Racist terms like ‘Asian murder hornets’ have no place in scientific discussion

Sensationalizing this hornet is harmful to Asian communities that are already under attack amid the COVID-19 pandemic

The Asian giant hornet, or the Vespa mandarinia, has been in B.C. and other parts of North America since last summer, but there has been a recent interest in this species using the sensationalized name: “Asian murder hornet.”

This hornet does have the potential to do tremendous amounts of damage to local pollinators, negatively influencing the health of ecosystems around the Salish Sea. It has also been known to destroy bee hives, which can exacerbate current pollinator stressors, such as pesticides and colony collapse disorder.

But as we mark Invasive Species Action Month in B.C. and Asian Heritage Month in Canada, it’s important to consider the role of language in science — and how xenophobia can be propagated in the way we broach issues.

We rely on science to be at the forefront of knowledge and developments to manage, prevent and control the spread of invasive species. It’s science that plays an integral role in supporting local ecological balances that are frequently delicate. 

But it’s language, used without an awareness of how xenophobia and racism can be damaging to certain groups and ethnicities, that can distort scientific terms, replacing them with ones that are sensationalist and discriminatory. This has a double negative: it harms communities and reduces the transfer of important information. 

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Here’s an example of science-based language: The European green crab or the Carcinus maenas is one of the ten most unwanted species in the world, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. This clawed creature, measuring 10 cm, can unbalance an entire ecosystem—and they’ve been in B.C. since the late ’90s, and in Canada since the ’50s.

For more than a decade, there have been strong outreach, citizen-science programs, reporting systems and Fisheries and Oceans Canada-led measures to curb the spread of this species. This approach is based in science, it uses scientific language and the awareness efforts around this species have not been based in propagating fear.

In contrast, the presentation of the Vespa mandarinia uses words like “murder” and “invader.” These are not scientific descriptors; they are meant to scare people, and they reignite fears of the idea that Asian migrants, people, plants — and now this hornet — are an existential threat to white North America. 

Yellow peril has been on the minds of white colonial North America since the building of the railroads, the Chinese head tax and subsequent Exclusion Act, the internment of Japanese Canadians and through to modern examples, including the idea that wealthy Asian foreign buyers are influencing housing prices. 

Particularly during a time of rising anti-Asian sentiment and hate crimes associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of the term “Asian murder hornets” is inflammatory and counterproductive as it opts out of using rigorous, accurate, scientific language. Simply put, it is discriminatory.

Just as we must base our approach and communication in science when confronting the novel coronavirus, we must do the same when it comes to invasive species. As environmentalists, teachers, journalists, elected officials, caregivers and kind community members, we must help one another to become aware of how sensationalizing this hornet (or any other creature) is harmful to communities that are already under attack, as well as how this can bolster xenophobia.

Our message is this: carelessness with language can support harmful narratives that you might not have recognized. Let’s remember that as stewards of the environment, it is our responsibility to reflect on how exclusion and oppression can inflict social damage.

Be aware, be informed and be responsible.

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