Aria Li, a sophomore majoring in film production, was on her way to class in the School of Cinematic Arts basement like usual. But this time, she was wearing a face mask.
“I walked into the elevator and I could kinda tell that everybody was like side-eye[ing] me and there was this general feeling of consensus among others,” Li recalled. “Everybody kind of steps away from me and they have their backs against the wall, and then the girl in front of me starts holding her breath.”
Li stopped wearing masks ever since this incident because she said it “made [her] feel really uncomfortable.” She also said that she experienced similar situations whenever she wore a mask around campus in general.
“I just got this vibe of a fear from everybody looking at me," Li explained.
Microaggressions toward the Asian community, like what Li experienced, both on and off-campus, are on the rise amid the 2019 Novel Coronavirus outbreak.
The coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China has killed more than 400 people and infected over 20,000 in the mainland, overtaking SARS on both infection and death toll. Although there have been no deaths related to the virus in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 11 cases in the nation, including six in California.
While no USC-affiliated individuals are infected, discriminatory posts making fun of Asian students and culture recently began to circulate on the university’s Facebook meme page, especially after the coronavirus scare at a USC off-campus housing complex that happened Monday, Jan. 27.
“I’ve seen a lot of comments on Instagram posts of like bats as meals, and it’s just kind of disturbing how people are so easy to generalize,” said Dara Phung, a junior majoring in real estate development and music. “It kind of brings me back to the Gold Rush era when Chinese immigrants were being accused of eating rats and like spreading disease...It’s like history is repeating itself.”
Phung said she recommends people to study the history of discrimination against Asian communities.
“I feel like a lot of people are reposting things for clout and it's more like the shock factor rather than trying to find productive ways of finding solutions to this issue,” Phung said. “There's people dying, a lot of people suffering [from the coronavirus], so I think the discourse needs to be focused on that rather than the food, culture.”
Similarly, UC Berkeley apologized after the school’s health center posted a graphic with a list of “common reactions” to the coronavirus, including anxiety, social withdrawal and xenophobia, on social media.
Many people were outraged by the post, stating that it sought to normalize racism as a response to the global outbreak. The graphic has since been removed and was replaced with an apology from UC Berkeley’s health center.
Still, many were dissatisfied with the response. “Everyone understood you perfectly well; that’s why the public anger,” tweeted Jessica Langer.
Beyond social media, several other USC students have experienced microaggressions firsthand on campus.
“It was very obvious because I think the microaggression is very noticeable if they keep repeating,” said Jose Alaras, a USC student who has experienced discriminatory behaviors after the coronavirus outbreak.
He thinks that, while the chance of getting the flu is statistically higher than being infected by the coronavirus, people did not jump onto the microaggressions for flu because “the flu is not ascribed to race or ethnicity.”
In an email to USC Annenberg Media, Richelle Caday, Asian Pacific American Student Assembly co-assistant director, wrote that she experienced some microaggressions on campus since she has been sick recently.
“I’ve noticed that people have seemed more alarmed or disgusted when I would cough or blow my nose,” she wrote. “Also, when some people would casually ask how I was doing and I would mention that I was sick and feeling under the weather, they would immediately ask if I had the coronavirus.”
Caday also expressed that students’ fears of the coronavirus made her feel insecure about her race.
“The whole coronavirus situation has made me even more self-conscious about me being Asian and how people assume that I’m more likely to infect them than a non-Asian who is also sick,” she said.
After Li’s unpleasant experience in the elevator, she said the microaggressions she received makes it harder for her to protect herself.
“I can either feel safer against this virus, but face this kind of constant feeling of being like the other and having my humanity taken away from the strangers around me, or I can not wear a mask and be more accepted, but I don’t feel safe," Li said. "I don’t have a choice of having both.”
In response to the microaggressions USC students have been facing, the Undergraduate Student Government along with other on-campus cultural organizations released a statement Friday, condemning any discriminatory behavior against Asian Americans on the basis of the coronavirus.
“The exclusion of any Asian or Asian American student is without merit and is rooted in xenophobia, Sinophobia, and tropes based on Orientalism – actions and ideologies that have no place in our diverse and global community," the letter said.
USG Senior Director of Communication Truman Fritz told Annenberg Media that “first and foremost, we have to acknowledge the problems here at campus. There’s no place here for discriminatory action, there’s no place here for discriminatory speech. We have to acknowledge those events are happening around us.”
Vice President for Student Affairs Winston Crisp and Chief Health Officer Sarah Van Orman also sent out a school-wide memo reminding the USC community to treat each other with kindness Tuesday, Jan. 28.
“We have heard from students that they have faced microaggressions and have felt excluded, this goes against our values,” the memo stated.
According to Van Orman, these racial microaggressions are not uncommon, especially when they are focused in a specific geographical area.
“In our history, we can look to many examples of emerging communicable diseases, emerging infectious diseases that became associated with one group of people or another group of people where this same sort of thing began to play out,” Van Orman said in an official university-sponsored livestream with Crisp. “Not only is that wrong, not only does that hurt those individuals, it’s actually good for nobody’s health.”
Crisp explained that students will be able to report their circumstances and any negative situations online.
“We will continue obviously to pay attention to what's happening because I know microaggression and no amount of bullying or discriminatory behavior in this arena is acceptable in my mind,” Crisp said.
The administration has held Town and Gown meetings to talk about the coronavirus and the issue of microaggression. The event was streamed on Facebook Live and racked up over 10,000 views. Crisp said the administration is also trying to spread the word through other mediums like Twitter.
According to Van Orman, University officials will continue to send out further information through emails about the virus, safety updates and the issue regarding microaggressions.