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Asian Americans raise concerns about stereotyping during coronavirus outbreak

"That kept me more up at night than the virus itself,” said Melanie Liu, a graduate student from California studying at Washington University

ST. LOUIS — Asian Americans in St. Louis are raising concerns about being treated as scapegoats in the global coronavirus outbreak.

The virus doesn't discriminate based on ethnic background or race. However, several Asian Americans in St. Louis told 5 On Your Side they've heard people afraid of the virus are singling them out.

"That kept me more up at night than the virus itself,” said Melanie Liu, a graduate student from California studying at Washington University.

She recalled sitting in a coffee shop and overhearing a group of people say how worried they were about getting the coronavirus.

“Then they added, 'There's so many Chinese students at Wash U,' and I thought, 'Oh no. We're being labeled,’” she said.

Her experience isn't unique.

Others have reported glaring looks when they sniffle or sneeze in public, and Asian businesses in St. Louis are losing traffic, said Thong Tarm, president of OCA - Asian Pacific American Advocates.

"I've heard when students are sitting down in the cafeteria, other students will get up,” Caroline Fan said.

She founded Missouri's first statewide Asian American nonprofit organization, EARLY. She works with students.

"All of the recent cases, for the most part, are folks who were traveling in Italy, but we are not hearing about people being concerned about going to Italian restaurants,” she said.

Fan called it casual racism and xenophobia, and she said it's led to dangerous policies in the past.

"This is how Chinese American exclusion happened. It's how Japanese-American internment happened,” she said.

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Psychologists said stereotyping in a global outbreak isn’t unusual.

It happened to people from Africa during the Ebola crisis, too, said Dr. Jameca Woody Falconer, a psychologist and professor at Webster University.

"I think it's very problematic right now,” she said. "I believe the fear is a rational fear for anyone to have, but they take this opportunity to express their hatred of other groups,” she said.

She said everyone has biases, and it’s important to recognize them and practice kindness.

At Washington University, graduate student and California native Sarah Kang spoke on a panel about battling xenophobia.

She said, in her experience, most of her classmates try to be politically correct. But, she said, they tend to over-correct and generalize the experiences of Asian students and Asian-Americans into one.

Kang said students who are from China and South Korea are afraid to wear masks, something that is common in their own culture, for fear of being viewed as "infected" here.

The university’s chancellor, Andrew Martin, addressed the issue in a blog post, saying, “Our institutional strength lies in our diversity and the essential qualities of affirmation, equity and inclusion — and it is especially important during times like these that we embody and model these values.”

More information on stereotyping and scapegoating from the Anti-Defamation League can be found here.

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