An L.A. Times article titled, "Fear of coronavirus fuels racist sentiment targeting Asians," quotes Rosen Huynh, a 22-year old living in California: "I don't know if it's just people looking at me coughing or because I'm an Asian person coughing, they think I might have the coronavirus," said Huynh, who lives in Monterey Park. "I feel like every time I cough, people are going to be uncomfortable with that. I shouldn't have to feel that way."
But then again, perhaps this is a golden opportunity to expand my personal space. I came across a YouTube clip in which an Asian man discovers his newly gotten ability to make others uncomfortable by coughing in public. With the slightest cough, he can get on an elevator all to himself, get to the front of the line at Starbucks, and get on a popular running machine without having to wait when people conveniently remove themselves from his presence.
Which leaves me wondering what would have happened if the cast of Parasite had a group coughing fit on stage when they came up to receive the best picture award and collectively took out white medical masks to put on all at the same time. Or if Bong Joon-ho had sneezed repeatedly into the microphone while thanking the Hollywood luminaries; the expressions we would have seen then! The pained faces during Ricky Gervais' opening monologue at the Golden Globes wouldn't be able to hold a candle to the "Asian Corona" discomfort. Also, the Oscars wouldn't have had to worry about low TV ratings; imagine a follow-on reality TV show titled, "Wuhan Death Watch of the Rich and the Famous." By the way, if this becomes an SNL skit, I want credit.
Unfortunately, ugly reality always intrudes. The coronavirus phenomenon has triggered a racist backlash against Asians in various parts of the world. The L.A. Times article also reports, "False health information including warnings to avoid Asian food and Asian-populated areas has circulated, and videos of Asian people eating bats accompanied by inaccurate speculation about the cause of the virus and dehumanizing comments have gone viral… fears of racism around the virus were confirmed last week when UC Berkeley's health services center listed xenophobia toward Asian people as a "normal reaction" in an informational post on Instagram focused on "managing fears and anxiety" about the pneumonia-like sickness."
Wait, what? Berkeley health center (ironically named the Tang Center) publicly posted that, "Xenophobia: fear of interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about these feelings," was one of the expected common reactions to the coronavirus scare. Last time I checked, Asians were the most populous ethnicity in U.C. Berkeley at more than 35 percent of the student population; so, if you were trying to avoid Asians, you would probably suffer additional guilt over failing to achieve your goals.
Having said that, maybe Berkeley health center was only being honest about how these things go. Desire to categorize our world is a strong human instinct, especially along visual cues. "They all look alike" is actually an observable phenomenon that has been long studied. Also known as the "Other-Race Effect," human beings are notoriously bad at distinguishing between people of other races compared to those that we belong to. One theory is that, according to Forbes, "people think more categorically about members of other races. Basically, we take notice that they're different from us, but tune out less noticeable characteristics. 'The problem is not that we can't code the details of cross-race faces ― it's that we don't,' Daniel Levin, a cognitive psychologist at Kent State University explained to the American Psychological Association."
Overlay this instinct on top of the massive fear generated by the coronavirus scare and its association with China; xenophobia might actually be only natural. But natural doesn't make it right. In fact, actively engaging in introspection to guard against your own natural instincts is an essential element of living in a pluralistic and mature society. To that end, names also matter. Naming this as the Wuhan virus irrevocably tied the scare to a specific region and people. Granted, it's natural to name events after the places where they first occurred. But, as I said, natural is not necessarily right. In fact, natural can be actively harmful. In this intimately connected world that moves at the speed of social media, perhaps some careful thought could be inserted into the "natural" news reporting process to mitigate the onset of "natural" human instincts as a result of something going "viral."
Jason Lim (email@example.com) is a Washington, D.C.-based expert on innovation, leadership and organizational culture.