in Western countries. The phrase embodies the worst of anti-Asian fears and stereotypes, which have plagued immigrant communities since the first waves of Chinese immigration to the United States began in the 19th century.
In the US, government propaganda and pop culture at the time spread wildly racist and inaccurate images of Chinese people as unclean, uncivilized, immoral, and a threat to society.
To invoke the term now, in a story about death and illness in Asia, seems thoughtless at best and blatantly racist at worst.
The newspaper apologized quickly and said they had no intention of perpetuating “racist stereotypes of Asians.” But the damage is not so easily undone, and the paper is not the sole culprit – merely the latest in a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment as the coronavirus spreads worldwide.
The escalating global health crisis has claimed more than 200 lives – all in China – and infected close to 10,000 people worldwide. As they seek to contain the virus, authorities in multiple countries are balancing the need for warnings against the risk of creating global panic.
However, there are signs that’s already happening, with face masks selling out in stores and people locking themselves at home. Some people in central China – the epicenter of the outbreak – are desperately taking any flight out, regardless of destination, as governments worldwide suspend flights from China and impose restrictions on travelers from the mainland.
But the panic has also taken another, more familiar form, with the re-emergence of old racist tropes that portray Asians, their food, and their customs as unsafe and unwelcome.
As panic spreads, so does racism
As news of the virus has spread, many people of Asian descent living abroad say they have been treated like walking pathogens.
Writing for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, one British-Chinese journalist in London said a man quickly moved seats when he sat down on a bus.
A Malaysian-Chinese social worker experienced the same thing on a London bus this week. “A couple of people at an East London school I work in have asked me why Chinese people eat weird food when they know it causes viruses,” she told CNN.
In Canada, there have been reports of Chinese children being bullied or singled out at school. In New Zealand – where there are no confirmed coronavirus cases – a Singaporean woman says she was confronted and faced racist harassment in a mall.