It’s common knowledge that when it comes to racial remarks, Chinese people (and perhaps Asians in general) are not the most politically correct people in the world. We’ve had extended discussions about “racism” in China (see, e.g., Chocolate City post by Buxi). Recently, I came across an interesting article in Times Magazine (in relation to the U.S. Presidential politics) regarding racism in Asia. Unfortunately, I believe the author falls into many pitfalls that many Westerners make when it comes to Asian racism.
The article started out fair enough:
Early this year my wife and I watched Venus Williams, one of the world’s finest tennis players, compete in Hong Kong. During the match several young men sitting near us kept referring in Cantonese to Williams as “black demon,” as well as another unprintable epithet. They shut up when my wife, an American citizen who is ethnic Chinese, berated them for their racist language. (Williams, by the way, won the tournament.) What, I wonder today, would those men say about Barack Obama, who soon could be the U.S.’s first African-American President?
In this case, I wouldn’t be surprised if racial slurs were indeed exchanged by Chinese in the stands. However, it is also entirely possible that the author had misunderstood what actually transpired (his ethnically-Chinese wife notwithstanding).
I know if this incident had occurred in Taiwan, depending on the circumstances, the bystanders could have simply been referring to the athletic skills of Venus Williams in a jovial manner (building upon the ingrained view among Chinese / Asians that black people possess superior athletic prowess).
While the term “black demon” (黑鬼) can be used as a derogatory term for black people (equivalent terms for white people include 洋鬼子 (western demons) and 鬼佬 (foreign devils)), in the South, especially in the Canton area, the term 黑鬼 appears to have been incorporated into daily language and currently carries no derogatory connotation.
To really carry negative connotations in the Cantonese dialect (one of the most “colorful” of Chinese dialects), you would have to add explicit expletives as in 死黑鬼) – i.e. “damn black demon.”
The article went on:
Perhaps it’s the memory of slavery, or the legacy of the civil rights movement, or the need to be politically correct, or just plain politeness, but most Americans, particularly whites, are relatively restrained in word and deed about race. Most Asians are uninhibited about it. Asia’s vast ethnic diversity means we are forced to confront the very many real differences — cultural, political, economic — that exist among us. Sometimes those differences erupt in violence. At least half of the world’s armed conflicts are in Asia, nearly all ethnic-based. But the bigger reason Asians do not focus on commonality is because their societies do not encourage it.
This was a very puzzling passage to me. If both America and Asia shared similar histories of ethnic conflicts, and if Asians further have to confront the “very many real differences — cultural, political, economic — that exist among us” … in some of the most densely populated regions of the world, then why is it the Americans not the Asians who have evolved Political Correctness? Is there really something intrinsic in Asian cultures that discourage people from finding “commonality” among us, as the author put it?
However, just as the author was getting me lost, he also made some insightful remarks:
In many [Asian] countries, ethnic divisions are institutionalized, with strict laws governing what one race can and cannot do. In largely homogenous Japan, it’s extremely difficult for a non-Japanese to become a citizen even if born there. In Malaysia, an affirmative-action program gives preference to Malays over the country’s sizable Chinese and Indian populations in everything from university places to government contracts. In Pakistan, Punjabis, the dominant ethnic group, are favored for key positions in the powerful military and civil service. Government leaders argue that these kinds of measures help maintain harmony. Maybe so, but it is a superficial harmony that reinforces stereotypes and hinders the creation, in the long run, of genuine tolerance and understanding.
I have to agree with most of this. I don’t think it can be over-emphasized that it is institutionalized racism – or what I have called “political racism” (racism with an intent to oppress) – that is at the root of what makes racism so inflammatory and despicable.
I understand I may be misinterpreted, but I believe it is a mistake to conflate racism as an ideology designed to oppress (“political racism”) with racism arising out of ignorance (traditional “social racism”).
Until very recently China is an agrarian society with relatively little movement of people. The racism we see today is more a form of ingrained “localism” that have persisted from historical isolation rather than vestiges of a political ideology.
People should note that the basis of Chineseness as a political entity in the modern era (since the beginning of the Republic (and later the People’s Republic)) has always been based on a multicultural identity. Throughout most of China’s history, China has never confronted the sort of “political racism” seen in Europe and America, many vestiges of which still exist (see for example, articles on racism in France, Italy, and America). It’s little wonder many Chinese people have not yet developed the type of hyper sensitivity to race that has preoccupied the West (at least America) for some time.
As China advances and globalizes, many Chinese will undoubtedly culture a more sensitive attitude toward race in its colloquial language.
Do you agree with my characterization of racism in China vs. racism in the West?
Am I correct to say that the Chinese are not “racist,” but simply “politically incorrect”?
And finally, since we have an international audience here, I might as well ask a question associated with International Politics. Why does it seem to me that in the Western eye, ethno-religious (or socio-economic) tensions in the West are always framed through the lens of “civil rights” whereas ethno-religious (or socio-economic) tensions in China are always framed through the lens of nationalism and self-determination?