Talking to kids about xenophobia

Hate incidents against people of Asian descent are up since COVID-19 was first reported. Here’s how parents can help kids make sense of that.

The stories are troubling—and sometimes frightening.

In California, a child grabbed a Singaporean woman by her arm and said, “Go back to your country. You are the reason my father died.” In New Jersey, a group of young men stalked a Korean couple pushing their one-year-old granddaughter in a stroller, saying they were all infected with coronavirus. And in the United Kingdom, an eight-year-old girl tells her best friend, who’s Chinese, that her mom won’t let her play with Chinese children anymore because they’re “virus carriers.”

These types of accounts have been on the rise ever since late 2019 outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China. Between February 9 and March 7, news articles reporting hate incidents against people of Asian descent around the world increased by 50 percent, according to San Francisco State University Asian-American Studies, which partnered with the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action to launch Stop AAPI Hate to collect anti-Asian hate incidents. Since March 19, the center has received reports of nearly 2,000 incidents. And according to the Center for Public Integrity, 30 percent of all Americans and 60 percent of Asian Americans had witnessed an Asian person being blamed for COVID-19.

As an American-born Chinese and a mother, I believe it’s critical to begin a conversation with our kids about why it’s wrong to blame Asians for the coronavirus. Children are already being exposed to this bias, according to Russell Jeung, chair of Asian-American Studies at San Francisco State University: 11 percent of the incidents collected by Stop AAPI Hate in one month involved youth as targets, perpetrators, or bystanders. In the cases in which adults were present, only 11 percent intervened.

“Perhaps [children] aren’t intentionally being racist, but racist viewpoints are shaping how they think and see the world,” he says. “Kids have to unlearn this, and learn how to decouple the virus from a group of people.”

Here’s some advice from the experts on how to do that.

Don’t look for blame

Xenophobia is defined by Erika Lee, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, as “the irrational fear and hatred of foreigners—and those perceived to be foreign.” And that fear can be easily exploited during times of high anxiety.

“We've targeted and scapegoated immigrants as ‘outsiders’ during pandemics, peace and war, good and bad economic times, and periods of high and low immigration,” says Lee, who also wrote America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States.

Diseases have even been labeled after a geographic location or race, which inspired the 2015 World Health Organization guidelines against such practices. The 1918 H1N1 virus that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide was known as the “Spanish flu.” A 2009 influenza outbreak was referred to as “Mexican swine flu.” And of course, many have labeled COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan flu.”

“Every pandemic needs a scapegoat,” says Josephine Kim, a Harvard University lecturer and faculty member at the Center for Cross-Cultural Student Emotional Wellness at Massachusetts General Hospital. “This is how we create distance between ourselves and the disease to say, ‘That’s not like us.’”

Examine your own behavior

Although most parents try to model anti-racist behavior, sometimes unintentional incidents happen—and sometimes those can come from children. The first thing parents should look out for? Their own behavior.

Recently a former Harvard classmate sent me a video reporting that the FBI had arrested a professor accused of being paid by a Wuhan research lab. Reading a caption with the video, I blurted out in front of my kids, “Coronavirus is a bio attack planned by China.” In reality, the clip was a combination of actual news reports cleverly mixed with false captions. I talked with my kids about the hoax and alerted my classmate. She apologized, saying that in her anxious state she hadn’t checked her source and would retract the misinformation.

Still, who knows how many parents did the same thing without realizing the video was a hoax—and unintentionally spread misinformation to their kids. “Remember that children are watching,” Kim says. “Think about how you react when you witness discrimination of others, and what action is taken or is not taken. What off-the-cuff comments are casually made about others in the privacy of your home?”

No matter how careful parents are, kids might pick up racist behavior—even if it’s subtle—from various forms of media. Start by screening what children watch—whether on TV or social media—and talking to them about what they’ve seen.

“Have age-appropriate, open discussions about what they saw or read,” says pediatrician Hanita Oh-Tan of Fairfax, Virginia. “How did that make you feel? How do you think that made the subject of the story feel? What would you do if that happened to you or someone you know? What do you want to ask me?”

Renee Tajima-Peña, professor of Asian-American Studies at UCLA and series producer of the PBS documentary Asian Americans, recommends exposing kids to toys, video games, TV shows, and movies that depict Asians as protagonists who are “fully dimensional and therefore relatable to the viewer.” Parents can also point out subtle racism: for instance, if the villains have darker skin or if an Asian character can’t speak English well. Basically, show kids that Asians are just like them.

Help kids understand bias

When children pick up on stereotypes and falsehoods because of COVID-19, uncomfortable questions for parents might arise. Common questions could be “Do all Chinese people have coronavirus?” or “Why doesn’t so-and-so like Chinese people?” It’s important to address them honestly.

First, arm children with facts. After a New Jersey boy told a classmate that he must have coronavirus because he was Chinese, their fourth-grade teacher facilitated a discussion about what viruses are, how vaccines work, what discrimination is, and how no evidence exists to show that a person’s ethnicity has anything to do with contracting the disease. Parents can also have these honest conversations, using news stories to discuss stereotypes and discrimination. “If kids don’t know they exist, they won’t know what to do if they or their friends are faced with an act of hatred, big or small,” Oh-Tan says.

Teaching kids facts also means helping them distinguish truth from falsehoods. That can be tricky these days, but one thing to have them look for is if an entire group of people has been blamed for something. “That's a red flag to prompt a conversation with an adult,” Kim says. “When [people] are presented in an inferior way, that's not fair. Kids understand fairness at an early age. We can harness a child’s keen sense of fairness to encourage empathy.”

To comfort children confused about racist behavior they’ve witnessed, explain to the child what that person might have been feeling. “Maybe that person’s parents are angry and worried about the virus,” says Satsuki Ina, a child therapist specializing in collective trauma, especially racism. “Tell them COVID-19 has made people really upset, and they want to blame someone. Then help your child prepare a response: What can you say or do that makes you feel strong?”

Help children see people as individuals, not as an entire group of people. For instance, say a child has made a racist comment about an Asian classmate named Tommy. “You might ask, ‘What about Tommy is upsetting you? Did Tommy hurt you?’” says Ina, who was born in a concentration camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. “Once you personalize, it moves away from generalization, which is what racism does.”

That can also help children see how hurtful racist comments can be to an individual. One Californian seven-year-old’s response to a hurtful comment was to write a letter: “Someone said that he doesn’t like China and Chinese people. This made me feel sad because I’m Chinese.… When you say that you don’t like Chinese people, you’re saying that you do not like me. I did not start this virus.” Talking about feelings—whether by exposing children directly to thoughts like this, having them verbalize what they think the hurt person might be feeling, or asking them to write about how they’d feel if someone said something hurtful to them—can show them how wrong words can be.

In time, coronavirus infections will likely start to slow—and perhaps the related hate incidents against people of Asian descent will slow with it. But xenophobia is something that’s always with us, which is why it’s important for parents to teach their kids to fight it. “Address it early on,” Tajima-Peña says. “Hate grows exponentially, and it’s hard to scale back.”

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