The Best Ways to Call Out Coronavirus Racism at Work (Blog Post)
When I heard about the coronavirus rapidly spreading across China in January, a feeling of dread came over me—and not only because of the widespread illness and death. My dread was also about the fears of another disease that typically occurs when these types of news stories happen—racism.
As the coronavirus spread across communities, countries, and continents, so did racist incidents against the Chinese community and those who looked East Asian. Reports of verbal and physical assaults on East Asians around the world have steadily increased, including incidents in workplace settings. A radio show host “joked” about isolating his Asian-American colleagues. In Australia, parents refused to let doctors and nurses of “Asian appearance” treat their children, and ride-hailing drivers refused to provide rides to East-Asian passengers.
As a child growing up in a majority-white country (I’m third-generation Chinese American living in the United States), I quickly learned to look at where any major incident, particularly those that could have a global impact, occurred in order to be on guard for the racist comments, stares or “jokes” that inevitably happen. The current pandemic is no different. Even before the spread outside China, I made sure I had cough drops on me so that if I felt the need to cough, I could stop it immediately. I tried to smile or look friendly if I caught anybody staring at me. I was an example of Catalyst’s Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace report findings, feeling a heightened need to protect myself from any negative attention.
In a workplace culture, racist acts usually play out as microaggressions—those small verbal or nonverbal slights, snubs, or insults. Sometimes they’re made consciously, but more often they’re unconscious to the person speaking—they may even think that they are giving a compliment or joking around, when in fact there is a hidden insult or negative assumption underneath. Organizations, through their leaders, must take action against microaggressions and role-model inclusion, and Catalyst has resources and tools to help. When you find yourself in a situation where you witness a microaggression—in or out of the workplace—there are three things you should never do.
- Don’t act like you didn’t hear or see it. Racism is not going to go away if we ignore it. In fact, ignoring it can be seen as tacit agreement—and this failure to address it can add insult to injury.
- Don’t make excuses. Hearing “just kidding” after someone says they don’t want to sit next to an East-Asian colleague doesn’t make it any less hurtful or less racist.
- Don’t become immobilized. This happens more often than not; you witness something but are at a loss for what to say or do and end up doing nothing. When somebody declares they won’t order Chinese food ever again and aren’t challenged, it only reinforces stereotypes and perpetuates inaccurate information.
At the same time, there are two things you should always do:
- Address the microaggression by responding with a non-judgmental observation or asking a thoughtful question. Doing so signals support for East Asian colleagues, and role models inclusive behavior and courage to others. It may not be easy but it’s worth it.
- Talk to those involved. Doing so can break down stereotypes and provide comfort and support to the targets, particularly during such a scary time in the world. If you’re not Asian, don’t assume your workplace is free from prejudice without checking in with your Asian colleagues to hear about their experiences.
Battling a global pandemic is a daily struggle, causing heightened fears and worry. Fighting off racism and xenophobia at the same time makes this crisis even more frightening. Let’s help each other by practicing social distancing and vigorous hand-washing to tackle the coronavirus, and calling out racist and xenophobic acts and supporting our Asian colleagues and community.
Former Vice President, Strategic Engagement
As Catalyst Vice President, Strategic Engagement, Serena Fong drove positive change by leading and executing strategic communications and strategies to key stakeholders, including government leaders, policy-makers, influencers, strategic partners, Catalyst Supporter organizations and board members. She worked across the organization to create and execute a compelling and impactful engagement strategy,…