Stop Using Stock Images of Asians In Your Coronavirus Coverage


Comedian Jenny Yang calls out problematic posts

This is Hot Mic, Wake-Up Call’s new opinion section.

When comedian Jenny Yang noticed that news outlets were posting stock photos of Asian people in masks alongside any story about the coronavirus, she decided to tweet her outrage.

After she was retweeted by over 4,000 people, Jenny spoke with our producer Emily Pinto about why she thinks these images are so problematic…

I knew from the moment that the coronavirus made headlines as a disease originating in China that this was going to be bad news for all Asian people. I’m Chinese-Taiwanese, and I’ve always been hyper-aware of how anyone that looks like me is represented, whether it’s in a news story or in Hollywood. So when coronavirus came along, I was just like, oh man — this is just going to give people an excuse to justify the racism and xenophobia that frankly I’ve seen on a lesser level all my life.

A few years ago, my friends and I came up with a term for moments like this: Representational sweats, or “rep sweats.” We made that up around the time Fresh Off The Boat premiered, and over drinks, I was like, we need to come up with a word that explains the anxiety that we’re feeling right now about waiting to see what’s on screen. “Rep sweats” came from this idea of being nervous, and sweating, about how your race is going to be represented. Because whatever happens in pop culture or the news that has anything remotely to do with Asian faces, ends up having real-life consequences for all of us. And the coronavirus is no different.

I saw a news story recently about a person infected with coronavirus in New York… and the generic photo next to it was an Asian guy in a mask. I tweeted basically, “THIS UNCLE HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH YOUR STORY!” Here’s what else was running through my mind: This is almost certainly NOT a photo of the newly infected person… this photo probably wasn’t even taken in New York… and the person who WAS infected may not even be Asian!

That photo selection was not only lazy, but also irresponsible, feeding into the stereotype that Chinese people are the source of disease, weirdness, and foreignness. Those kinds of image selections reinforce the idea that this disease is about a race of people, rather than a virus that is not discriminatory toward any group. Contrary to what you might believe from the photos you’ve seen, a lot of white people have contracted the coronavirus at this point too, so a photo of a white face could be just as appropriate as an Asian face. We truly could all be affected, no matter where this virus started. This is an “everyone” problem now.

It’s also a media problem, because there are lazy, clickbaiting journalists out there. And for them, I have a few suggestions: If you’re going to use a totally unrelated photo of a person in a mask for your clickbait headline, you could also try using a photo of….

  • A person in a Korean facial mask. They’re very popular!
  • A K-pop star in a mask… they’re hot… people will definitely click on that!
  • A clay mask. Spa vibes! People craving calm might click.
  • A white person in a surgical mask. Why not? Italy has become a hotspot. Makes just as much sense!

Or here’s an idea: Try being responsible with the images you are connecting to this very scary disease.

There are more than one billion Chinese people in the world. And sorry to disappoint, but we don’t all know each other. So the idea that every Chinese person might have coronavirus from person-to-person transmission is ridiculous. People are already scared enough. Let’s not hit them over the head with these fear-mongering racial stereotypes that feed into deep-seated anti-Asian sentiments. Don’t racially profile Asian people, food, or neighborhoods, because it’s an overreaction, and frankly, it’s rude. Avoiding all Asian things is also not going to protect you from contracting this virus.

Worry about REAL things.

Worry about how you’re not washing your hands enough. Don’t breathe on me. Oh, and don’t be racist.

Jenny Yang is a Los Angeles based comedian, writer, actor, and host of the Freeform TV podcast “A Little Forward.” Follow her on twitter @Jennyyangtv

This essay was As Told To producer Emily Pinto.

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