The massacre of women of Asian heritage during the pandemic can be linked to our current “xenodemic”.

Last week, a 21-year-old Caucasian male massacred eight people in Atlanta, Georgia. Six of the victims were women of Asian heritage. 

The police department did not label this attack as an act of “terrorism.” It did not ascribe his motivations as a misogynist, racially-inspired “hate crime.” Rather the police attributed the attacks to the perpetrator having a “really bad day,” taking his word that the crime was not racially motivated. 

The attacker carried out a carefully planned attack. Thus, it would not be surprising if he also calculated that his sentence would be less severe if he attributed his motivations to sexual frustration, deflecting a charge of a racially-motivated hate crime.

The motivations of the Atlanta shootings have to be understood in the context of a larger history. The recent spate of anti-Asian discrimination in the present has a genealogy that goes back centuries, which can be traced to the much-vaunted and lauded European Enlightenment 

The birth of the “Yellow Race”

In an article in February 2020 for this publication, in the early days of the epidemic, I warned of the perils of anti-Asian sentiment that manifested itself, as well as how pandemics and xenophobia have developed a symbiotic relationship in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.  

While we cannot enter the killer’s mind, this attack is nevertheless embedded in a larger pattern of anti-Asian prejudice that has been inculcated on a global level since the beginning of the epidemic in January 2020, including political leaders, including Trump, who has invariably referred to Covid-19 as the “China virus” or “Kung flu.” 

Both mainstream news and social-media exacerbated the problem then, with The Herald Sun of Victoria calling the coronavirus a “Chinese Virus” on its front page, and the regional French paper Courrier Picard featured the headlines “Yellow alert” and “New yellow peril?”, invoking a racist Orientalist trope to refer to the Chinese people. 

The origins of this prejudice – which manifested itself in such vile form in Atlanta – has Enlightenment-era roots. The Enlightenment is often perceived through a Euro-centric myopia that celebrates the epoch’s notions such as humanism, progress, science, human rights and popular sovereignty. Despite its name of “enlightening,” it also had its dark side, bequeathing modernity the pseudo-scientific categorisation of race, and leading to the spread of terms such as “black” and “white,” “red” and “yellow,” essentialising categories of the world’s diverse peoples and cultures.   

The relationship between the Enlightenment and the origins of racial thought is linked to Carl Linnaeus, a Swede who has been dubbed “The Father of Taxonomy,” for inventing the binomial nomenclature, the formal system used to classify the natural world, including the term for us humans, Homo sapiens.

In his 10th edition Systema Naturae, published in 1758, Linnaeus color-coded Homo sapiens into races: white Homoeuropaeus, red Homo americanus, yellow Homo asiaticus, and black Home afer.

Linnaeus can be considered the father of modern racism for claiming in the name of science that human differences can be categorised  based on physical characteristics such as skin and color and essentialised behaviors. Homo europaeus were those with “plenty of yellow hair; blue eyes” and were “light, wise, inventors.” On the other hand, Homo asiaticus had “blackish hair, dark eyes” and were “stern, haughty, greedy.”  

This categorisation paved the way for pseudoscientific labels that are with us to this day. The fact that the Atlantic shooter targeted anyone who happened to be “yellow” demonstrates the pernicious shadow of Linnaeus’ legacy. 

Anti-Asian prejudice during pandemics

Anti-Asian sentiment during this pandemic bears similarities to the past. An epidemic of the bubonic plague broke out in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan in 1894, which spread to Canton and Hong Kong, and emerged as a pandemic as it reached Bombay by 1896. By 1900 it had reached ports on every continent, carried by infected rats travelling the international trade routes on steamships. 

In San Francisco, the city’s authorities perceived only Chinese-Americans as a threat to public health, leading to the quarantine of Chinatown. Honolulu’s Board of Health quarantined its Chinatown, incinerating garbage that inadvertently sparked a fire that burned 4,000 homes.

Even then xenophobic tropes became commonplace. Political cartoons and newspapers in California depicted Chinese-Americans eating rats in crowded, unclean living spaces. 

More than a century later, such racist tropes about eating habits re-emerged. When Covid-19 was primarily confined to China in January 2020, a viral video alleged that the epidemic there began because a Chinese woman in Wuhan ate a bat with her chopsticks. 

Media outlets from the British Daily Mail to Russia’s RT circulated the video, as an example of supposedly “dirty” Chinese eating habits. However, that video was filmed before the epidemic, not in Wuhan, where bat is not even eaten, or even China, but rather in in Palau, a Pacific island nation, for an online travel show. 

From this early juncture, hate crimes against Asians would go on to increase by 150 percent just in the US and there a many more attacks that are not reported.  

As University of Chicago professor Kimberly Kay Hoang wrote of the events in Atlanta, “This was a mass shooting, an act of gendered racial violence fueled by misogyny, xenophobia, and modern-day ‘yellow peril,’ or fear of Asia as a threat to the Western world. We must address the fact that gun violence, race, and gender all intersect here.” This confluence needs to be acknowledged in the US.

The fact that the Atlanta police department explained away the attack due to “sexual addiction,” masks a “hate crime.” This lack of accountability demonstrates a persistent problem: anti-Asian hatred has to be recognised in the present, as well as accounted for in the past. 

The WHO has “diagnosed” a condition that emerged in tandem with the pandemic, an infodemic, which it defines as, “too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak.” 

Along these lines, a “xenodemic” can be defined as too much racism caused by false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak.

It is up to the UN and governments alike, including policy makers, police departments, educational systems, and media organisations to proactively address the problems arising from this xenodemic to prevent massacres like the one in Atlanta in the future, or the quotidian harassment that anyone of Asian heritage faces in the present. 

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