Racism a concern for Chinese students amid COVID-19 pandemic

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Tao Zhou is one of thousands among the UW-Madison Class of 2020 whose college years were cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. For many seniors, the abrupt ending to college has been anything but easy. But for students like Zhou, it has sparked a whole new outlook on life. 

“I started to feel the gaze when I was walking on the street, probably around February, when the U.S. started to first see cases of the coronavirus.” 

Zhou, an international student from Beijing, China, has been studying economics and photography at the University of Wisconsin - Madison for the past four years. Following the first break of news around COVID-19 in February, Zhou started noticing a major increase in acts of racism around her.

After spotting graffiti on UW- Madison campus reading, “It’s from China, #chinesevirus” Zhou shared a picture of the chalked words on her Instagram page. Zhou was shocked because she always thought of UW-Madison as an inclusive, welcoming campus. 

“Even though I knew there were acts of racism in (New York City) and other places, never have I thought the hatred was spreading so fast that it has put me in danger as well,” Zhou said. 

In sharing a picture of the racist graffiti on social media, Zhou tagged the UW, the International Student Services account and some local restaurants. She hoped her post would “make people more aware of the discrimination the Asian community is facing right now and become supportive.” The post has roughly 700 likes and over 200 comments. 

Unfortunately, some of those 200-plus comments are “full of hatred and ignorance,” Zhou said. She highlighted examples including: “Everyone here needs to stop being so offended and accept that the world doesn’t revolve around you, and it will never be fair. Life isn’t fair”, and “Just because you are Chinese does not mean you need to complain about the disease being named its rightful name. What about the Spanish Flu?!” 

Zhou explained that she felt both confused and frustrated, asking some commentators “if they are willing to call H1N1 the ‘American Virus’ and they didn’t respond to that.” 

After attempting to argue with the hurtful comments through direct messages on Instagram, Zhou pivoted her stance and turned to photography.

“Combining the pictures that I took of Chinatown in Chicago and the quotes from the comments (eliminating the swearing words), I let the viewer decide if the comments made sense. Would the viewer resonate with them, or the other way around?” 

When asked about the impact of her photography, Zhou said “there is never enough awareness of these matters in the Chinese community, but there has to be somebody to speak up about it.” 

Following the initial flood of harsh words, however, friends, classmates and even UW alumni have shown support. The university also commented: “You’re right: this is NOT okay. UW- Madison stands against hate in all forms… We support our Asian and Asian American communities. Now, more than ever, it’s important that we stand together.”

Just a day after Zhou’s post, Chancellor Rebecca Blank released a statement on behalf of the UW- Madison community calling for an immediate end to bigotry. 

“We are aware of an increase in bias incidents on or near campus and online that have targeted our Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi-American students and employees, particularly those from or perceived to be from China and East Asia," the statement read. "We want to be clear that racist behaviors or stereotyping of any kind are not tolerated at UW–Madison—no matter if we are online, passing others in public, or quarantined at home.”

A virtual town hall was called on March 26, allowing students to voice concerns and hear how the university was responding to bias incidents. UW- Madison students facing such harassment or discrimination were also encouraged to file bias incident reports with the school.

Zhou said she was appreciative of the efforts put forth by the university but still admits she is somewhat afraid.

“I wish for someday that we are all united and race will no longer be an issue.”

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