Dr. Sherry Wang on the Social Effects of Coronavirus
Her research focuses on cultural factors in ethnic minority health disparities, such as the role of acculturation, stigma and oppression in risky behaviors or looking at barriers to care for African Americans living in the Deep South. She co-directs the organization Research Initiative on Social Justice and Equity which is a national team of faculty, students, and community members committed to addressing issues of systematic inequalities.
In this conversation, we jump right into some of the most pressing questions surrounding the social impact of coronavirus. How should we respond? How should we treat each other? What are common misperceptions? How should we prepare?
I really encourage you to listen until the end, because her final piece of advice for us in how we treat each other surrounding the coronavirus is some of the most wise and timely advice I’ve ever heard. As Sherry says, instead of calling each other out in fear and discrimination, let’s call each other in for community.
Gavin Cosgrave: Why did you respond to build on the Santa Clara Provost’s email about how we treat each other during the coronavirus?
Sherry Wang: I emailed because I want us to have a context because in times of uncertainty and panic, we are going to respond instinctually. The context of how we have responded as a society has been to discriminate and to blame, and we do that especially based on racial profiling. We know that when we look at someone who looks Asian and thinks that they must have the disease, we can recognize that comes from a racial and racist socialization. That’s not new, but with that knowledge and context, we can do things differently.
Wearing a mask is a healthy prevention behavior, but with SARS and COVID-19, people have discriminated against people with masks to protect themselves and others. I think the exoticizing piece is important and we need to understand it as part of our reactiveness. We should be scared of anyone who is sneezing but are we being extra with someone we’re racially profiling. One of the things I have been saying very explicitly is, “Would you have the same reaction to someone who is white?” If you are, that is a preventative health action to step away. I want to avoid perpetuating racism while still protecting myself.
In times of pandemics when multiple countries are facing outbreaks, usually, you close down borders, but it’s hard to do that when we have so much trade, export, and travel. Closing borders can’t be the resolution. We have to engage in other strategies too, and this is going to affect all of us.
GC: How do you decide what to work on?
SW: My specialization was on immigrant and refugee mental health, and that comes from my own lived experience as an immigrant and thinking about how diverse my community of Chinese immigrants is. A lot of work I do centers on a reflection of my own work on privilege. People think of privilege these days as a really bad word. People end friendships because of privilege, and it becomes a sword to hurt people or feel bad about ourselves. Privilege is not inherently a bad thing; it means power. If we’re aware of the power we have, we can share our power with those who have less access and resources.
GC: What piece of advice would you give to people at this time?
SW: Advocate for one another. I like to think of the phrase “call each other in” instead of “call each other out.” because shame does nothing for us. It doesn’t help anybody grow. I think when we see racism happen, when we see discrimination happen, when we see profiling happen, call it in. Not to shame someone for doing it, but to say, “Hey, I don’t think you meant to hurt somebody.” Intent and impact are different things, so let’s be aware of the impact we’re creating on other people.
If we can do that, it allows us to come together as a community in times of fear. In times of fear, you can hold onto yourself, and be scared, and push, reject and discriminate against people. That doesn’t take away the fear. Why not be scared and find community around being scared together.
And help each other out. We can encourage each other to wash our hands. This is an opportunity for us to come together as a community and stand together against the disease.