On what seemed like a typical start to the weekend, I, like many others, was searching for what my usual Friday night takeaway would be. Inspired by Michelle Chai’s tweet asking others to make their weekly takeout an East Asian choice, as her family business, like so many other local restaurants, was suffering due to the racism that developed along the coronavirus outbreak, I was flicking through a vast amount of choices—ironically during the heights of stockpiling.
Did I want Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai? Were there any halal Korean places near me? I thought. I could do with a piping hot bibimbap. That’s when I looked up to see my mother’s concerned face. She asked if I was really going to get a Chinese takeaway in the midst of everything. I deeply sighed yes. That’s when I realised that coronaracism was affecting everyone, whether they noticed it or not. Here’s why now is the time for ethnic minority communities to come together.
In my mother’s defence, as an excellent cook who is against any takeout regardless of what’s happening in the world, she would have questioned me the same any day of the week. Yet her moment of ignorance as a South Asian immigrant woman represents an amalgamation of overconsumption of hysterical news, political divergent tactics onto minority East Asian communities as well as good old fashion immigrant fear. It pushes people into thinking that they have to take a step back or they will somehow also end up in the ‘firing line’.
Though her momentary slip—and it was a moment because who can say no to bibimbap?—was not malicious nor vindictive, it was a snapshot of ethnic minorities falling into the trap of distraction via racism. My mother, among many other people, is not blaming leaders who are in charge of our safety and security nor is she questioning why we’re still having to pay mortgages when countries like Italy paused all mortgage payments due to decline in work but instead is looking to turn away from each other in a time of need.
A key explanation I gave my mother about why it’s so integral we support East Asian businesses (not just Chinese businesses but also Vietnamese, Cambodian and Malaysian ones as racism has a history of being dumb and presumptuous) was the thousands of Indian restaurants that were affected by the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Indian restaurants, owned by Muslims or not, were left empty because customers didn’t want to support their businesses. Regulars consciously moved away from them in case they were mistaken for being terrorist sympathisers and therefore personally viewed as less American or British.
In China, Islamophobia is currently at an all-time high and the country has recently been called out for putting Uighur Muslims in concentration camps. But locals are not the issue here and neither should they be in the UK. It would be a shame to treat people how you have known to be treated.
In an era where marching and activism became ‘cool’, the East Asian community has previously received slack for not participating enough. Whether that’s local politics or speaking up for Black Lives Matter and other people of colour, there seems to be a lack of socio-political engagement. Chinese immigrants are usually perceived as the invisible community, they are seen to be “good immigrants” writes Wei Ming Kam in The Good Immigrant. They are “sensible, quiet, shy” so they “integrate well” but these model minorities are “not seen as humans, because we never get to be complex individuals. Our defining characteristic is generally our foreignness.”
Regardless of how well you may assimilate into western cultures, blame can always be misplaced. When President Trump calls coronavirus the ‘Chinese virus’ on Twitter, we’re watching a community being used as a scapegoat in real-time when we all know that viruses don’t discriminate and definitely don’t take your ethnicity into consideration. There are many more examples that can highlight this racism in times of crisis.
As ethnic minorities, we might feel that the ‘easy thing’ to do would be to align with white supremacy and point the finger at China in hopes that for a moment racism will forget about us and our own battles. However, what this pandemic has taught me so far is that it’s an opportunity to offer generosity. We need to form a bridge where there have been cultural and religious differences and not remain silent because we are the first ones to know exactly of the consequences when no one is on the other side—how terrible it can be when the rest of humanity decides to stay quiet.
In the meantime, my last advice for you is to order that Chinese takeaway while also educating your older parents on why they shouldn’t worry about their health when eating Chinese food and why they need to support their local businesses. We can be a part of the rise of communal aid. Show them that when we don’t give into fearmongering, we stop accusing each other and get to the real work of rebuilding society. We take away the power over us and foster relationships that will last beyond any virus outbreak.
Shakerah Penfold has created something I haven’t seen before. As the uncertainty of our times is caused by a myriad of factors—be it unprecedented Brexit proceedings, politicians showing their prejudice across national TV or the rise of hate crime towards minorities—this hostile air can make communities feel polarised and divided. The @AskAPoC Instagram account is a space on the internet where that gap shrinks. This account is where you can ask a question regarding race or stereotypes and be answered by Penfold and the @AskAPoC community. And all it costs is one British pound.
Screen Shot magazine sat down with Penfold to discuss how in an era of being either ‘cancelled’ or ‘woke’, asking unfiltered questions works.
On a daily basis, Penfold works performs a charitable service by pairing vulnerable people with volunteer opportunities. The founder of @AskAPoC describes herself as not having a penchant for long walks on the beach, but one for dismantling racial stereotypes and “fighting the patriarchy before breakfast”. A southerner “lost up North”, Penfold was inspired to create @AskAPoC when she saw a @trueblacksoul post asking white people to ask a question that they have always wanted to know the answer to. Realising this could be a regular conversation and somewhere she could direct people in her workplace (especially when they asked her 21 questions about her hair), @AskAPoC was born.
“So it’s a pretty basic concept whereby curious people can send a question anonymously to the page and it’s answered by myself, and/or the community that the question is aimed at,” explains Penfold. Those who want to ask a question, have to first donate to the charity founded among Penfold and her friends called Food For Thought SL. The money from platforms such as @AskAPoC goes to building sustainable development projects in a village called Robuya in Sierra Leone. After the money is donated, you can then direct message the account and Penfold will share the question and her answer and then give it up to the floor (the @AskAPoC Instagram community) to chime in as well.
Though the questions are largely asked by white women and answered largely by women of colour, the audience for @AskAPoC is diverse, and Penfold and her team don’t know what the race of the quizzers are unless their question reveals it. Was she afraid of creating an echo chamber with her views front and centre? “I wish!” says Penfold over email—I can almost hear her passion over Gmail. “The page is called @AskAPoc, meaning that only people of colour need to answer. However, we still get a LOT of non-people of colour answering and taking up space so there are no chances of an echo chamber.”
With accounts such as @AskAPoC, it’s important to remember that people of colour as a whole are not a monolithic group. Even the phrase ‘people of colour’ is debated on widely, as it implies that white people make the norm and everyone else the are ‘others’. “In fairness, even without that input, people of colour are all raised in different societies and cultures so there’s always conflicting answers. I say go with whichever answer feels right to you,” adds Penfold.
Having experienced racism in the past, and having had to explain why macro and microaggressions are not acceptable for Z, Y, and X reasons, I know the emotional toll racism can take first hand. Therefore, discovering @AskAPoC, I initially thought it’s only fair that the minimum should be to donate to a charity first. But then I thought, why is it always the work of women of colour, and especially black women, to undo ignorance? The intellectual, social, and mostly emotional labour Penfold and her community do regularly is not a small task, especially as the @AskAPoC community grows.
“Sometimes it feels emotionally draining, especially when non-people of colour are in the comments trying to justify or push their own agenda,” says Penfold when I ask if this all feels too heavy to carry. The founder also mentions how yes, there are frequently asked questions that are disheartening such as “Why can’t I wear my hair in braids?” and “Why can’t I say the N-word?”. “However, it’s always balanced when I get emails saying how much someone loves the page and how much they have learned from it”. What Penfold really teaches through @AskAPoC is to spot the intention behind a question. Not all of us live in cosmopolitan cities nor do we all have the same experiences; therefore, being considerate within the @AskAPoC community is imperative, and it works both ways.
It’s also a space to understand how valid black and brown reactions are regardless of the intent.
I don’t believe that people of colour can undo a systemically racist system that continues to undervalue us by the spreading of information only, especially if those stories fall on defensive and deaf ears. Nor do I think we should expect that this is a task for people of colour to undertake on their own. However, what accounts such as @AskAPoC do is allow an open conversation to take place, and, essentially, share hope in what can feel like dire times.
Though black and brown bodies and minds have every reason to be angry at the mistreatment of their communities, their marginalisation also tends to evoke profound compassion, knowing what it’s like to be pushed aside. It’s this empathy that has taught Penfold and her community so much about humanity. “People are so willing to be educated and people like to help others learn. I think that’s beautiful, especially in the world we live in. I love how a community of people of colour who may have faced so much ignorance in their lives have not hardened their hand, but draw on those experiences to try and stop it happening to their fellow sister or brother.”