Unmasking the virus – racism in Glasgow

Credit: Zhang Yue

Natasha Joibi

People make Glasgow, until they don’t. Natasha Joibi interviews students on their experiences following the outbreak of Covid-19.

I was walking alone from the Glasgow City Centre to Finnieston one night when I noticed an SUV stopping by the roadside. The driver, who was the only person of colour in the vehicle, rolled down his window and sported a broad grin as he said “Hey Corona” to me. His friends roared with laughter. Slightly taken aback but undefeated, I waved theatrically at him and smiled as I responded: “Hey Curry”. I wasn’t prepared for the immense satisfaction I felt upon seeing the grin slide off his face. “Yep I won this one. He deserved it…” I thought to myself as I walked away victoriously.

It didn’t take long for shame to set in as I realised that I had just fought racism…with racism. I could’ve just ignored my harasser, but I didn’t want to give him the pleasure of seeing me hurt. Cause that’s the point of racism, isn’t it? To inflict pain. Whilst it wasn’t my proudest moment, this incident was an opportunity for self-introspection and a re-examination of my implicit biases. At a time when racism runs rampant against people from China as well as those of East and Southeast Asian descent, it becomes even more imperative to take the “high road” even if it is difficult.

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has seen a surge in racism and xenophobia towards individuals from China and those who look ethnically Chinese. One case that received wide publicity was that of Jonathan Mok’s, a 23-year-old Singaporean student who was assaulted in a Coronavirus-related incident in London on 24 February. Meanwhile here in Glasgow, a PhD student from China was reported to have their clothes torn by three strangers after being called “Coronavirus” along Dumbarton Road on 5 March. 

In some cases, the racism was less blatant. Indonesian postgraduate student Risty Nurraisa recalled witnessing racial microaggressions directed towards her Chinese friends in Dumfries, where they are currently based. She was walking with her three friends when an elderly Caucasian male approached the group and asked where they came from. He specifically asked two of Risty’s companions if they were from China.

Risty explained: “When they said that they were indeed from China; his immediate response was: ‘Are you bringing the virus here?’ My friends didn’t realise what they’d just been asked. They thought the man was simply being nice because he was smiling the whole time. However, my French friend and I were shocked by his question. I told him that my friends have already been studying in Scotland for a year now.”

“It happened so fast. I was polite to him because he was an old man. In the end, I went with the response that I thought was appropriate in that particular situation,” she said.

Chinese postgraduate student Nellie was wearing a mask when she was verbally harassed by a white male while walking in the streets of Glasgow. According to her, the man had spewed “the F-word” at her as their paths crossed.

“Though I felt insulted, I ignored him because I’ve heard stories about people getting harassed or even beaten up for wearing masks. Even though it made me sad, I dared not retaliate,” she lamented.

Nellie was concerned that racism against Chinese students might worsen following the increase of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Scotland. But more than that, she believed that she had the right to choose whether or not to wear a mask.

“The virus knows no boundaries; it doesn’t discriminate. It’s our freedom of choice to wear a mask or not. Personally, I use it because I don’t want to risk getting infected by carriers of the virus,” she related.

Chinese postgraduate student Zhang Yue said she too was harassed by two teenage boys for wearing a mask while she was walking home from the gym late at night. The incident, which happened near Kelvingrove Park, has left Yue shaken and worried for her safety.

“I was walking alone when they started to follow me. They shouted at me and demanded to know why I was wearing a mask. I ignored them and quickly walked away to avoid confrontation. At that point of time, there was only one unconfirmed case of COVID-19 in the UK,” she remarked.

The encounter has made Yue more concerned about wearing a mask in public.

“Many of my Chinese friends and classmates are struggling with the decision of whether or not to use a mask. We wear them to protect ourselves from contracting the virus. But the locals might not understand this and will think that we are sick instead. We worry that by wearing a mask, we might expose ourselves to racial harassment,” she commented.

It is important to note that while wearing a mask might draw unwanted attention and fuel panic in Western countries, it is a common practice in many Asian nations. In the latter countries, it has become a norm to wear a mask not only as a form of protection against infectious diseases, but also from air pollution. There are undoubtedly different views on the effectiveness of wearing a mask during this pandemic, but this could be chalked up to cultural differences between countries. 

In a more serious case, Yue shared that one of her friends was verbally abused in connection with COVID-19 at a private student accommodation – a supposed safe space for students.

“My friend was in her flat when she heard a knock at her door. This was followed by a female voice shouting: ‘fucking Chinese Coronavirus’! My friend got very angry and scared. But when she looked through the peephole, the person was nowhere to be seen. She reported the incident to a staff member and was informed that the culprit was drunk at the time. The person had told the staff member to apologise to my friend on her behalf. However, my friend has insisted that the case be investigated properly. To her, drunkenness should not be an excuse for racism and a mere apology is not enough to fix the situation.”

In his 2018 article entitled The Psychology of Racism published in Psychology Today, Steve Taylor said racism could be understood as “a psychological defence mechanism generated by feelings of insecurity and anxiety”. Based on the psychological theory of “terror management”, Taylor explained that individuals might feel anxious and insecure when they are reminded of their own mortality.  This causes them to respond with prejudice and aggression, among others.

To a certain extent, Taylor’s article can be used to understand – but not justify – racism and xenophobia in these times of heightened fear and uncertainty.  That said, I believe we can and should do better than succumb to our racist tendencies. After all, this pandemic affects everyone and we should be supporting each other in every way possible. In a Facebook Live session to address Coronavirus-related concerns earlier this month, Students’ Representative Council president Scott Kirby called upon the university community to look after each other. Kirby observed that:

“We are still seeing pockets of cases of discrimination and harassment…And we should completely have a no-tolerance approach towards that kind of discrimination.” 

Principal and vice-chancellor Sir Anton Muscatelli echoed Kirby’s sentiment, expressing the need to show sympathy and empathy to each other in these trying times. He also hoped that there would be no more episodes of Coronavirus-related discrimination or harassment. Indeed, Muscatelli pointed out that “this isn’t a disease that is isolated and comes from one single country. It is a worldwide problem.”

Students seeking emotional support can contact Samaritans by calling 116 123 for free, anytime. Alternatively, students can also reach out to Glasgow University Nightline via email and instant messaging services. Please visit https://www.gunightline.org/ for more information.


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