Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry [Pt. I]

This article and its second part are an extension of White Privilege in Asia, and look at the downsides of being a racial minority in Asia.

Asian acquaintances sometimes ask about my experiences with racism in their country. I struggle to respond in a meaningful way. Is there racism in Asia? Certainly. Is it overt? Frequently. Does it have a negative impact on my quality of life? Not so much. Asia has a very different history, perceptions, and socio-cultural norms regarding racial discrimination.

When I first moved to Taiwan 20+ years ago most Taiwanese self-identified as Chinese, and held Chinese views on racism: “We are the victims of Western imperialism and cultural bigotry. By definition we cannot be racist—we are the oppressed, and thus free to say anything.” A pretty good example came in conversation with a middle-aged Taiwanese man explaining how Western racial ideology brutalized Asia. He had a point, that was undercut by the fact he was concurrently expounding on his theory that black people [that’s not the term he used] had barely evolved from the apes. He was explaining why they’re all drug-addled animals…. But still, according to him, Chinese racism is an oxymoron—victims that they are. Surreal as the conversation was, it was not an outlier at that time.

As a graduate student in Canada I was classmates with a PhD candidate from Beijing. We were in a historiography (philosophy of history) class together. A lot of time was spent debating racist underpinnings in the writing of history. After one such class, he asked me why we considered racism wrong. In his opinion, as long as you could logically support your arguments, racial prejudice was valid. If you’ve read Chinese history, written by Chinese scholars, you have an idea where he was coming from. He tried to engage me in academic debate, but my own cultural/academic background prevented me from serious discourse on intellectual racism’s merits. He was not a bad guy and I wouldn’t exactly call him a racist. He simply reflected his own cultural background.

Shortly later I found myself living in a small South Korean city. The Land of the Morning Calm is one of Asia’s most xenophobic countries. My Korean experiences opened my eyes to Asian attitudes on race and racism. My favorite story is of a very sweet female college student in my class. One day she demurely informed me that, “Racism is one of the great flowers of Korean culture.” To her chagrin I burst out laughing. I could see on her face she was rechecking her English. I told her, “I’m not sure what you meant to say, but that definitely wasn’t it!” I was wrong. She got the English exactly right.

I’d spent my entire life absorbing an anti-racist message through school, family, media, etc. Korea taught me the same wasn’t necessarily true in Asia. Indeed many Asians saw nondiscrimination as potentially culturally dangerous. At that time the Korean economy was booming, The government was pushing global integration as the way forward and my adult class was animatedly discussing globalization in Korean. They were all very enthusiastic and asked my opinion. I told them they couldn’t realistically hope to globalize while maintaining a culture of ethnocentrism. They were outraged. As a single voice they leapt to racism’s defense. I pointed out globalization required foreign experts be welcomed as members of Korean society, so they’d be willing to stay and dedicate their working live’s to Korea. That brought the discussion crashing to an angry end—nothing must ever challenge Korea’s racial and cultural homogeneity. During their long history of invasion xenophobia was used to maintain the Korean race. For me to blithely call racism bad was to attack Korean culture’s very soul.

Korea is extreme, but not unique. All Asian societies are racially uniform, plus ethnically and culturally monolithic to a degree hard to comprehend for the average Westerner. In such homogeneous societies who is there to speak up against racism? Prejudices can proceed unabated by contact with other races. Most Asian societies prefer/demand racial and cultural constancy; change and diversity are seen as a threat. [See: The Unified Field Theory ]. It is no wonder many Asians don’t see a problem with racism—as long as it isn’t directed at them.

Have a look at Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry [Pt. II] for specific examples of white privilege not being all it’s cracked up to be.