Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Western World And Asian Racism

 A Strained Advocacy.

I came across an interesting article written in 2012, by a Caucasian woman (Julia Bass) who had lived in Korea, in which she draws attention to South Korean racial attitudes towards foreigners, and all non-Koreans, and to be perfectly honest I had to laugh. Don't get me wrong, racism is a bad thing regardless of who is perpetrating it, but a fair amount of the racism that she describes seemed to be actually identical to the kind complaints about racism that Asian (and perhaps other minorities) speak out about, and for which we are told to stop being so sensitive, or "it's just a joke", or even "stop complaining, blacks have it worse". After further reading on this subject from the point of view of white ex-pats, I could not help but notice how eager these guys were to play the race card in describing their experiences.

First of all, to put the Julia bass piece in context; at the end of her piece, it is noted that she spent one year (yes, one whole year) living and teaching in South Korea. Now as an ex-pat myself, and someone who knows a lot of ex-pats, I can say with some fair degree of certainty that it is impossible to truly gauge the character and attitudes of a foreign people or culture. This is especially true when you move to a country that has a radically different cultural and historical experience to the one you came from and the language is alien or unfamiliar. Most of the ex-pats I know (many of whom have foreign service careers and move to a different country every three to five years) will tell you that it takes between six months and a full year to actually settle in and even hope to begin becoming familiar with the local culture and character of the people. So, right up front, I question the impressions of someone who most likely didn't stay long enough to even settle in properly. In reality, these observations actually sound superficial and little more than the usual litany of (ironically) racial and cultural stereotypes that get thrown around about Asia and its people.

In response to a news piece widely condemned as racist by race-sensitive ex-pats that was aired on Korean television (a video I referred to here) Bass has this to say......
"the issue has everything to do with every foreigner. Each time I walk down the street and people take a second look at me, I wonder ... I've seen the video, maybe they've seen it too ... do they think something is wrong with me? Am I actually unwanted in my quaint, peaceful town of Yeoju that I've come to call home for the last 10 months? I'm not a western man with a Korean lady attached to my arm, but that isn't the point. I'm an outsider to them, and now I'm an outsider who is associated with messages like this one. Moreover, messages that my students will see and will affect the way they see me."
I can relate. Perhaps it is true what Asian-American have been saying for years - and according to Bass, the ex-pat community of Korea agreed - that racism in the media and cultural stereotyping have the potential to shape racist attitudes and racist behaviours towards those targeted by it.

Bass also voices concern for the plight of Korean women...
"Another upsetting component in this video is the way Korean women are dealt with. Phrases like "our women" are not only objectifying, possessive, and archaic, they also paint a picture of women who lack self-respect or intelligence—a picture I can whole-heartedly argue is untrue. Women here—although a little too obsessed with skin whitening cream and hand mirrors for my taste—are decisive, altruistic, and highly intelligent."
Actually if you watch the video in question (here) you might actually think that some of those Korean women were, in fact, lacking self-respect, but also note the sly dig at Korean women in that last sentence. On the other hand, I might be a little more empathetic with the plight of white dudes if I did not already know that there is a culture of gendered racism directed at Korean men by ex-pats whose apparent aim is to control the choices of "their" western women with scary, xenophobic, racist, contradictory stories about the asexual/ sexual predatory Korean men. As I noted here, there seems to be a mode of thinking that excuses white racial attitudes towards Koreans (especially Korean men) by using sexism to justify racism.

But there are some observers trying to address the subject objectively. Here is another article in the online magazine "The Diplomat", that addresses the subject of racism in Korea, and - to its credit - the article does attempt to add perspective by noting that ex-pat complaints of racism might perhaps be attributed to mere miscommunication (and my guess is that exaggeration is a problem too) and that their complaints pale in comparison to those of the workers and immigrants from South and SouthEast Asia who bear the brunt of racism there. I also understand that Asian-Americans of Korean descent have sometimes been considered suspect by Korean society, but white culture has a history of appropriating the experiences of other groups and re-making it in their own image.

Perhaps the best and most eloquent analysis of white-ex-pat claims of racism in Korea has been outlined in a post written by an African-American woman who spent some time in the country. She writes...
What I've found is that essentially white teachers really exaggerate how bad racism in Korea. At least from the black perspective it’s exaggerated because in our home countries we have to deal with it, so when we come here, for better or for worse, we're used to it. We’re used to people gawking. We’re used to people assuming negative things about us. Of course, we’re used to discrimination based on the color of our skin.
An interesting, although not altogether unsurprising, perspective. Those who are familiar with my blog might recognize this idea of exaggerating things about Asia and Asian people as a characteristic of the way that American (and perhaps all English-speaking) cultures condition their societies with negative bias towards Asians. But it is not just Korea where the ex-pats seem race-conscious.

Japan also, receives its fair share of ex-pat complaints of racism. In a recent incident that received a fair amount of mainstream press in the US, an American teacher in Japan came under fire from so-called nationalists for trying to teach his students about Japan's history of discrimination. The first thing about this story is that the backlash came mostly over the internet after the teacher had posted a YouTube video, and that the teacher in question (an American of Japanese dissent) was given the support of his school, and - as far as I know - continues to teach this subject at the school. From my point of view the fact that the school vice-principal agreed that the lesson was a good thing, and that he received no complaints, tells a far different story than the one inferred in the article. The vice-principal says this...
The vice principal of the school said he wished more Japanese students could hear the lesson. Dezaki didn't get a single complaint. No one accused him of being an enemy of Japan.
That sounds very encouraging to me, yet, it is anonymous internet complaints that receive the attention. But, as I mentioned before, exaggeration of negative qualities in Asian people and cultures is a hallmark of how American culture conditions its people to conceive negatively  of, and behave towards, Asians, whilst overlooking positives. Compare, for instance, this story out of Seattle, in which a teacher was transferred from his post to another school after receiving a complaint for teaching American students about racism. Does America, or its people, really have anything to offer Japan about teaching racism in the school curriculum?

In a recent post, I reviewed a book called "Driven Out", which documented the hundreds of cases of pogroms perpetrated by mainly white mobs against the early Chinese immigrants to the US. During these riots and attacks, Chinese men were rounded up, beaten, murdered, and had their livelihoods destroyed by mobs driven by racial hatred, all under the watchful eye of law-enforcement officials, and with the explicit support of politicians going all the way up to the level of Congress. Yet, this period of history that lasted almost one-hundred years and ultimately paved the way for the internment of the Japanese in WWII, is absent in its entirety from American school books and the cultural consciousness, so much so, that Asian-Americans themselves are surprised to learn about it.

This is not to say that there is no racism in Japan, nor am I making the simplistic argument that "America does it too!". What I am saying is that we need to be aware that western ex-pat complaints of racism in Japan may carry with it westerners' own racial assumptions and intolerance for Asians that seem to be the standard cultural attitude in, at least, the English-speaking world. Plus, there is the ever present possibility of gross exaggeration that seems to typify western attitudes in general, and complaints in particular, about Asians and Asian racism. This is especially apparent when white ex-pats express horror at Japanese (and other Asian) attitudes towards black people, as complaints about racism towards blacks in China will illustrate.

Given that American culture seems to be geared towards suspicion of Asians in general, and recently, the Chinese in particular, it seems natural that China would receive its share of self-righteous western condemnation for being racist. What is interesting in this process is that we are able to witness the creation of racial and racist stereotypes as it happens. Apart from the generally understood meaning of "stereotype", there is another aspect of the process that goes unheralded but which we can see happening in the labeling of China as a country that is horribly racist towards blacks.

In America, (at least according to the often delusional stories the media tells about America) American quasi-values maintain that being racist towards blacks is morally reprehensible, and Americans are extremely uncomfortable accepting that anti-black racism is still an implicit aspect of American society. So, just like in every other instance of stereotyping, the worst aspects and qualities that Americans hate to see being pointed out about themselves (their prejudice against blacks), are projected onto another group, giving America the opportunity to assuage its own discomfort. In other words, in the case of American attitudes towards Asians, racism is used to justify racial stereotyping.

An article from July of this year, touches upon the experience of an African-American who lived and worked in China. He writes...
I taught English to Chinese people from all socio-economic backgrounds......By all accounts, my supervisors and other teachers respected my skills and knowledge in the classroom. Around 2003, however, I noticed a shift in the market and it became increasingly difficult for me to hold on to assigned classes. There were a number of complaints from students.......She told me I was an excellent teacher and could find little fault in my methods and teaching of the prescribed curriculum. Students just wanted a "different" teacher.....While on break, I overheard students speaking in Chinese about how they were paying so much money and wanted a white instructor. One student went so far as to say, "I don't want to look at his black face all night."
Another report from CNN, touches upon the same issues of discrimination and the uncomfortable relationship between black migrants to China and the local population. Clearly, some black people experience prejudice and discriminatory attitudes in China. Both articles go to great pains to highlight the historical background of China's attitudes towards dark skin, which they suggest may account for some of the negative experiences of blacks, reporting that white skin was considered beautiful and darker skin, not so much. While both articles - and others like it - highlight a significant issue, the focus on negative attitudes towards blacks in China indicates a simplistic, one-sided, aspect to China's ethnic story and reflects the inflexible perspectives in which America's attitudes towards race are structured.

The fact is, that even Americans of Asian descent are discriminated against in China, notably in school hiring procedures. This article from NBC News, reports on this very phenomenon, even quoting from a popular ex-pat forum on the apparent hierarchy of preferences for teachers in Chinese schools. In order of preference....
1. White Americans/Canadians  2. White British  3. White Australians/New Zealanders and South Africans  4. European Nonnatives/Black Americans/Black British  5. American Asians/Black Aussies (Australians) and Kiwis (New Zealanders)/Filipinos/Africans”
Notice that the perception amongst some ex-pats is that African-Americans are preferred over Asian-Americans. This phenomenon of discrimination towards Americans of Asian descent is documented here also. Clearly, Chinese attitudes towards blacks and race in general are far more complicated than the pejorative insinuations that China is "racist against blacks" would suggest. To be fair, the last word of the CNN article goes to another black ex-pat, who had lived in China for eight years, who has this to say....
"Yes, I've sometimes had people stare or touch my skin, as if to see whether it's going to rub off,". "But I think this comes from curiosity not negativity. Here I don't feel the racial tension I feel back home. I've done things, such as setting up my own geophysics company, which as I black woman I might not have been able to do in the States....."Yes, I'm treated differently from Chinese people. But here I'm different first, black second."
Now that is fair and it reflects the fundamental dishonesty, and perhaps ignorance, in trying to paint Chinese attitudes towards race as analogous to America's. As I pointed out in a previous post, racism and racial thinking are integral to the very identity of the concept of white, and it is contrasts of racial characteristics and supposed racial qualities, by which Europe has defined itself since the time of Classical Greece. Race is fundamental to the European (and hence "white) concept of themselves and it is racial physical and character traits that gave Europeans a sense of who they are, and their place in the world. Over the centuries, these archaic ideas of race were refined by subsequent intellectuals and race-thinkers, and gave us the modern world we have today. This is a far cry from the China's beauty standards that elevate light skin - a notion that derives more from a class chauvinism than racial prejudice - darker skin reflected poverty, not racial inferiority.

It may well be a measure of America's resistance to engaging with Asians in a genuine way that China's (as well as Korea's and Japan's) supposed racial prejudices are illustrated through its ambivalent attitudes towards blacks. America seems to be simply reluctant to acknowledge the depth of prejudice that it has had and continues to have towards Asian people. Even though it could be argued that in all of these countries, it is South and SouthEast Asians (and even Americans of Asian descent) who may well bear the brunt of racial discrimination, America's dehumanization of Asians, and its cultural proclivity to depict Asians on the margins of consideration at best, and beyond hope of commonality, may well prevent America's media from addressing Asia's race issues in a meaningful way. How can you genuinely show the plight of Asian victims of discrimination and expect empathy from your own culture when everything about your culture conditions people to actually conceive of Asians as monsters and beyond empathy? In this light, focusing on supposed anti-black racism gives America the chance to maintain its suspicion of hostility towards Asians, whilst presenting itself as the model for racial tolerance.

It is this last point that I find to be of interest; can America be a model for racial tolerance for Asian countries to emulate, particularly in the case of anti-black prejudice? Ostensibly, this is a no-brainer - after all civil rights, MLK and all that. Yet, blacks in America remain the poorest (due in part to prejudice in hiring), amongst the least educated, the most incarcerated, the most likely to be on death-row, make less money, and have shorter life-spans than whites. Plus, many police forces routinely target blacks - especially males - for harassment and random stops, and dozens of blacks die in police custody every year. Hispanics are not far behind either. In this light, I think that it is in the interests of African-Americans to beg China - and other Asian countries - not to look to America as the model for how to treat minorities.

It is for these reasons that I tend to think that the white media and the white voice has no place in the issue of racism in Asia. Firstly, what may be the most severe cases - against South and SouthEast Asians - are all but ignored, secondly, western criticisms often bear the characteristics, and are presented in a similar manner as inflammatory racial stereotyping, that is, one-sided, simplistic, and superficial, and thirdly, white Americans don't seem to have a realistic grasp of the depth and damage that white racism wreaks on ethnic minorities, so how can they advocate for something that they may not even seem to comprehend? That's not to say that all white people are like that - thankfully, there are voices of reason out there - but for the most part I would suggest that white America is out of touch with the experiences of its ethnic minorities.

Whilst I don't deny that racism may be a problem in Asian countries, I simply don't see how the west, and particularly America and Americans, can seriously present itself as a model for aspiration. In most western countries it is the dark-skinned and ethnic minorities who occupy the lowest rungs of the social ladder, and police harassment characterizes the experience of these communities. No, let's all hope that the economic powerhouses of North East Asia, look elsewhere for their model of race relations, the west has nothing to offer in that regard.


  1. Whenever I hear those self-righteous white devils complain about "human rights abuses", I wish they would turn black for a month...

    Thanks for the piece

  2. "Whilst I don't deny that racism may be a problem in Asian countries, I simply don't see how the west, and particularly America and Americans, can seriously present itself as a model for aspiration. In most western countries it is the dark-skinned and ethnic minorities who occupy the lowest rungs of the social ladder, and police harassment characterizes the experience of these communities. No, let's all hope that the economic powerhouses of North East Asia, look elsewhere for their model of race relations, the west has nothing to offer in that regard. "

    Whatchu talking about?!?! America is an inspirational model of race relations that Asian nations should emulate without question. Just ask Trayvon Martin! Or ask the millions of non-White minorities languishing in America's prisons, which have the honor of being the largest prison population in general of any nation on this planet! And, don't forget, Barack Obama's election as President means that America has now entered a glorious Post-Racial Utopia!

    Seriously though, you might call these examples that you cite above "America Playing the Race Card." In general, the USA has a very Machiavellian habit of shedding crocodile tears about XYZ issue (in this case racial discrimination) in other nations not out of sincere concern but rather as a cynical political weapon to discredit rival countries .. and implicitly to uphold itself as morally superior. This is all part of the national ideology known as American Exceptionalism that has gotten a lot of publicity recently.

    1. Larry

      Agreed! What is most troubling is that there is reinforcement of this "ideology" on the personal level - as I illustrated in the post. That is, Americans believe (genuinely or not) that they can improve racial understanding between peoples based on the example of their own country. Of course, America's example of race tolerance is in practice a nightmare that has no place in the modern world. Asia has nothing to learn from the US in this regard.

  3. ^lol troll....

    Really good work Ben, and I totally agree with you. This reminds me of a clip from the Daily Show a few months ago.

    "75%" rofl.

    1. Hey Tommy!

      Long time! That video is awesome - if I had known about it, I would have included it in the piece.