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A Virtual Visit to the Museum of Chinese in America Highlights Damaging Stereotypes

By: Catherine Wheatley

Disagreements over the severity of the Coronavirus, the effectiveness of certain approaches, and how the virus became so severe, have divided not just our country, but the world as a whole. At the focal point of many of the disagreements that have taken place is China, the home of the first known case of the virus. A virtual program on Nov. 4, “‘I am not a Virus’ Revisiting the Perpetual Foreigner Stereotype in the Time of COVID-19,” dug into the past to explain the present issue of Chinese-blaming rhetoric towards the virus. The event was organized by Peer Assistant Leaders and the Center for Student Involvement and was a virtual visit to the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA). It was a remotely guided program using primary and secondary sources from MOCA’s collections and others to analyze the history and impact of the perpetual foreigner stereotype, with an emphasis on how that stereotype has affected, and continues to affect, people of Chinese heritage in the U.S. during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A new reality of virtual museum tours being offered by the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA). Photo courtesy of

Nora Chen, the presenter at the virtual event, began by highlighting the implications of stereotypes aimed at Chinese people, such as that they're especially intelligent and excel in math. Chen said this is harmful because it generalizes a population, and can even put pressure on Chinese people to live up to such stereotypes.

Additionally, Chen discussed the derogatory term “Chinamen” that was used in the 19th century when Chinese men were hired in large groups to do labor in the United States. Instead of using a worker’s actual name, the white men in charge would instead refer to the workers as such. In order to fully grasp the disrespect that was displayed, Chen highlighted that in Chinese culture, one’s name is very meaningful to them. Names are carefully chosen to reflect a parent’s wishes for their child and to disrespect one’s name is to disrespect their culture.

The generalization of a group of people is harmful as it strips away one’s individual identity and assigns them characteristics that may not be valid. Stereotypes and this sort of grouping don't always have a base in actuality, but are shaped by harmful rhetoric. Such harmful rhetoric about groups of people can incite violence and hate crimes, as we see today.

Chen also mentioned the history of hate crimes and explained the parallel that is seen today against Chinese people, including harmful rhetoric such as calling Coronavirus the “China Virus'' and blaming China for the outbreak. Viewers also learned about Vincent Chin, a victim of a hate crime in 1982 after he was murdered by a man who assumed Chin was Japanese. The racial animosity that man felt towards Japanese people was so strong that it led him to murder Chin who was not even Japanese, but Chinese. The assumption of how another person acts was deadly in this case and is in many other cases.

Callum Ferguson, a student who attended this event, said, “It was nice to be able to still have opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. The virtual trip was both fun and educational.”

Looking into the past to see how racial stereotypes can pose a lethal threat to a group of people serves as a reminder to continuously be aware not to employ stereotypes and assumptions when interacting with others, as it diminishes their own characteristics. In these challenging times it's important to remain connected with others and to take advantage of opportunities such as this one offered by Adelphi University. You can always look at University Tickets on your AU2GO app to find different programs you can attend.

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