Before we all became aware of COVID-19, we were already suffering from another kind of pandemic–one that has lasted centuries. White supremacy is itself like a virus, infecting hearts and bodies with hatred and fear and infecting systems, practices and policies in ways that maintain body-breaking inequalities.

The opportunists who profit politically and economically from racial hatred often accuse racialized Others of carrying viruses and disease. By labeling Coronavirus “the Chinese virus,” President Trump delivered a dog-whistle of white supremacy. His words echoed racially divisive messaging from more than a century ago: warnings about Chinese immigrants and Chinatowns as the sources of infectious disease.

Inventing Chinatown, Inventing Race

Contrary to what you might assume, Chinatowns emerged in U.S. and Canadian cities as a consequence of racial violence. In the late 1800s, mobs of white laborers violently attacked Chinese immigrant laborers and their stores and homes, fueled by fears that they would lose their jobs to immigrants. In both Canada and the U.S., Chinese immigrants and their descendants sought safety by living together in settlements that soon became densely populated.

Whites called these settlements “Chinatowns,” drawing a symbolic boundary between “their” U.S. or Canadian territory and the territory of Chinese residents, portrayed as Others and outsiders. To make this boundary more official, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, preventing Chinese immigrants already in the U.S. from becoming citizen and restricting further immigration from China. For the first time in U.S. history, the government restricted immigration purely on the basis of race.

Chinese immigrants were thus forced to live and work in “Chinatowns.” As a material space that people could see in newspaper illustrations, read about in travel narratives, or visit for themselves, the representations of Chinatowns–and the racist policies that led to their conditions–helped manufacture an idea that people of Chinese descent (and Asians more broadly) were a separate “race” biologically distinct from whites and other racialized groups.

As geographer Kay Anderson documents, “Chinatowns” thus became an idea as much as a physical place type. They became associated with two main “storylines,” repeated over and over again in political speeches, newspaper articles, and civic meetings:

  1. lack of sanitation
  2. lack of morals

The strategy? To make “viral” the idea that Chinese people (and Asians) were dirty and dangerous.

Associating Chinatowns with the “Chinese Virus”

By portraying Chinatowns as dirty and unsanitary, city leaders reinforced the idea that “Asians” were lower in a racial order than whites, and that whites were the true citizens. Elected officials claimed that Chinatowns were the sources of epidemics–including what they called “yellow peril.” By using these labels, they heightened anti-Chinese sentiments and reinforced an association of whiteness with cleanliness.

“The Unanswerable Argument,” Vancouver News, 1907.

For example, read this statement by Canadian Royal Commissioners Clute, Munn, and Foley in 1902:

They come from Southern China … with customs, habits and modes of life fixed and unalterable…They form, on their arrival, a community within a community, separate and apart, a foreign substance within but not of our body politic, with no love for our laws or institutions; a people that cannot assimilate and become an integral part of our race and nation. With their habits of overcrowding, and an utter disregard for all sanitary laws, they are a continual menace to health.

Elected officials also warned whites to stay away from these settlements. They disparaged Chinatowns as “dens of depravity” where Chinese men cohabitated with white women. These accusations made it clear that whites who mixed with other “races” were doing something “dirty” and also putting themselves at risk for contamination.

The virus of white supremacy makes racial separateness seem natural, ignoring the political, economic, social and cultural forces–and (threats of) violence–that may force people to live separately. Sites of racial mixing, and those with high concentrations of people racialized as “others,” are easy targets as sources of epidemics, despite the fact that race is a social construction. Placemaking is tied to race-making: it can serve as the stage for portraying “race” and racial hierarchy/order as a biological fact.

Inventing the “Model Minority”: The Promise and Lie of Whitening

Those who opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act also fell prey to racial stereotyping. For example, some well-intentioned advocates (including non-Asians) and Chinese activists portrayed Chinese immigrants as virtuous and model citizens in an effort to contradict the negative portrayals of Asians and other racialized and immigrant groups. They also wanted to distance themselves from African Americans portrayed as lowest in a racial/spatial order.

Asian Americans found that buying into and promoting the “model minority” stereotype (and moving to the suburbs) could serve as a kind of protection from the violence of white supremacy.

Yet there’s always a catch, as I explain in my workshops on white supremacy.

An infecting “promise” helps maintain white supremacy. You may think you are immune from violence because you are in a position “over” others, and yet you are not immune at all, as evidenced by the attacks against Asians during the Coronavirus outbreak.

For more on this topic, you can also read history professor Ellen D. Wu’s book, “The Color Of Success: Asian Americans And The Origins Of The Model Minority.” Below, hear an interview with Wu about her book.

Multicultural America? Chinatowns as Tourism Destinations

Eventually Chinatowns became tourism destinations, where tour guides lured curious visitors with tales of drugs, prostitution and exotic practices. They did not have the look, however, of today’s tourism-oriented Chinatowns, with their dragon gates and pagodas. Below see footage of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early 1900s.

When San Francisco’s Chinatown was rebuilt following the 1906 earthquake and related fires, it featured a hodgepodge of design features borrowed from ancient Chinese architecture. Neither architect in charge of the redesign had ever been to China. They invented Chinatown as a tourist destination based on what Americans thought a Chinatown might look like. These design ideas spread to Chinatowns around the world.

Chinatown gate (Washington, DC). Photo by SounderBruce via Flickr (CC license).

By the 1990s, Chinatowns had became appropriated into ideas of the U.S. as a multicultural and inclusive nation. Chinatowns, nonetheless, have helped to maintain an idea of “Asians” as a separate racial category, and so too does the myth of the model minority.

As recent attacks against Asians and Asian Americans reveal, “model minority” status does not offer protection from the violence of white supremacy. Recently, a coalition of Asian and Pacific Islander civil rights groups launched a website to track the growing hate crimes against Asian Americans in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak.

Healing Through Wholeness

Recent attacks on Asian Americans bring to light the enduring presence of the viral ideas, practices and policies of white supremacy. Just as Coronavirus can lead to the failure of one’s kidneys and lungs, so too does white supremacy prevent wholeness. It hurts all of us.

While some will use the pandemic of COVID-19 to further justify racial division and racial violence, maintaining legacies of the past that have never served greater humanity, we can take a different path.

You and I can choose another way of being. Instead of collapsing into fear (which negatively affects your immune system, by the way), we can acknowledge our interconnection not only with other human beings but with the natural and spiritual world.

We can work to heal the intergenerational trauma caused by white supremacy. We can further the healing spirit of connection, love and shared responsibility through our thoughts, feelings and actions, and give gratitude for those whose presence and contributions we formerly made invisible or took for granted. We can use our time in social isolation for reflection and as the motivation to make lasting change within ourselves and in the world in which we all live.

Collaborating together, globally, we will find a vaccine and a cure for Coronavirus. Collaborating together, we will also find ways to counter the virus of white supremacy and its corrosive and widespread effects.

Working together, across borders of all kinds, we will find ways to sustain ourselves in the hard times to come. Granted, it will be a slow process, as many are resistant to changing old and divisive thought patterns and ways of thinking and being. Yet we don’t have to give up.


Inle beadwork Dr. Tsang
Inle beadwork by Dr. Tsang

The photos at the top of this post and here at the bottom were taken by Dr. Martin Tsang, a British Chinese American anthropologist initiated as a priest of Inle (the healing “doctor” Orisha) in the Afro-Atlantic religion of Regla de Ocha. Both photos document his own sacred beadwork.

Dr. Tsang has conducted research on the Chinese influence on Afro-Atlantic religion. Between 1847 and 1874, more than 140,000 Chinese men were brought to Cuba as indentured workers. Below is an excerpt from an interview with Dr. Tsang.

We humans have always been “mixing,” adding the colorful beads of our personalities, souls and cultural practices to the links that connect us to each other, globally. Dr. Tsang is initiated as a priest of Inle, the healing Orisha. You can see more of his beadwork on his Facebook page, OrishaArts.