Letter from the Editor

Darren Shen

If anything over the past week at Berkshire has taught us, it is that deep-seated prejudices can – and do – exist, sometimes manifesting themselves in the most unexpected ways across the community. The issue with such manifestations is that they represent the most extremes of situations and that if they can be expressed in such horrific ways, then they most certainly do so in other everyday situations – interactions that are subconsciously internalized and accepted (to a certain degree) by members of this school.

Make no mistake: the vast majority of our school is committed to transparency, inclusion, and acceptance. But when jokes turn to comments turn to conjecture, it becomes hard to escape the draw of convenient generalization in ways that are harmful, intentional or not, to both the individual and the community as a whole.

 Over the past week or so, as public awareness of the novel Wuhan Coronavirus has risen, our public understanding of the infection has not kept up, stumped by misleading news sources and half-baked word-of-mouth conspiracy stories. 

 I know that I am not alone in having experienced some of the worst xenophobic fearmongering over the last few days, both online and among my peers here. 

 For one, there are some at this school who seem to think that Wuhan, the city of origin, covers the entirety of China, or at least that cities from which our students hail from are somehow geographically “close enough” to pose a risk. To be clear, no current Berkshire students are fromWuhan, or have recently visited, and that the School is in communication with both the families from Wuhan who visited over the past few months, neither of which have had family members fallen sick. 

 What’s worrying about these claims is that they imply that catching the Coronavirus is at least partially predicated on race and ethnicity – as in, “if you’re from China, there’s a chance you could infect the school. How dare you jeopardize our health?” Such is the sour nature of xenophobia. 

 This outbreak has also reinforced negative stereotypes about China. The Coronavirus originated from a seafood and poultry market in China, and there have been reports that they were transmitted from the consumption of bats or snakes. As a result, Chinese people are castigated as “uncivilized” and “cruel” for eating animals that don’t fit into a neat western narrative of acceptability. 

 Such (unconfirmed) allegations have blown up online, with thousands of racist comments posted under alleged exposés: “They deserve a virus like this to wipe out their stupidity. They are abusing animals,” writes one. “Now karma on you Chinese people, stop eating animals,” writes another. “They are worse than animals,” writes a third. And of course, the tour de force: “It’s their fault, why not just take out the whole country if they [are] spreading the virus to the world?”

 Widely circulated news posts have only exacerbated the issue. One from the Daily Mail’s Snapchat story, commonly read among Berkshire students, posted an article titled “Bat eater begs for forgiveness,” of an apology by a Chinese reporter depicting her eating a bat. The article gladly neglects to mention when it was filmed (2016) and the context of the video (it was not eaten in China, and the bat was farm-raised). Instead, the summary makes it seem as if the reporter was directly linked to the virus’ source. Similarly misleading images and videos abound. 

At Berkshire, these falsehoods and fearmongering have flourished in lieu of a lack of research. Widespread rumors indicate that Kent has caught the Coronavirus. Freshman girls text home complaining of Coronavirus-like symptoms. “If you go home,” a comment was made, “I don’t want you to touch anyone when you come back.”

 When Berkshire engages in such actions, it lends credence to a miasmic culture of racism and xenophobia. That in and of itself perpetuates stereotypes that negatively impacts our school community as a whole; it is simply not acceptable to generalize the country as a whole and undermine the values of a culture and her people.

 The nature and origin of the Coronavirus has made it easy to scapegoat China, but we must tackle this information problem head on and realize that viruses are not bound by national borders or cultural barriers. This is an issue for all of us, and one that must be dealt with using empathy and support. Even now, as I hope to bring awareness and understanding to this issue, my family is back home trying to protect themselves the best they can. 

 Back here in Sheffield, we remain safe. A report from Harvard Health Publishing shows that there is little to worry about for people in the United States; apparently, we are much more likely to get influenza B — the flu — than any other virus.

 I urge all members of the Berkshire community to do their own research and understand for themselves what the Coronavirus is. The school provides a very helpful free New York Times subscription. There is no place for xenophobia, racism, or fearmongering on campus. There is, however, an opportunity to grow into a stronger community. I hope we get there.