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‘Stop normalizing racism’: Amid backlash, UC-Berkeley apologizes for listing xenophobia under ‘common reactions’ to coronavirus

Students walk on the University of California at Berkeley campus in Berkeley, Calif., on Aug. 15, 2017. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

At first glance, the informational handout recently shared by the University of California at Berkeley’s health services center on Instagram looked like many of the others that have been promoted amid rising worry over the global spread of the deadly coronavirus.

This particular post, which was widely circulated Thursday, focused on “managing fears and anxiety” about the pneumonia-like virus that originated in Wuhan, China, last month and has since infected people in countries worldwide, including the United States. In addition to offering mental health tips and resources, the bulletin identified a handful of “normal reactions” that people may experience as the crisis continues to unfold.

It would be reasonable, the university’s health center wrote, for people in the coming days or weeks to feel panicked, socially withdrawn and angry, among other emotions. But the last “normal” feeling listed was, as one person put it, “very much not like the other.”

“Xenophobia: fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about those feelings,” the handout said.

As Asians, especially Chinese people, worldwide have experienced heightened tensions in their communities and an increasing number of racist incidents sparked by fears of coronavirus contamination, the post struck a nerve. Many critics slammed the notice, expressing disbelief that a prominent university with a large Asian student body appeared to be “normalizing racism.”

The outcry prompted university officials to take swift action, removing the Instagram post later in the day and issuing an apology for causing “any misunderstanding.”

“We apologize for our recent post on managing anxiety around Coronavirus,” said a statement shared by Berkeley’s Tang Center, which happens to be named after Hong Kong businessman Jack C.C. Tang. “We regret any misunderstanding it may have caused and have updated the language in our materials.”

Thursday’s controversy coincided with the World Health Organization declaring the coronavirus outbreak a “public health emergency” and the State Department elevating its travel advisory for China to Level 4: “Do Not Travel.” According to the most recent figures from Chinese officials, nearly 10,000 people in China, where the pneumonia-like virus originated, have fallen ill, and the death toll in the country has risen to 213. Outside China, the number of international cases has risen to more than 80, with at least four countries, including the United States, reporting person-to-person transmission of the virus.

Coronavirus deaths spiral as U.S., others warn against travel to China

The latest developments are likely to stoke more fear over the virus’s spread, as experts say a vaccine won’t be ready any time soon. That doesn’t bode well for Asians already being subjected to discrimination and vitriolic attacks — and if history is any evidence, it’s only going to get worse.

Going back centuries, “Chinese and Chinese American people have served as scapegoats for infectious disease outbreaks and sanitation failures in the United States and around the world to particularly alarming effect,” wrote Jessica Hauger for The Washington Post.

During the third pandemic of the plague, political cartoons printed in California showed Chinese Americans “eating rats and bunking in crowded, unsanitary lodgings,” according to Hauger, a doctoral student at Duke University who studies healing and colonialism in the indigenous history of North America. Publications labeled China and Chinese people the “breeding place of King Plague.”

The actual danger of coronavirus

The reactions to the coronavirus outbreak haven’t been all that different.

The hashtag “#ChineseDon’tComeToJapan” has been trending on Japanese social media, and Singaporeans are petitioning their government to bar Chinese nationals from entering the country, the New York Times reported. As of Thursday, there were 11 confirmed cases of the virus in Japan and 10 in Singapore, according to data compiled by The Post.

In France, Asian citizens launched a hashtag, “#JeNeSuisPasUnVirus” (“I’m not a virus”), to fight back against racism, the BBC reported. Le Courrier Picard, a French newspaper, also recently apologized after weathering backlash for running a front-page headline that read, “ALERTE JAUNE,” or “YELLOW ALERT.” So far, the country has confirmed five cases.

Reports of xenophobic behavior in Toronto prompted Mayor John Tory to issue a public statement Wednesday rebuking the treatment of the city’s Chinese Canadian community. Canada has reported three cases of infection.

“We have to be here to stand up and say that kind of stigmatization is wrong,” Tory said at a news conference. “It is ill-founded and in fact, could lead to a situation where we are less safe because it spreads misinformation at a time when people are in more need than ever of real information and real facts.”

The mayor went on to pledge solidarity to Chinese Canadians living in and around Toronto, stressing that quarantines or avoiding Chinese people and businesses are “entirely inconsistent with the advice of our health care professionals.”

Then, Berkeley’s University Health Services publicized its latest coronavirus handout, which went viral Thursday after an image of the Instagram post was shared on Twitter. Critics, a number of whom are current or former students, blasted the university, suggesting that the post amounted to condoning racism against Asians. According to Berkeley’s fall enrollment data, more than 40 percent of last year’s freshman class were Asian.

“This just in from the number one public university in the world: it’s okay to be xenophobic as long as you also feel sort of guilty about it,” one person tweeted.

Reactions ranged from shock to disgust, as several people demanded answers from the university.

“Is this a joke @ucberkeley?” a Twitter user asked. Another opined that the handout was “the exact opposite of good public health messaging.”

At least one person pointed out that Thursday also marked the official removal of California lawyer John Henry Boalt’s name from the main classroom building at Berkeley’s law school. Boalt’s anti-Chinese writings helped catalyze the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, according to a university news release.

The revised version of the health-center handout makes no mention of xenophobia. Under “Ways to Manage Fears & Anxieties,” a bullet point reads, “Be mindful of your assumptions about others.”

“Someone who has a cough or a fever does not necessarily have coronavirus,” the handout said. “Self-awareness is important in not stigmatizing others in our community.”