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Society & Culture

Racism is Political

Apr 29, 2021
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

The beating of 75-year-old Xiao Zhen Xie in San Francisco. The assault on 65-year-old Vilma Kari in New York. The shootings in Atlanta. These are all chilling reminders that racism against Asian persons of colour is very much real and alive in America today. 

Now, towards such phenomena, some make the following claim – that racism is not about politics, that it is merely the manifestation of innate prejudice based upon the primordial basis of one’s race, and bigoted, empirically misinformed malice. Personal character, not political structure, is to blame. 

This is a mistaken assertion. Racism is political – it is the product of politics, individual or collective; it is a political tool employed to enshrine the power of the privileged, intentionally or subconsciously; it is inextricably linked to the worsening geopolitical relations between the two largest powers in the world – though such explanations could by no means excuse its occurrence. 

To depoliticise racism is no less disingenuous than attributing the crimes of a white mass murderer to their individual character, whilst taking each and every episode of Islamist violence, for example, as ostensibly emblematic of Islam as a religion. These double standards, these myths, are deeply unconducive towards genuine reconciliation and justice. 

The current onslaught against Asian Americans in the United States is rooted in politics – both contemporary and historical. In his desperate bid to remain in office amidst a historic pandemic, President Trump sought to shirk responsibility and shift public scrutiny away from his inept administration response. It was with such reckless slovenliness that he turned to casting COVID-19 as the ‘Kung Flu’, as the result of the ‘Wuhan Virus’, as an ostensible sign of China’s depraved hygiene standards – even when the country was amongst the first in the world to have contained the virus’ spread. 

Yet the anti-Chinese virulence was not an invention spurred by COVID-19 – it had been propagated by an alarmist, borderline McCarthyist American establishment, even before the pandemic. Whilst Trump lavished praise over President Xi Jinping, he minced no words in his portrayal of Chinese businesses and farmers as systemic enemies “stealing American jobs”. His administration openly courted unfounded rumours over the alleged influx of “spies” from China; his deeply anti-migrant policies and trenchant xenophobia profusely isolated and othered the student and migrant populations in the country, who had contributed volumes towards America’s economy and technology, amongst other sectors. 

In turn, we must recognise that Trump’s rhetoric was built upon decades-worth of anti-Asian bigotry and violence in the country. From the Page Act of 1875, to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the systemic internment of Japanese Americans during World War II in camps, America had always been a space where being Asian, being foreign, was akin to a free pass for the administration to abuse, to erase, to silence those who did not resemble the WASP majority inhabiting the country. The ongoing wave of physical assaults, psychological abuse, and social derogation can be traced to the ugly political beasts of nativism and white supremacism, who rear their heads during upheaval and crises at large. 

As bilateral relations sour between America and China, many in the Chinese diaspora have found themselves caught amidst the crossfire, into which they were unwittingly dragged. 

Some have quipped that it is imperative that we disentangle criticisms of China as a state, or of the Chinese Communist Party, or of the systematic infiltration of American society by “Chinese intelligence”, from racist criticisms of the Chinese people. Those who make this argument would often follow with the suggestion that critiques of Beijing and its overseas ‘United Front’ have not and do not contribute towards the shameful racism on display in America. 

In theory, I echo such sentiments. We should and must engage in reasonable critiques of the Chinese state, of the bellicose and hawkish foreign policy of some Chinese diplomats, of the Chinese model of governance, so long as we do so in a way that differs from unfounded bigotry targeting the Chinese diaspora. 

Yet we must also be cognizant of realities – however inconvenient they are. In theory, we could always tell one apart from the other – that is, we can decouple critiques of the Chinese regime from criticisms of the Chinese. In practice, criticisms of the Chinese state are often embedded with latent assumptions and misrepresentation of the Chinese people. East Asian scholars and researchers are branded as agents of “espionage and subversion”, to the point where many are wary of working with or for the U.S. government, lest they be besmirched by manipulative enemies. Migrant workers are blamed for the pandemic, their voices and stories swept under the carpet by polarising discourses that associate them with the “barbaric” cultural practices with which China is allegedly packed to the brim. 

The inadvertent – albeit clearly foreseeable – consequence of framing China as an existential enemy to the United States, is the widely detrimental perception that East Asians in America are threats to the domestic population. Even those who have contributed towards and embodied the values of America have found themselves at loggerheads with the sceptical, suspicious population. 

A particular example can be found in Lee Wong, a veteran Chinese-American. At a recent township meeting in West Chester, Ohio, Lee lifted his shirt to reveal his battle-worn, scarred torso, and asked, “Is this patriot enough?” 

For some, the answer could be a “Maybe”. To others, the answer would always be, “Never”. Lee was a foreigner to a land that he called home. He was a stranger to the community he had sought to lead with devotion. 

Lee was compelled to prove his worth and loyalty – even though no such demand should be necessary, especially given he had literally dedicated his entire life to serving the country. 

The lived experiences, struggles, and calamities confronting Asian Americans are innately political. They reflect political and discursive structures that are loathe to recognise their concerns. They reflect our latent tendencies to brush away the suffering of Asians because they are “model minorities”, or because they “have it easier” given their relative socioeconomic affluence and successes. Some would even go as far as to term Asian Americans “privileged”, as a result of their socioeconomic status and occupational successes. 

These stylised facts are political constructs – they are disingenuous insofar as they do not reflect the hardships that befall the community; they are dangerous, for they legitimise convenient tropes that portray Asians as having it all; they are alienating, in silencing the stories of those who do not live up narrowly to mass perceptions and expectations.    

Politics is fundamentally a question about the distribution of power, of credibility, of the opportunity to speak and to be listened to. The propagation of misconceptions by mass media, social media, politicians concerning Asian Americans, is therefore innately political. These lies, these myths, these tropes are the direct product of speech-acts wielded by the powerful and the ignorant, against those whose plights and rights often elude racial discourses and conversations in the country. 

If we are to rebuild trust and goodwill across both sides of the Pacific; if we are to indeed reconstruct a new normal to Sino-American relationship, it is imperative that we work collectively to tackle the ongoing racism against Asian Americans. Not only is it the morally right thing to do, it is also the politically responsible thing to do. After all, only through solidarity and unity – not division and inequality – could fundamental value and ideological disagreements be resolved.

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