UCLA's Natalie Chou won't stand for anti-Asian racism related to coronavirus

UCLA guard Natalie Chou took to Twitter on Saturday to discuss why using ignorant terms like "Chinese virus" or "kung-flu" to refer to the coronavirus is not only racist but also dangerous. David Dennis/Icon Sportswire

As I walked toward my seat, 11F aisle, I know. I am wearing a mask securely covering my nose and mouth -- something my mother wouldn't let me come home without -- and latex gloves on both hands while tightly gripping onto antibacterial wipes, and I know. As I'm wiping down my seat, armrests and table tray, I can feel the stares, and I know. And when I sit down, buckle my seat belt, I sense the people next to me lean away, and I know.

I am a 6-foot-1, 22-year-old Asian girl who plays basketball at UCLA. I'm used to people looking at my feet to see if I'm wearing high heels. I'm used to the quizzical looks when I'm with my teammates in public. And I'm used to the never-ending questions about if I'm that one girl from that one thing. But this time, on a March 16 flight from Los Angeles to Dallas -- four days after the NCAA canceled its men's and women's basketball tournaments due to the coronavirus pandemic -- the stares and the looks feel different. And I know.

I am fully aware that [COVID-19] originated in China. I have worried about my extended family that lives in Beijing since I first heard about the virus. I have worried about my own Chinese family in the United States. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stopped naming diseases after their place of origin in effort to avoid results like what is happening to Chinese and Asian Americans right now -- the physical, verbal and mental racist abuse. According to the WHO website, there is awareness of the unnecessary fear that is created for specific populations if a disease is inappropriately named. Whether it is called SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19 or the coronavirus, the WHO has deliberately used descriptive viral terminology to define it. And I know this matters.

I know how something as simple as changing the name of the virus can create real hurt. To call this pandemic anything other than the technical name it has been given is disrespectful and ultimately racist. Calling it the "Chinese virus," the "Hong Kong virus," the "kung-flu" or anything of that sort is racist. There is absolutely no need to refer to the coronavirus in this way. It is not witty or funny. It is ignorant, insensitive and prejudiced.

Asian Americans across the country have been verbally and physically attacked because of this rhetoric. It has now become dangerous for us to go grocery shopping, ride the bus or train -- or even go outside for that matter. There have been hundreds of documented cases of Asian Americans being harassed or assaulted since the term "Chinese virus" has become public.

For weeks, I have been scared to go outside by myself. I am always alert and tense because I do not know how people will respond to me. People who look like me have been put in danger and have become targets. We are being attacked during a time where unity and togetherness are vital.

After I landed in Dallas, I went to hang out with a small group of friends in my hometown of Plano, Texas. We all caught up and began talking about the craziness we are all living in. As a joke, an acquaintance in the group referred to the coronavirus as the "Hong Kong virus." At the moment, I was shocked and didn't know how to respond. I ended up not saying anything and walked away and left the conversation. I am usually known as the peacemaker of the group and will avoid confrontation at all costs. These are the actions I default to. After a couple of hours, the acquaintance texted to apologize for her choice of words. I know her heart, I know her intentions, but I also know that she, along with the rest of the nation, must understand the ramifications their words can have on people.

For the past two years, I've been a student-athlete at UCLA. The culture of our school and basketball program has always embodied two things: who we are becoming and who we are influencing. From the start of my college career, I made it a point to myself that the most important thing for me was to inspire young Asian girls. I have a duty to these little girls to speak up, even when I'm scared. Act, even when I don't want to move. And fight, even when I want to shy away. I've learned it's good and right to speak up. I'm finding my words and my voice. So, after flying home, listening to racist conversations, hearing how the president initially described the virus ... all of it, I knew it was time to speak up.

Instead of directly replying to the acquaintance's text message, I composed a tweet for the public. It was surprisingly very easy to write, only taking me about five minutes. I knew the message I wanted to present and exactly how I would execute it. The hard part was posting it, pressing the blue send button on Twitter. I had family and friends peer edit it for any mistakes, and I put off posting it for about three hours. I knew what the response was going to be. In this political climate, now more than ever, the country is so divided, and I knew that my message would be received with two very opposing perspectives: love and hate. But with the platform I have, as a student-athlete, I felt it was my duty and obligation to stand up for myself, for my family, for my community.

Despite living in suburban Texas, the Chinese cultural way of being has been integral to how I have behaved my whole life. Just like the Chinese Disney princess "Mulan" said, Asian girls are supposed to be "quiet, composed, graceful, disciplined." I am to bring honor to my family and never create trouble for anyone. I have learned to keep my problems to myself because anything else would make me look weak. Growing up in a Chinese household has conditioned me to be obedient, loyal, self-reliant and, at times, nonconfrontational. It is common in the Chinese culture to not question authority, not be problematic or opinionated. These characteristics are why Asians have been deemed as the "model minority" in America. I know.

But there's also another side of it for me. In the past, growing up around the game of basketball, people have always told me to stay in my box. I am a basketball player. I talk about basketball things. Anything else is not my business or responsibility. I don't want to make people feel uncomfortable or awkward when I talk about other topics -- like racism. It is not my area of expertise. People who do speak up about these things usually get burned and shut down. I'm just a basketball player. I know.

Half of my team at UCLA is African American, and I see the prejudice they face on a daily basis with my own eyes. Whether it's from other students, school faculty or government officials, this discrimination is the "normal" for them. I see them fighting for respect and equality regularly. I see them stand up for themselves and for what is right. And I see them get shut down more times than not. Through them, I've learned how to be strong. How to be resilient. How to be courageous. And most of all, how to really love myself. I know that speaking out now is the right thing to do because of them.

Our whole world is under attack. We are all facing a common enemy. Not a person, not a country, but a thing -- a virus. And we need one another to get through this. I have been blessed with this platform as a student-athlete and feel that it is my duty and responsibility to speak up for myself and my people. We can -- we must -- do better in our words and our actions toward all people, those who look like us and those who do not. That, I know.