#StopAsianHate Digital Identity Racism

How Is #StopAsianHate Connected to the Media We Consume?

The #StopAsianHate movement is spreading across the globe after a huge surge in physical attacks against Asian people connected to the coronavirus pandemic. Sadly, these racist attacks have been reported in many different countries, and in the USA especially, older, more vulnerable people are being targeted.

When the victim is targeted because they belong to a certain group – for example, due to their skin colour, their sexuality or their religion – this is what we call a hate crime.

We know that racism is a learned behaviour, right? So where exactly is this behaviour learned from when it comes to #StopAsianHate?

A big part of where these racist beliefs come from is to do with prejudices in the media that we take in – this is everything from the news we read, to the social media platforms we browse, to the films and TV we watch, to the advertising we see.


Trigger warning – this article contains images of racist comments

What’s the news saying?

Take a look at these images from a selection of UK news sites. Can you see what they have in common?

Yup, that’s right. They all show pictures of Asian people, or, in the third example, an Asian supermarket.

These images may seem harmless on the surface. But it’s like that old saying – ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Look closely at these pictures. What do you think they are saying?

If you constantly see pictures of Asians wearing masks, and then you read about coronavirus rules in the same article, it is possible that you may subconsciously – without realising – start to associate Asians with viruses.

People who are constantly exposed to this kind of messaging are more likely to stereotype Asians, make jokes about them, or, sadly, use it as an excuse to hurt them or threaten them. The coronavirus pandemic has been challenging and life-changing for everyone around the world – but some people are looking to place the blame on Chinese people, or, unfortunately, anyone they think looks Chinese.

It’s important to recognise at this point that the common understanding of the word ‘Asian’ is different in the US and UK. In the US, people usually associate the word with people of East Asian or South East Asian heritage – like China, Japan, Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, and so on.

However, in the UK, ‘Asian’ is more closely associated with South Asians, or people whose heritage comes from places like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and so on. All these places are in Asia, and all Asians can experience racism, but when we’re talking about COVID racism, someone with South Asian heritage is much less likely to be mistaken as Chinese! So, we can specify by using this acronym: ESEA. This stands for ‘East and South East Asian’.

ESEA people in the US and UK are a minority. We don’t see them in movies and TV as much as white people. So how come the representation that we do see is really negative?

What are politicians saying?

How it started:

How it’s going:

If the (then) President of the USA can say it, then it must be okay, right?

We have seen many important figures setting bad examples that encourage people to justify racist behaviour.

Even when they aren’t doing it on purpose, it still happens. Look at the stills from this video posted on Twitter by the British government to encourage people to socially distance. You might notice that all the people shown are people of colour…

And now let’s look at some of the comments that were left on the video…

It’s never okay to talk about people like this.

Here’s another example that the British government posted on Facebook to advise people about COVID recovery:

These are two examples that show how the verbal and physical abuse of ESEA people in real life is reflected in how people behave online. 

What’s the TV and film industry saying?

Common stereotypes 

TV and movies are filled with stereotypes about Asian people. Let’s take a look at some examples and what they mean.

Submissive ‘lotus flowers’ or ‘China dolls’Lily Onakuramara in PITCH PERFECTAsian women are seen as quiet and submissive, and vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, but ultimately ‘weird’ and alien, making it easier to dehumanise them.
Sex workers/overly sexualised young women and girlsMEAN GIRLS: Trang Pak is the underage leader of the ‘Cool Asian’ group, who is found to be assaulted by Coach Carr, although the interaction is depicted as a comedic relationship.Asian women constantly equated with sex fantasies and fetish, the extreme dangers of which we have seen with the victims of the Atlanta shooting.
Dragon ladiesO-Ren Ishii in KILL BILL: VOL. 1Asian women are deceitful, domineering, cold and lacking in emotion.
Martial arts masters/wise old menMister Miyagi in THE KARATE KIDThe ‘mystical Asian’ character trope often displays aspects of ESEA culture in an exaggerated and exoticised way. For example, they are usually seen meditating and speak only with ‘Confucian’- style lines of wisdom. They serve to prop up the main – usually white – character, as if they only have one purpose.
Rich businessmenBLING EMPIREContributes to the ‘model minority myth’ while also leading people to believe that Asians are usually rich. This totally erases the experiences of Asians from poorer backgrounds.
Maths/science/band geekDong in UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT, AP Lawrence from SCHOOL OF ROCKContributes to the ‘model minority myth’ of Asian men being hardworking, non-threatening and academically gifted. This is damaging to Asians (their issues and needs are often overlooked) and other ethnic minorities (who, by default, are assumed to be the opposite – lazy, threatening, unintelligent).
Tiger momMrs Kim in GILMORE GIRLSAsian mothers are strict and loveless, pushing their children to the point their emotional wellbeing is damaged.

Then, we have the idea of whitewashing in film, which is when roles that were originally written for people of colour are cast as white actors.

Here are some examples:

  • Scarlett Johansson – Ghost in the Shell
  • Aloha – Emma Stone
  • Tilda Swinton – Dr. Strange
  • Justin Chatwin – Dragonball Evolution

What’s social media saying?

Have you heard of the fox eye trend? The fox eye trend is a pose that involves pulling back the skin around your cheekbones and eyes:

The ‘fox eye’ make-up style has been popularised by celebrities such as Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner.

What might non-Asians think when they look at this? 

‘Cute pose.’

But when an Asian person, specifically someone with ESEA heritage, looks at this, they’re probably going to feel very triggered. Why? 

Because so many ESEA kids are bullied at school – and some adults too – by people pulling back the skin around their eyes to make fun of the way they look.

What’s the effect?

Add all this together with other classic lines Asians are tired of hearing and what do we have?

Increased hate crimes that, sadly, have led to the creation of the #StopAsianHate movement.

For people of ESEA heritage, even if they aren’t a victim of an attack, they might experience:

  • Poor mental health throughout their lifetime
  • Bullying at school
  • Feeling like they can’t seek help
  • Fear of leaving the house
  • Constant state of anxiety and alertness.

How can you help?

The biggest step is educating yourself around anti-Asian and specifically anti=ESEA hate and learning how to spot it in your everyday life. Learning to speak up – especially when the behaviour is coming from people you love, like your friends or family – is really hard. But allyship is a lifelong effort, so we’re all bound to make mistakes. But the good thing about making mistakes? You learn from them. You can also check out our article on how to call out anti-Asian hate here, and, if you missed it, this page on how to talk to your parents about racism.

Sources for news site images used:


Mai-Anh Peterson is a co-founder of besea.n. besea.n is a non-profit, grassroots organisation founded by six East and South East Asian (ESEA) women, whose mission is to tackle negative stereotypes and to promote positive media representation of ESEA people in the UK.

Their work includes anti-racism campaigning, providing resources, holding organisations accountable, working with other social justice groups, spotlighting prominent ESEA voices and establishing a supportive community to validate experiences. You can learn more here:

Want to learn more?

This article is part of our #StopAsianHate series in partnership with ASOS. Visit our hub for more info, tools, tips and ways to take a stand against Asian hate.