As COVID-19 has spread, xenophobia has sometimes spread along with it. LSA Assistant Professor Ian Shin says that clear communication from civic leaders and government officials is one of the best ways to combat that rise.

Shin’s research and teaching centers on intellectual and cultural history, race and ethnicity, and the history of the United States. Here, Assistant Professor Shin, who teaches in the American culture and history departments, discusses racism and xenophobia during the COVID-19 crisis. 

What impact do global events like COVID-19 have on cultural conflict and xenophobia?

Ian Shin: As many people know and experience, we are part of a globalized world. The reason the virus spread so quickly is that people travel, communicate, live, work, and learn across borders. We are part of a larger, interconnected global society, and it’s important to respond to these international threats as part of that international collaboration. It doesn’t help to point fingers at other governments now.

What kind of role should U.S. colleges and universities take in supporting international exchanges and relations between the United States and China?

IS: Conditions are changing quickly and policies are being updated constantly. From my conversations with international students, I’ve come away with three main things that higher education can do:

  1. Practice thoughtful communication about the virus. Early on we saw some insensitive communications going on at different colleges and universities. One university listed “xenophobia” in their list of common reactions to the virus, along with “feelings of helplessness” and “anxiety,” thus causing harm by normalizing xenophobia and racism. Xenophobia and racism are not common reactions. They are a choice, and they can be regulated and controlled. It’s important for institutions to guide their constituents carefully and manage their communications thoughtfully.
  2. Advocate for and plan for international students around visa expirations. I talked with many students who were worried about having their visas expire and having to return to places where the health situation is even worse. They shouldn’t have to choose between their health and their education. While universities cannot unilaterally extend visas, they can serve as an intermediary between these students and governments, and design creative policies to extend student status. 
  3. Provide physical and emotional care for students who have to stay. Keep some infrastructure in place—dining halls, health services. And it’s also really important to recognize and provide mental health care for students who are experiencing xenophobia. At U-M, I was really happy to see University Health Service and Counseling and Psychological Services sent out an email addressing xenophobic attacks that students might be experiencing and offering help.

As a social and cultural historian of the United States, you’ve written extensively on the idea of “American exceptionalism.” Do you believe American exceptionalism plays a role in the COVID-19 pandemic?

IS: I do, and I think it plays out in the way that the United States responds to COVID-19 and how that response differs from other countries' responses. I’ve read a lot of analyses about how Singapore and Taiwan have been able to effectively contain the virus. Some people say that the strategies that Singapore and Taiwan have tried are not possible in the United States because of our individualistic culture. But the more sophisticated analyses that I have seen point to the fact that this is less about American culture and more about history.

The ways that some of these countries have responded to the virus have to do with how those governments have been conditioned to respond to national crises and major threats. If you think about the history of Taiwan and the relationship Taiwan has had with China, you can understand that it’s not so much about East Asian values or East Asian culture, but rather about history conditioning society to respond in a certain way. That’s important because pointing to U.S. exceptionalism can be a very easy way for people to disregard policies and practices that are important and effective on the basis of America’s individualistic culture.

We do know that in times of war the United States has historically been able to mobilize to respond to major threats. We are seeing this now—there’s a rise in collective spirit and the recognition that the United States needs to work together now. Americans are practicing social distancing together. There’s growing bipartisan support for an increase in social welfare. These are circumstances in which Americans can band together.

Are there other questions that you’re thinking about right now? What are they?

IS: As a historian and scholar of Asian American studies, I want to talk about the dog whistling that has been targeting Asian Americans in the discussion of the virus. When COVID-19 is called the “Wuhan Virus” or the “Chinese Virus” in the political sphere, Asian Americans are targeted and scapegoated, and this brings up the long history of how Asian Americans have been targeted and scapegoated in the past. There are many more local, state, and even federal officials speaking up against these xenophobic attacks. We are looking to top-level national leadership to fall in line with the idea that they need to pay attention to how they talk about this virus so they do not incite racist and xenophobic violence.

There are a few things people can do to address this issue. If you see irresponsible reporting in the news about the “Chinese virus,” contact your local editor or producer and ask for a correction. If you witness a bias incident, consider intervening actively by telling the perpetrator to stop, or passively by engaging the victim to show your support for them. And if you yourself experience a bias incident, report it to local law enforcement and to the Stop AAPI Hate project so that it can be documented and addressed.

Some say we shouldn’t let the racism obscure our critique of the mismanagement of the virus, but I think we can call out both. This is affecting all of us. We can and should expect more.