The question of how art can be used to help the world heal during a time of crisis has, for some, been replaced with another quandary: Can members of the art world combat a coronavirus-related spike in racism against Asian and Asian Americans? Even though the majority of the United States is still in quarantine, a number of artists and art workers have risen to the challenge, launching digital initiatives intended to highlight and confront instances of racism.
In March, artist Kenneth Tam created a Google spreadsheet that catalogues user-submitted narratives of anti-Asian racism. Titled “WE ARE NOT COVID,” the spreadsheet has begun circulating in the art world, and it includes stories from across the nation—one Queens woman describes being asked if she had been “home” recently; a person in Los Angeles’s Koreatown neighborhood describes locals being chased by a man wielding a shovel.
Now, Tam’s spreadsheet has inspired art workers to come together to launch StopDiscriminAsian, an online project that helps compile stories of racism and echoes the narratives submitted to “WE ARE NOT COVID.” For its members, who began meeting regularly via Zoom in April, the initiative will raise awareness for the challenges facing Asians and Asian Americans right now. (For this article, the members of StopDiscriminAsian asked to remain anonymous and to be quoted collectively; they declined to give an exact number of its membership.)
“The stories accrete and powerfully illustrate how Covid has been racialized and how that racialization has spurred anti-Asian sentiment and attacks,” StopDiscriminAsian told ARTnews in an email. “The spreadsheet also revealed complex intersectional dynamics—disproportionate harassment of women and cases of intra-POC tension—that we aim to address in our future activities.”
Tam’s spreadsheet is a direct response to what the FBI has described as a surge in anti-Asian sentiment. Some have ascribed the increase in racist incidents to language used by officials to talk about the coronavirus—Donald Trump has repeatedly called it the “Chinese virus,” in reference to the country from where the first mass outbreak occurred. (After the remark was widely decried in the media, Trump tweeted, “We have to protect our Asian Americans,” adding that the U.S. outbreak was “NOT their fault in any way, shape, or form.”)
In March, Tam and a few New York–based arts workers were connected with the Los Angeles–based nonprofit GYOPO, a group of artists and arts professionals of the Korean diaspora who look to use contemporary art to call attention to social justice issues as a way to build community and stronger networks. The simultaneous conversations were conjoined through Zoom, and the groups merged to form StopDiscriminAsian. This partnership aims to further a cause that was taken up during the late 1960s by the Asian American Movement—with a greater emphasis on the identity’s newer and more complex meanings. “In 2020, this term encompasses so many rich histories, including those from across East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands,” StopDiscriminAsian (or SDA, for short) said. “Future SDA activities will elucidate both the connections and differences that uniquely characterize our diasporic histories.”
Among SDA’s first projects has been working with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to stage a talk about anti-Asian racism that will convene major talents, including Saturday Night Live cast member Bowen Yang, poet Cathy Park Hong, and artist Anicka Yi. The hope is to influence people in the art world—and beyond—to take notice of and call out prejudice and discrimination. “As art workers,” SDA said, “we realized that we could best impact our own professional community, and decided to dedicate our efforts towards that end.”