We are not a virus: why East Asian representation is more important than ever
A view from Xi Yin Chen

We are not a virus: why East Asian representation is more important than ever

ESEA people went from the 'hidden minority' to being overrepresented in the media during the pandemic.

As we move into a new year, I find myself wondering: how will we remember 2020? For me, it will be the year that the world was taken over by two viruses – Covid-19 and racism.

As we look forward to a vaccine for one virus, it’s a poignant reminder that there’s no vaccine or clear way out for the other. The murder of George Floyd and countless other black people across the US last year shocked the world, prompting many in the UK to highlight issues in our own country.

On the positive side, there was a resurgence of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and a shift in the way we tackle racial inequality. In the advertising industry, we saw positive steps, with more brands featuring black talent in their advertising and challenging criticism from consumers. While I celebrate this increasingly diverse on-screen portrayal of Britain, I’m led to reflect on my own experience as a British-born Chinese person.

I recently saw Amazon’s "Curiosity kid" ad and found myself replaying it a few times. Not because it was an especially interesting or disruptive ad, but because I couldn’t recall the last time I saw someone who looks like me in an ad. (I’m not counting the ones where you have to pause and rewind to catch a glimpse of an East Asian face in the background.)

This has been much the same throughout my life – in my personal spheres, education and now advertising career, I have looked around to frequently find myself the only East Asian person in a room. The British Chinese community is often labelled the "hidden minority" because, despite being the fourth-largest minority-ethnic group (2011 UK Census), we lack visibility in many public spheres, such as politics and the media.

However, after Wuhan found itself at the centre of a global pandemic, Chinese people were suddenly the talk of political leaders worldwide and plastered across news outlets. We, the hidden minority, were now being overrepresented in the media, but not in a good way.

This becomes clear when you look at the imagery used by the media in association with UK Covid news stories. Between January and August 2020, 33% of these images featured East or South East Asian people, according to campaign group End the Virus of Racism and Britain's East and South East Asian Network, when, in reality, we make up less than 2% of the UK population. Often these stories are actually unrelated to Asian people:

A Blackburn Covid article featuring an image of two ESEA women. Only 0.48% of Blackburn's population is Chinese

This over-association of ESEA people with the coronavirus is also being perpetuated by our own government. Sarah Owen and fellow MPs highlighted several incidents in a parliamentary debate last year – the first-ever to focus on East Asian racism. One Tory council leader declared in a meeting that Covid was all because someone was eating undercooked bat soup in China. A look at my own social-media feeds highlights many more examples.

Don’t get me wrong: memes and funny videos have got many of us through the year. But when the joke is at the expense of a whole ethnicity, is it worth it? It might seem harmless, but the subconscious influence of these words and images in the media shouldn’t be underestimated. They subtly encourage finger-pointing and attribute blame for the virus to a whole ethnic group – intentionally or not.

While the Chinese government should be held accountable for any mishandling of the virus’ spread, this shouldn’t be used as an excuse to "other" an entire ethnicity. Chinese people became a physical embodiment of the virus, giving a reason for people to adopt an "us versus them" mentality that fuels discrimination.

The tangible consequence of this mentality can be seen in the rise of racist hate crimes. Police records revealed a 300% increase in reported incidents towards British Chinese people at the beginning of 2020 compared with 2019. Victims are being verbally abused, spat at, punched and brutally attacked. Many reported their homes and businesses (often Chinese takeaways) being robbed, vandalised or damaged. Fortunately, I can say I haven’t personally experienced anything to this degree, but I do now feel more cautious when I go out in public.

It’s clear the UK government and media need to tackle this rise in hate crime and hold themselves accountable for the part they play. But what can the advertising industry do? There isn’t a quick, simple solution, but a step in the right direction would be to actively increase representation of ESEA people in front of the camera. The lack of visible ESEA faces means there’s a lack of positive representation to balance out the negative portrayals. When there’s only one narrative, it’s easy for some to weaponise it and for it to dominate the characterisation of an entire group of people.

How can this be achieved? It’s easy to say there’s less ESEA talent available to cast, but this is a cycle that needs to be broken. When there’s more demand, there’ll be more supply. We must move away from box-ticking and filling BAME quotas, and actually break down what that label stands for.

The small steps last year towards black equality were inspiring and much-needed. Now, ESEA discrimination needs to be tackled as a separate but equally important issue – focusing on one shouldn’t take away from the other. As representation increases, it’s also essential to avoid typecasting – ESEA talent should be playing protagonists and featuring in a range of roles. Increasing this positive representation to balance out the negative Covid associations in the media is crucial for the ESEA community – to show that we are not the hidden minority and that we are not a virus.

If you want to help, please sign this petition that asks the UK government to stop the depiction of ESEA people in coronavirus-related media

Xi Yin Chen is an account director at VCCP