Campus News

Foreign Bodies: SARS, Leprosy and Constructions of Race

Story posted September 15, 2003

Each year two professors are chosen to give Common Hour lectures on the basis of nominations by members of the senior class. This year, Nancy Riley, associate professor of sociology, gave the first of two encore lectures.

Her talk was titled "Foreign Bodies: SARS, Leprosy, and Constructions of Race.

SARS, leprosy, AIDS. These diseases and others like them - diseases we are already aware of, or those we worry might arise in some future global plague - conjure up deep fears, some of them well-deserved and some not. Disease is certainly something we need to think about, need people to work on - identifying, controlling, preventing disease.

What I want to do today is to give an example of how a sociologist might look at disease. I will talk about a couple diseases but less for the diseases themselves than for what we can learn by looking at the context of disease - how a disease manifests itself, comes into public consciousness, how it is viewed by the public, how those suffering from the disease are viewed and why.

A sociological perspective is one important lens we can use to examine the world around us. C. Wright Mills has encouraged us to use our sociological imaginations, to see how individual issues are actually part of a wider societal context. Thinking sociologically, then, brings a critical awareness to the worlds in which we live; it allows us to understand those inner workings, workings that often appear one way on the surface but can contain and create other meanings and outcomes.

From this perspective, we can see the social structures that form a backdrop to and influence individual behavior. In this talk, race and ethnicity is one social structure that will be central to the sociological perspective I will be using.

For this lecture, I have chosen to talk about 2 diseases, leprosy and SARS, one a very old disease and the other a very new disease. A close examination of the context of these diseases, I hope, will allow us a view into some of the ways that race is constructed.

Race, I hope to demonstrate, is not a category of nature but a political ideology, an ideology that is justified through the language of biology or blood or (more recently) culture. We justify - and naturalize - an unequal racial distribution of wealth, power, and even privilege of discourse.

Let me start by explaining how I chose this topic for my lecture today; I chose it because of what I was in the middle of when I received the letter of invitation to give this lecture. At that time, last spring, I was in the process of developing my fall courses, including my first year seminar in epidemiology and another course, my China course, after which I would spend 4-5 weeks in Asia with my students.

The SARS epidemic was in full swing. Originally, I was supposed to be in China right now, doing research, but in the end, I decided to postpone my trip because of SARS.

Thus, I had personal interests in the SARS epidemic - would I go to China, would I be going in December with students? And so I watched and read constantly about that disease. I admit to being fascinated by the political wranglings around the disease.

At that time, last spring, I was on sabbatical in Hawai`i. There, the terrible history of leprosy is a part of the social and historical landscape, and I was especially aware of that history as I worked on fall course materials. Like SARS, leprosy in Hawai`i involved the isolation of those with the disease, and a controversy about quarantining people.

So as you can see, at the time that I received the invitation to give a common hour lecture, disease was something I was thinking about. As my family members can attest, I had stacks of books about disease all over our house.

But that's only one part of this lecture, the disease part. What about constructions of race? I was, as I said, in Hawai`i, where 80% of the population is not white. I was on my way back to Maine where over 95% of the population is white. Just as it was a major change for me when I first moved from Honolulu to Maine 11 years ago, I knew that my return back to Maine this fall would be startling because of the very different racial and ethnic compositions of these two states. I was thinking a lot about race and ethnicity and the ways that our society and our daily lives are shaped by race.

What I began to do is to put these issues together, to juxtapose race and ethnicity and disease. I am not the first by any means to do this, and so as I began to think about SARS and leprosy and race, I also read the work of others who have examined other places and times where race or ethnicity and disease have come together.

Although I have drawn today from many different fields, including cultural studies, anthropology, epidemiology, history, Asian Studies, and the very rich and new work coming out of Asian American studies, this is a topic that particularly lends itself to a sociological lens.

But why apply this lens to disease? Our reactions to disease reflect and refract, mirror and create, attitudes about those who are carriers, victims, perceived carriers or sufferers. James Cirram, an epidemiologist from Emory University, spoke about AIDS this way: He said "This organism has been able to exploit the worst parts of us, that is our bias towards gays, our bias towards people from other countries, our bias towards drug users." That's true about AIDS but it's true about other diseases as well. We make assumptions about people who get SARS or leprosy, or any number of diseases.

Today, drawing on these arguments that our view and handling of disease is often symbolic of much more than germs and illness, I will discuss the way that leprosy and SARS provide windows on attitudes about race and ethnicity. Juxtaposing these two things, race and ethnicity on the one hand, and disease on the other, allows us better understanding of both.

I argue that it serves us well to look at fear of disease. We might think of disease as just disease, and our fear as something that makes sense in light of the dangers of disease. In some ways, that's true. It's easy to understand the fear of a disease as unknown as SARS or as disfiguring as leprosy. But fear is constructed differently depending on the social context, so not all fear is the same. For that reason, it's useful to look at how leprosy and SARS came to be defined in a particular way at a particular time, in a particular place. Fear often magnifies what we think about something, and so it makes it possible to see things that might not otherwise be visible.

Now let me turn to an introduction of leprosy and SARS as diseases.

Leprosy has a long history as a despised disease and one through which sufferers were stigmatized as unclean, impure, and unholy. The stigma attached to leprosy has been around for many centuries, and continues to the present, at least in some places. Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease, usually involving the skin and the peripheral nerves. Left untreated, it can cause enormous disfigurement, especially to the extremities and sometimes to the face.

Untreated leprosy causes death, either directly from the disease or from secondary causes, because leprosy can leave a patient open to secondary infections and other dangers. It is caused by bacteria (myobacterium leprae), first discovered in 1873 - well over a century ago. So some things have been known about leprosy for a long time.

But leprosy is still not completely understood. We still are not sure exactly how it is spread, for example. It's believed to be usually spread through skin contact. Generally, long and close contact with someone with leprosy is necessary for transmission. The incubation period - the time between exposure to the disease and the first symptoms - is quite lengthy, from a few months to many years. We now think that only a small proportion - 5-10% - of all humans are susceptible to leprosy. But genetics seem to play a role here, so there are some populations which seem to be more vulnerable than others to getting leprosy.
Since the 1940s, there has been effective treatment for leprosy. The first drugs were sulfone therapies; other drugs have been developed more recently. These drugs do not reverse whatever damage leprosy has already done to the body but do stop the progression of the disease.

In contrast to leprosy, SARS, of course, is a very new disease. It appeared for the first time, apparently, nearly a year ago. The first cases of SARS were probably in Southern China, in November 2002.

But the disease did not come to the attention of the international community until February of this year, 2003. That's when an infected physician traveling from Guandong, infected other visitors at a hotel in Hong Kong. They in turn, spread it to Singapore, Hanoi, and Toronto.

By the time it was controlled late last spring, it was estimated that over 8400 people had had the disease and that close to 800 people had died it. The death rate - or the case fatality rate, as it is called - was quite high, close to 10%. In addition, given the links across the globe today, there was great potential for fast spread around the world.

SARS - or severe acute respiratory syndrome - appears, at first, like many other respiratory illnesses, including some that are not as serious as SARS. Patients have a fever, sometimes with chills, headache, and body aches. While some experience a very severe form of the disease, others have had a relatively mild case. Public health officials believe SARS is a new form of coronavirus, one of a few viruses that can cause the common cold.

It was (and continues to be) frightening because it is not known for sure how it is spread; there is no vaccine and no known treatment.

So that gives you some information about the diseases themselves. What I would like to do now is to examine the context surrounding these diseases. Let me start with leprosy.

I said earlier that leprosy has been stigmatized for centuries. But in fact, the history of leprosy and its stigma is not quite as continuous as that sounds. Leprosy has been virtually absent in continental Europe and most of North America since the late 16th century. So why does it retain its stigma?

The key here is the "rediscovery" of leprosy that occurred during the age of European and American imperialism. It disappeared from sight in western societies but was seen again as westerners began moving into nonwestern areas as missionaries, colonialists, or merchants, and found the disease endemic in some parts of the world. It was at this time that leprosy became re-associated with what some of these westerners saw as "inferior people" and even more westerners became fearful that these people would infect western, civilized societies. This was a time of large imperialist interest, mass movements of peoples across borders, and the establishment of the germ theory. With the germ theory came increased fears of foreign invaders - whether those were people or germs - and increased efforts to prevent these foreign bodies from infecting western societies. It was at this time, then, that race, ethnicity and disease became closely linked in people's minds.

Now let me focus on one place - Hawai`i - and look at how this larger context of the connections between disease and race influenced what happened there.

Leprosy was first noticed in Hawai`i around 1860; it was named "ma`i pake" (which means "Chinese sickness" in the Hawaiian language) because it was thought to have arrived with the Chinese workers who came to Hawai`i around that time.

But Hawai`i represents a bit of a twist on the way that people came to be associated with disease. It was Native Hawaiians - not recent immigrants - who really suffered in great numbers from leprosy. In the second half of the 1800s, nearly all of those suffering from leprosy in Hawai`i were Native Hawaiian.

The solution to this leprosy epidemic - at least from the perspective of American missionaries and administrators - was to isolate those with or suspected of having leprosy. The isolation process in Hawai`i was very harsh. Those with leprosy were permanently cut off from their families and communities. They were sent to Kalaupapa, an isolated part of the island of Molokai (Molokai is an island 23 miles from Honolulu).

Kalaupapa is a very isolated piece of land, surrounded on 3 sides by ocean, where high surf much of the year makes is difficult to navigate the waters. On the fourth side of Kalaupapa are towering cliffs. Even today, the only way to get to Kalaupapa is by plane, boat, or by a difficult climb down the cliffs behind the settlement.

Over the 50-year period, from 1866-1905, nearly 6000 people, mostly Hawaiians, were sent to Kalaupapa. Involuntary isolation of those with leprosy remained the policy in Hawai`i until 1969, even though available treatment existed for leprosy since the 1940s. Only in the 1970s did patients with leprosy begin to be treated as outpatients at local hospitals.

Well, we can probably all agree that the treatment of those with leprosy in Hawai`i is not something to be proud of. But why did this happen? As I said earlier, the context in which diseases arise and are dealt with is important. So let's look a bit more closely at the context of leprosy in Hawai`i: what else was happening there at that time?

First, the political situation was very important. Around 1860, when leprosy first appeared in Hawai'i, the territory was a sovereign state, a constitutional monarchy. But there was already a great deal of interest on the part of outsiders in the territory. Missionaries wanted to civilize the islands, and make them into a model resembling the United States. The American government was interested in Hawai`i for strategic reasons. And merchants and businesspeople were interested in Hawai`i for its potential as a sugar producer.

Around that time too, the ethnic composition of Hawai`i was also undergoing major change. The proportion of Hawaiians in the population was decreasing, and decreasing very rapidly. They made up 91% of the population in 1872 but only 36% by 1896. Part of the reason for this change was the influx of new peoples into the territory. There were increasing numbers of white settlers - missionaries, merchants, and others. With the development of large sugar and pineapple plantations, workers were also brought in from Asia, primarily China and Japan.

But another influence on the declining percentage of Hawaiians was disease. Several diseases - including mumps, smallpox, influenza, measles, and dysentery - caused huge epidemics. Among Hawaiians, who had previously been unexposed to these diseases, there was a massive de-population, a die-off from these diseases.

So, because of the arrivals of new people into the islands and the diseases that killed so many Hawaiians, the population composition underwent enormous change in the last decades of the 19th century. By 1890, haole (that's the Hawaiian word for whites or Caucasians) outnumbered Hawaiians.

It was in this context that leprosy was dealt with. In Hawai`i, as in other places, leprosy was constructed as a disease of impurity, one needing segregation. The people who got the disease - not coincidentally mostly Hawaiians - were similarly constructed, as people needing to be segregated because of their uncleanliness.

In this era when the power of Hawaiians was in decline and the power of haole was rising, Hawaiians were seen as causing their own diseases and their own deaths. Missionaries argued that Hawaiians were not strong or moral enough to fight off disease. They argued that Hawaiians were getting sick and dying because of their lifestyles. Missionaries pointed to a number of characteristics of Hawaiian life that they said led to these diseases, things like laziness, bad mothering, licentiousness, poor housing, inappropriate and inadequate clothing, a lack of value for life, using native doctors, and a lack of land tenure. Not coincidentally, this list corresponds well with some of the main targets of missionary work in the goal to transform Hawaiian society into an idealized American one.

Leprosy was thus a way through which Hawaiians were constructed as primitive - not only were they deemed incapable of governing themselves, but they couldn't even survive.

And the numbers seemed to support their arguments. Who got the disease? Not everyone, just those who were primitive: unclean and impure. And who could control it? Haole.

The use of isolation to deal with leprosy in Hawai`i was very much an intervention imposed from the outside. Within the Hawaiian community, leprosy was not feared and those with leprosy were not shunned but rather accepted by and cared for as members of the community. And this Hawaiian reaction to leprosy was seen, in itself, by haole, as a sign of Hawaiians' primitive nature and backward beliefs - they did not even know enough to shun and isolate those with disease.

(Even the image of Kalaupapa, to which leprosy patients were sent, was used as evidence of the failure of Hawaiians. For many years, until very recently, the way it was described was as a godless, violent, uncivilized place until the arrival of the Belgian priest Father Damien in 1873. While there is no question that Damien devoted his life to this group of people from his arrival until his own death from leprosy in 1889, we now can see some of these myths from a different perspective. The earlier - and long held - image of Hawaiians unable to govern themselves, and thus needing a white man to lead them, fit with the imperialist construction of the need of Hawaiians for haole rule.)

Just a footnote to what happened in Hawai`i: this same treatment of those with leprosy was seen in other places around that time. In the later 19th century, the accepted practice was isolation. But it was not actually widely practiced, mostly because of the difficulty of implementing and funding such isolation practices. But some places did engage in practices similar to those in Hawai`i. For example, Canada isolated people suspected of leprosy; in that country white people with the disease were sent to a hospital in eastern Canada while Chinese suspected of having the disease were sent to D'Arcy island. D'Arcy Island, off the coast of British Columbia, was an isolated place, without much more than very basic housing. The people sent there succumbed quickly either to leprosy itself or to associated illnesses that were exacerbated by the poor facilities, shortages of food, and lack of health care.

Leprosy, we can see, was not only a feared disease; through its association with people deemed "lesser" or "primitive," it was a disease that had political and social implications and was used for political and economic purposes. For Hawaiians, it is seen as a fundamental piece of the eventual take-over of that territory by the United States. Here, juxtaposing a disease – leprosy - and the context of Hawai`i at the time of an epidemic allows us to understand better both the disease and the issues of race and ethnicity in that time and place.

Now let me jump forward a century and a half to SARS and its historical and social context.

We were and continue to be afraid of SARS. In some ways, SARS seemed like our worse nightmare. The death rate from this disease was fairly high. At nearly 10%, it was higher, for example, than the death rate during the 1918 flu epidemic which killed hundreds of thousands of people across the world.

It is now suspected that the virus jumped from its animal host to humans, although we still are not quite sure about this, or about how it began. This is of course a big fear of those in the medical and public health fields. This is what may set off a worldwide pandemic, some scary thing where a virus, one we don't understand and don't know how to prevent, spreads rapidly among humans, with some terrible consequence. So no wonder we were afraid.

And there was reason for all the cautions, and for most of the official reactions to the disease. For example, the WHO [World Health Organization] and CDC [Centers for Disease Control] both took steps they had not in years, issuing international warnings about travel to several areas.

So why am I talking about SARS here? Isn't it just a disease, worthy of our concerns, even our fears? It is that, and more. And it's the more I would like to address.

Here again, the context is important. It's important where SARS apparently originated. I want to focus here on China, where we think the disease began, and which had the highest number of cases.

Some of our recent reactions to the spread of SARS in and from China come from the government there and the way it handled the SARS crisis. The Chinese government's reticence to give out information made it difficult to track SARS. I think it's fair to say that the government's secrecy around the SARS crisis contributed to the way China was perceived and described through the SARS period. So we could just write off everything to the way the Chinese government handled the whole thing.

But I don't think that's fair or accurate. Our reaction to SARS and to the role of China in the SARS epidemic is not only about the current government there. China looms large in the western – American - imagination and has for centuries. We have heard and come to believe that China is a strange, faraway, inscrutable place: A kind of great unknown. It is both revered for its otherness, and feared and despised for it too.

We have a kind of love/hate relationship with China. So, we hear about:

  • China being poised to take over the world - economically, politically, or in its sheer numbers of people. That suggests both a kind of respect for China's success, and a fear of it too.
  • We like the fact that family loyalty is important to people in China, but that also makes us nervous because we worry that it borders on clannishness there.
  • It is the site of devotion to hard work. That's good, but that hard work has meant job losses in the US.
  • China is known for its patriotism - which we term nationalism in other places.

As China has moved toward a market economy, some things have changed, but much of the image remains the same. Our current version of China is connected to and contains within it earlier notions of China, including China as the Red Menace, and China as the great unknown - we can never be sure what is happening there, or what will happen. While we can attribute this current attitude to the current government, that image is bolstered by earlier notions of mysterious China.

Related to China's unknowableness, we often hear that Chinese people do strange things. For example, one of the most common comments about the habits of Chinese is the way they eat weird things. Now this may seem small, but in any situation, food is much more than what we ingest; it carries with it enormous symbolic meaning. What we put in our mouths and into our bodies - and what we don't - reflects our feelings about how we should interact with the world around us. Food taboos regulate that interaction, so that when foods are eaten or not eaten by different groups of people, it underscores boundaries that we believe are important. Some groups forbid the eating of pork, others believe eating certain foods at certain times will strengthen the body. Food binds people together too, strengthening ethnic bonds and ethnic identity.

So the regular comments about Chinese eating habits are important. They serve to underscore the very foreignness, the otherness of a whole group of people. Chinese eat things that "regular," "normal" people would not think of eating - and they enjoy it! Thus, they must not be like us.

Now this might seem far from anything about SARS but during the height of the SARS crisis, many stories in newspapers and magazines mentioned the weird eating habits of Chinese people (these comments, by the way, came long before any suspicion about where the SARS virus came from). A headline during the SARS crisis, in a major Canada newspaper stated that a preference for eating "exotic animals" was "deeply rooted in Chinese culture." Another headline from that time, this one from Time Magazine proclaimed: “Noxious Nosh - In China, people are hungry for a taste of the wild" The article was about SARS.

This attention to food from the very beginning of the SARS epidemic served to underscore the very foreignness of China. The implication seemed clear: China is a strange place, where people do strange things, so no wonder SARS started there.

But our fears of SARS and the people who might have the disease were not restricted to people in Asia. Not only were many afraid to travel to Asia, but they were afraid to travel to Chinatowns in the United States. Chinatowns in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Honolulu and other places saw a large drop-off in business, even though there was no SARS in these Chinatowns. Schools canceled school trips to see Asian American performers, even though those performers hadn't been near Asia in years. Some worried about buying goods sold by Asians in this country. What was going on?

What seemed to begin as a connection between a disease and a country, SARS and China, had moved to a connection between that disease and people who looked a certain way. And this is not new: In general, Americans can't or won't distinguish between Chinese - in China - and Chinese Americans.

In order to understand our fear of SARS, we need to look at the attitudes toward and treatment of Asians in this country and the ways that orientalism exists here in the US. So here, I need to diverge a bit away from SARS; I will return to talking abut SARS in a few minutes, but I want to back up and look at the historical experience of Asians in the US. This fear of SARS is just the latest manifestation of a long-standing attitude toward Asian Americans. If we know about that experience and history, then the fears of SARS make more sense. Again, the context of any fear is very important. Our fear of SARS involved a fear of foreign bodies in our midst - both viruses and people.

Just as many Americans have had mixed feelings and reactions to China and the Chinese, they have had mixed feelings about Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans. Many have been fearful and concerned about immigrant invasions, about losing American culture, to people like Chinese or Latinos or any number of groups. In the past, especially in the early 20th century, people talked about the "yellow peril." We don't use that term anymore, but we still worry about immigrants from China. Reactions to Chinese immigrants and citizens have ranged from outright discrimination, such as denying jobs to Asian Americans, to hate crimes to more subtle discrimination.

Many Americans also seem to respect Asians in the US - they are the model minority, they seem to be doing what's right, they seem to be successful, teaching their kids the right things, striving for success in the American system. I don't have the time here to unpack all of these things, and other scholars have done interesting work on these issues. What I want to focus on here is the way that Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans are assumed by many to be foreigners, strangers in the midst of American society.

We have lots of examples from recent American history; we don't have to look too hard to find those. Chinese, Japanese, and other Asians have been subject to exclusionary immigration laws, not allowed to immigrate, not allowed citizenship, not allowed to marry, have been subject to all kinds of quotas and outright bans.

Perhaps the most obvious and terrible evidence of the way many Americans see Asians here as foreigners was the treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII. 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were put into internment camps; 2/3rds of those prisoners were American citizens. The US government, and Americans generally, assumed that people who looked like the enemy must be on the side of the enemy and needed to be isolated. So these Japanese Americans lost their homes, their businesses, their communities and were imprisoned for years in these camps.

But that was WWII. Things are not that way anymore. Indeed, many things have changed since then.

There are no internment camps and maybe we would never have them, even if, say, we were to go to war with China. (We might be warned, however, by the way that Arab Americans have been treated here in the last couple years.) And there are other examples of how much has changed. The high intermarriage rates between Asian Americans and other Americans, for example, suggests a different kind of acceptance of Asian Americans on the part of many in this society.

But while there have been a lot of changes, many of those attitudes from the past remain true today. Sometimes it's hard to quickly see what people think about different groups. We conduct conversations of all kinds about race but our conversations are often coded. Using these codes allows us to pretend and even to believe that we are NOT talking about race when we really ARE. How do we unlock the codes on race, and see what's going on? Sociology provides us good tools to unlock these codes.

From comparative perspectives and quantitative analyses, we have found that Asian Americans, on average, make about the same level of income as white Americans. But analyses that have broken this figure down have found many other interesting findings. For example, they show that Asian Americans who have a college degree do not earn as much as do white Americans, apparent evidence of the discrimination that Asian Americans face. We also have learned that grouping Asian Americans into one category masks the very large differences within this group. Census statistics, for example, show that when compared to white Americans, Asian Americans are both more likely to be middle class AND to live below the poverty line. That's because some Asian American groups are doing very well and some are not.

We can also look at the evidence in our daily lives - in society, in the media, within social institutions - to try to unlock those codes of race.

There's the constant questioning that Asian Americans deal with. Where are you from?

As a former Bowdoin student, a Korean American with several generations of family here in this country, said: "when they ask me where I am from, I say, "Chicago" and when they say "no, where are you REALLY from?" I tell them a suburb of Chicago, but that's not what they are looking for." The assumption, of course, is that he MUST be a foreigner.

This confusion, this inability and unwillingness to accept Asian Americans as Americans was evident in the brouhaha over Chinese campaign contributions during the 1996 election. There were apparently some illegal contributions, to both the republican and democratic parties, although most of the investigations focused on contributions to the latter. But what is interesting here is the way that those investigations and, especially, the reporting around them, did not distinguish between Chinese - from China - and Chinese Americans, those Chinese living in the US. Anyone who was either Chinese or Chinese American was assumed to be part of the "Asia Connection" as it was called. So investigators went through lists of Chinese-sounding names, looking for possible violations. People (like presidential candidate Ross Perot) talked about how much better it was for contributions to come from those with "American names" - names like Wood or Smith, not names like Cho or Wang.

A cartoon published at that time plays on many of the assumptions and fears about Chinese Americans. The caption says "The 3,367th John Huang is now voting." There is a long line of, presumably, Chinese men. All short, with bowl haircuts, indistinguishable, drawing on the assumption that all Asians look alike. The little thing in the corner says, "How do you spell that?" (it's not easy, it seems to be suggesting, to spell these "non-American" names) It's true that the term "yellow peril" is not used, but if this is not suggesting a yellow peril, this hoard of Asians invading a sacred site of democracy, I am not sure what would.

There are also many examples of the presumed nature of Asian Americans within popular culture. Advertisements, for example, often depict Asians as mysterious and foreign. While it's not clear from these ads whether the models used are, say Chinese or Chinese Americans, it is clearly the model's physical image - not her or his nationality - that conveys the sense of the exotic.

One recent example of how Asians are depicted in sales campaigns is the Abercrombie & Fitch line of t-shirts distributed a couple years ago. These shirts depicted stereotypic images of Asians, with racist slogans. Here's an example: one shows a Chinese laundryman with buckteeth and other stereotypic characteristics, with the caption "Two Wongs can make it white." These ad and sale campaigns build on and assume a widespread acceptance of feelings about Asians and Asian Americans - even when these attitudes are unspoken or even unconscious. Yes, the Abercrombie & Fitch campaign backfired and the company pulled the shirts from their shelves but that was because of organized protests led by Asian Americans. It is very likely that had the shirts remained on the shelves, many would have bought them; the eagerness of buyers for the shirts on e-Bay the day after they were pulled attests to that. Some potential buyers declared them "cute and harmless."

To underscore the way these things fall together, the way these shirts are not some fluke, let me remind you about a pending suit against Abercrombie & Fitch: a group of former and prospective employees recently filed a suit against the company, accusing it of racial discrimination. Abercrombie & Fitch has a policy of using only cool, hip people on the sales floor - they look for what the company calls the "classic American look." Not surprisingly, nearly all of those floor sales people are white. The suit, filed by a group of Latinos and Asian Americans, alleges that this policy and assumption has meant the denial of jobs for nonwhites. The suit is still in process.

These examples are just a few of the many that suggest the way many people in this country see Asian Americans as a separate, always foreign group. Our conversations about race are coded, but if we look carefully, we can see racial attitudes, assumptions, and actions.

Even positive notions have codes in them that need to be examined. The term model minority, for example, says many things, and not all of them are positive. The notion of yellow peril - whether used outright or spoken of in code - and the idea of a model minority are two points on the same continuum.

So Asians in the US are described as both diligent and slavish; frugal and cheap; both upwardly mobile and aggressive.

Asian American communities are mutual aid centers but also exclusive, self-serving groups.

The high numbers of Asian American students in our universities is a sign of enormous success and a danger to racial imbalance.

Asians work hard but sometimes too hard, study too much, and form a racial block.

Asian Americans are said to be a model, yes, but sometimes that model comes dangerously close to a peril, threatening American values and image, and challenging white rights.

Now what does all this have to do with SARS and our fears of the disease?
As you can probably see, SARS - that unknown, invading enemy - was easily scripted onto Chinese and onto Chinese Americans. Chinese, whether residing in China or in the United States continue to be thought of by many as unknowable, foreign, and at least a bit dangerous. Chinese Americans are seen by some as having closer connections to China than to the US. And so Chinese Americans were easily connected to the disease, even when there was no connection.
The fear of Chinese invasion and the fear of microbe invasion thus came together in SARS

In many ways, SARS fits the old picture, the connection of immigrants and disease. Certainly, we have many examples of fear toward immigrants as carriers of disease. SARS is obviously not the first disease to be seen in this way.
But unlike other ethnic groups - such as East Europeans or Irish - who eventually have generally melted into the American whole, Chinese Americans are often seen as immigrants and newcomers, even several generations after arriving in the US.

Both Chinese in the US and SARS raise issues of boundary crossings, where something or some group moves from where they should reside to where they should not. Asians are often considered foreigners in this country - forever alien - and in that way they symbolize an unacceptable - and feared - boundary crossing. SARS is a disease that has also, apparently, crossed an important boundary, moving from animals to humans.

Let me try to wrap this up here and go back to the question of what we learn when we unpack the experience of a disease and our fears of the disease, whether that's SARS or leprosy or some other disease.

Looking at leprosy and SARS, we can see that these diseases and their contexts are very different. In one, a group of powerful white settlers isolated and shunned native Hawaiians suspected of having the disease. This was an overt act of imperialism, and came in the midst of a reorganization of Hawaiian society, a reorganization that would soon take nearly all political power away from Hawaiians and give it almost exclusively to white Americans. Leprosy did not cause that regime change, but the treatment of leprosy and those suffering from it was scripted onto the already existing political, economic, and social scripts in Hawai`i at the time; leprosy helped to construct Hawaiians as primitive and in need of controlling by haole.

It is interesting that quarantining was also used in the case of SARS. But today, we are not dumping people suspected of disease onto some deserted place. Nevertheless, power differentials play a role here too. Today, that use of power might be more subtle and covert. It's often coded. But the power to name and categorize people is an important power. And the way that we reacted to SARS suggests the ways that Chinese, but also Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans have been categorized as foreign, exotic, mysterious and other. Again, SARS did not cause those reactions, but examining reactions to this disease and to those we fear might carry the disease allows us to see those attitudes. What happened around the SARS epidemic should remind us that orientalism is alive and well, not just in the way Americans see Asia, but in the way many Americans view Asian Americans as well.

Certainly, disease, biological agents, germs, microbes, are "real" and they can make people sick and even cause death. We must be aware of this. But disease is more than this too. What thinking about race through disease does is to give us another way to view the "terrain of race relations," as scholar Henry Yu terms it. It reminds us about the way we construct race, not just in those activities that seem directly related to race relations, but in the daily ways we talk about things that are seemingly unconnected to race.

Standard sociological tools help us here: looking at how (and which and why) social structures influence our reaction to disease and how those structures contribute to the construction of our fears - these are standard sociology tools. Such perspectives allow us insight into things that we sometimes take for granted. Diseases can be frightening, true, but the direction of our fear, how we manage that fear, and what happens in the process - these are all shaped by the social structures around us.

If nothing else, this kind of examination can remind us to be deeply and constantly critical of what we read or hear in our everyday lives - why stories are written this way and not that way, why those people are characterized in that way - or even put into that group. It might allow us to question how sales and ad campaigns are used, what we buy and which stores we give our business to.

Thus a sociological perspective can allow us to understand the world we live in better. But it's not just about understanding; this information is important if we want to change things too: sociologist Avery Gordon encourages us to "imagine otherwise." But in order to effect change we first need to know what's going on around us. As Gordon reminds us "We need to know where we live in order to imagine living elsewhere."

« Back | Campus News | Academic Spotlight | | Subscribe to Bowdoin News by Email