Like wildfire, the Covid-19 pandemic is racing to every corner of the earth, affecting all of humanity. With the death toll rising exponentially every day, who is not afraid of this angel of death? We are living in fear. Our anxieties are high. Home has become a quarantine space, a protection from terror. To flatten the curve, social distancing has become the new normal. None of us has seen anything like this in our lives. It’s completely unprecedented in living memory.
Yet President Donald Trump —the one who should be leading by example to keep the nation calm and informed—continues to insist on naming Covid-19 “the Chinese virus” or “the foreign virus.” He would use this racially charged term in every speech or tweet. It is troubling and utterly insensitive. His administration has been criticized for being slow to make sure that people get tested—and have access to tests to get tested—which can have deadly consequence. He refused to take any responsibility. Yet, he’s quick to make this a racialized war. He can’t help it. He is good at it. It’s his major skill that put him in power today. In the meantime, Asian Americans are being harassed in many places.
To be sure, the origin of the virus is the city of Wuhan in China. The use of language in the political arena, however, is always rhetorically engineered, meaning it’s loaded with political baggage. It is intentional. It has a goal. Its aim is to persuade people of a conviction—in this case that foreigners are dirty, infectious, to be avoided. It is thus outright disingenuous for Trump to say that his calling it the “Chinese virus” only describes its origin. For the adjective “Chinese” does not just signify a geographical space, but also a group of people. Notice Trump’s interchangeable use of the terms “Chinese” and “foreign.” This is no innocent geographical marker. It is a racially loaded linguistic marker. The “perpetual foreigner” stereotype is ringing in the ears of many Asian Americans.
The story of the perpetual foreigner is deeply rooted in American history. America’s first Naturalization Act passed by Congress in 1790 maintained that only “a free white person” can be admitted as a citizen. This US space is owned by whites, it says. Whiteness, this Act reminds us, is the primary marker of belongingness in this country. So when something is portrayed as “foreign”—particularly by the US President himself—we should ask: foreign to whom? It has to be a foreign to a norm, a standard. In other words, foreignness is a requirement for familiarity, belongingness. Clearly, what Trump and others mean by “foreign” is foreign to whiteness. Perpetual Foreigner is a white virus that subjugates, discriminates, and marginalizes Asian Americans.
The exclusion of Chinese workers from migration to the United States was codified in 1882. The opening line of this Chinese Exclusion Act stated that the presence of Chinese workers “endangers the good order.” Such a statement tells us much about white Americans’ fear, just as Trump’s designation of Covid-19 as the “Chinese” or “foreign virus” tells us much about his xenophobia.
In 1922 and 1923, the Supreme Court took on two major immigration cases: Ozawa v. US and Thind v. US. Both cases centered on what it means to be “white.” It was a classic example of how Asian Americans have been fighting for decades for their right to belong here. Yet, their longing to belong was rejected in 1922 and 1923 because they were not white. Until the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 was passed and then signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Asian Americans did not meet the test of whiteness to belong here.
The experience of being portrayed as a perpetual foreigner remains within the living memory of Asian American communities today. Calling a virus that has been a pandemic threat to human civilization a “Chinese virus” or a “foreign virus” is a cheap discursive strategy of othering. Inflicting this pain to Asian American communities will do no one any good in fighting the spread of Covid-19. Instead it is a dangerous rhetorical move. We should stop this Perpetual Foreigner Virus in its tracks. For when one community suffers, everyone suffers. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are all “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” We are all interconnected. We are living in the midst of an unusual moment in history. For any of us to survive we must dig deep into our humanity to work hand-in-hand, on each other’s shoulders, in making sure that this world a better place for everyone to live.
Ekaputra Tupamahu (PhD, Vanderbilt University) is an assistant professor of New Testament at Portland Seminary. He has a broad range of academic interests, including the politics of language, race/ethnic theory, postcolonial studies, immigration studies, critical study of religion, and global Christianity (particularly Pentecostal/Charismatic movement). All these interests inform and influence the way he approaches the texts of the New Testament and the history of early Christian movement(s).