Imagine that you have cooked yourself a meal, but after you sit down and try it, you notice that the taste is completely off – or rather, repulsing. What would you do? Most likely, you would go and check the ingredients, portion sizes, maybe the expiration dates. This isn’t necessarily different from racism. After all, how can we change our future if we do not understand our past? Let’s take a look at the multifaceted origins of racism in our shared history and other underlying patterns so that one day we can overcome them together.
Many Asians, who grow up outside of their home country, encounter racism at a very young age. Racism results from the environment we grow up in – it’s not a biological defect, but a product of our social context. Swiss philosopher Rousseau concluded more than two centuries ago that a child’s environment can be positive and stimulating, but also negative and corrupting. If we take nursery rhymes as an example, they are often filled with harmful stereotypes. Whether it is Ching Chang Chong in German or the Hanky Panky Shanghai chant in Dutch, “It’s not in Chinese, it’s just random words put together with the attempt to make fun of the language,” journalist Janet Lie clarifies.
This normalization of anti-Asian bullying is upheld to this day, more so than racist remarks towards other ethnic minorities. It is not perceived as racist if you make the slanted-eyes gesture or equate Chinese food to eating dogs. Instead, it is funny, at least for the ones doing it. For those subjected to it, it is simply a reminder that they are anything but an acceptable part of a country. This notion is known as the perpetual foreigner syndrome.
It makes me wonder as to why we are so focused on differences in appearances and behaviors, using them to ridicule, antagonize, polarize, and stereotype?
The “Us vs. Them” mentality
Humans are tribal, meaning that we have a basic need for our own social circle – a group of people we cooperate with and belong to. Historically, this group bias seems to form the core of our species.
Essentially, everyone that is not part of our group is treated as a foreigner, possibly dangerous, but certainly strange.
In one way, this anthropological trait makes us exceptionally social, good at forming friendships, families, and so on. In a different way, it makes us territorial, armed with outgroup prejudice that takes form in racism, antisemitism and homophobia. Essentially, everyone that is not part of our group is treated as a foreigner, possibly dangerous, but certainly strange.
While the hunters and gatherers had fewer problems with racism, if we look back at the earliest accounts of ethnic groups colliding, it is rarely a pretty picture.
A brief glance at the Europe-Asia relationship
For us Europeans, there is a tendency to point across the ocean, at the debatable cultural and political leaders of the world and use their circumstances as a downward comparison. That, aside from making us feel superior, does nothing for the rising accounts of Asian hate crimes due to COVID-19 in all of Europe, including, but not limited to, Sweden, Germany, the U.K., and right here in the Netherlands. So instead of perpetually eyeing the U.S., which is just another product of European colonialism, let’s start here in Europe that colonized 80% of the world in the past.
For a brief and incomplete overview of Asia’s colonization, the Spanish were colonizing the Philippines for almost 400 years. The Dutch set up a camp in India in 1602, followed later by the British. Therefore, it wasn’t until 1947 when the country finally became independent. The Dutch further colonized Indonesia (Java then) in 1607, its independence declared only in 1967. Hong Kong was only returned to China by the British in 1997 as the result of the British empire getting China hooked on opium 100 years prior.
The traces of colonialism are felt to this day, although it might be a bit hard to grasp and apply to the modern world. To understand how history can shape our present, let’s look at an example within close proximity.
Chinatowns as a necessity against racism
Chinatowns can be described as cultural enclaves in urban environments that are inhabited by mainly Chinese immigrants, or just the place to go for some nice authentic dumplings. However, as beloved and integrated as they have become, it is good to know that the reason for previously scattered Chinese settlements to concentrate and segregate was due to anti-Chinese racism. The one in Amsterdam, too.
Although it may seem that this kind of arrangement was a natural choice by Chinese immigrants, it was forced by the Dutch. The very first Chinese in the Netherlands were seamen hired as cheap labor in response to a strike by Dutch sailors. They were put on hold in boarding houses confined in the areas now known as Chinatown, and only got paid a minuscule fraction of what a Dutch sailor earned. Left without legal support, local job opportunities, or any possibilities to return to China, Chinese immigrants moved closer together for protection, making Chinatowns the necessities to survive and escape racism.
Despite its authenticity as the place where Chinese immigrants gathered, framing it as a tourist destination for an “oriental experience” remains to be a social construct formed and enforced by the “white” European society. I would reckon that most things Europeans think to know about Asia were planted through Westernized constructs.
Why the media is never objective
Most media outlets, biased towards their country of origin, promote a very specific and subjective narrative on other states. Without ever having visited certain countries and learning about certain cultures, we form our opinions about them based on news articles and stories.
Racism is not limited to a country or a continent. Diseases are just as political as they are biological. In 2014, the Ebola outbreak sparked racism against anything remotely African. Today, we are witnessing the same processes with COVID-19.
While you could argue that fully objective journalism is nothing more than a pipe dream, there persists a very real anti-Asian bias in Western media, even if it is not a deliberately conscious bias. In China, some students even took it upon themselves to rectify sinophobic claims presented by the media.
These kinds of activists are usually labeled as sponsored commentators that aim to manipulate public opinion and spread disinformation to benefit China. Even if that were true, invalidating and thus silencing a whole country and its people cannot be the solution. What we should take from this instead is the need for people to process information consciously, aware of its origins, and understand that behind those headlines and labels are real people like you and me. Otherwise, the urgent need to protect and preserve the values and ideals we grew up with, alienating everything else, brings us right back to our precious “us. vs. them” mentality.
Towards a brighter future
When we encounter something foreign to us, first, we will always note all the differences, everything that separates us from them. Instead of looking past those differences, trying to ignore them, let’s try to understand them. More often than not, those differences that are cloaked in layers of another culture and distorted by prejudice, turn out to be hidden similarities.
The greatest tragedy of today’s racism entrenched in society might be the fact that its effects are just as deeply rooted in its victims. Instead of continuously watering those roots and letting them fester, reflecting on your cognitions and doing some restructuring could make life a bit more enjoyable – for you and those around you.
Let’s make sure to check our ingredients thoroughly and not repeat past mistakes – because only then can we enjoy a good, homemade meal.
Cover: Cindy Zheng
Edited by: Gaukhar Orkashbayeva