Asia Has Its Own Strands of Racism. It’s Time to Take Them Seriously.

Racism is a problem around the world, but is often overlooked when the problem doesn’t fit neatly into the much-discussed American framework.

According to a survey from the Pew Center in November 2021, over 90 percent of people in South Korea, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, and many other nations, believe that racial and ethnic discrimination is a “serious problem” in the United States. But apparently many believe this is a distinctly American issue: Only in South Korea did a majority think such discrimination was a “serious problem” in their own country too.

Offshoring the problem to the United States may be convenient, but it is unlikely to last. Racism is being called out across Asia. Chinese scholar Yinghong Cheng depicts racism in China as widespread but also as “an independent variation rather than an imitation or reflection of Western racism.”

In a new book, “Multiracism,” I gather evidence from the many histories of racism across Asia and show that, although they all share an ideology of ethnic superiority and purity, racism comes in many different varieties. My task was made easier by the fact that recent years have seen something of a flowering of discussion around the topic.

“The conversation about race is now ‘loud,’” said Dr. Janil Puthucheary, of Singapore’s One People agency, and “Singaporeans are ‘not shying away’ from calling people out on racism.”

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The conversation may not be “loud” elsewhere, but it is still happening and reflects a global trend. For example, Yazidi rights advocate and Nobel Peace winner Nadia Murad talks about her community enduring “racism and identity change in plain sight of the international community.” The telling title of a report published in 2020 by the Arab Reform Initiative on anti-Black racism in North Africa is “Ending Denial.”

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The mood is changing, and challenging racism may be evolving from finger pointing into a constructive, even patriotic, intervention. NGOs are leading the way, such as Malaysia’s Pusat KOMAS, which publishes a yearly report on “Racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia.” The 2021 report shows how these problems “occur on a daily basis, impeding progress for millions of people.” It’s a bitter pill but also a national tonic: “We hope,” the report continues, “to inform the public about racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia in Malaysia, and inspire every Malaysian to come together to promote national unity for our beloved nation.”

Similar work is being undertaken by NGOs in many other countries. South Korea’s Solidarity with Migrants group works alongside other NGOs to challenge discrimination and support integration. These issues have become pressing as the migrant population has grown. A few decades ago there were about 100,000 migrants in South Korea; now there are 1.5 million. With this expansion the question of how different ethnic groups can live alongside each other becomes unavoidable.

Yet the traffic on this topic is not all going in the same direction. In fact, it’s chaotic. New conversations are happening across Asia, but American models of identity and difference continue to be globalized, pushing Asian realities to the sidelines. African American youth culture has been adopted and adapted across the world as an expressive repository for everything and anything to do with race and racism. Using images of Black people to virtue signal on racism is now common in a number of countries and can turn into a kind of avoidance strategy: “Racism? Not here – look at all our nice pictures of Black people! End of discussion.”

The roadblocks to engagement remain huge. Some of the blame lies with the way the word “racism” has been weaponized: It is often reduced to an accusation to hurl at one’s opponents. This makes admitting and acknowledging the existence of racism not just difficult but impossible. It is always someone else’s mess.

China’s former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping once boasted that “since New China was founded in 1949, there has never been any ethnic discrimination in the country.” It was a point later elaborated by Premier Zhao Ziyang when he explained that racism is common “everywhere in the world except China.”

This mantra means that calling out racism becomes dangerous, and discriminatory attitudes can go unchecked and even become state policy. Documents leaked as part of the Xinjiang Police Files illustrate a policy of “targeting almost any expression of Uyghur identity, culture or Islamic faith.” It is a policy that involves mass internment and the forced sterilization of a culturally and physically distinct minority. The surveillance of Tibetans and Uyghurs in China is now endemic. Not only is their access to passports and hotel accommodation curtailed but the New York Times revealed “the first known example of a government intentionally using artificial intelligence for racial profiling” in China; a system of “advanced facial recognition technology” that acts “to track and control” Tibetans and Uyghurs.

Accusations of racism are easily flipped. In response to these sorts of claims a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman brandished a photograph of Black slaves picking cotton in the United States. The Chinese deputy ambassador to the U.N. pointed out that the United States’ long history of racism means it cannot “get on a high horse and tell other countries what to do.”

This point has a wide and receptive audience. Being accused of racism by representatives of a country founded on racism is deeply galling. But this push-back is far from innocent. It is indicative of a wider culture of denial. When it comes to racism it is not the places where the debate is loud and raucous that are most concerning; it’s the places where debate is crushed. In the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: “The executioner always kills twice, the second time through silence.”

Although there are nervous noises about Xinjiang from some countries, Western critics of racism have very little interest in Asia. Even in the academic field of ethnic and racial studies, they rarely lift their sightline beyond home shores. In part, this is why I wrote “Multiracism”: because a globalizing planet needs global perspectives, and because mutually beneficial dialogue is better than finger-pointing and denial. This may sound naive, but it is a strategic naivety. It is important to have a direction of travel, even if you know you might not get to the desired destination.

Racism is a worldwide problem with diverse roots and routes. No one country, culture, or race owns it. This makes the problem more complex. It also means that listening to the many different voices and stories of ethnic discrimination – most of which continue to be sidelined – will need to be at the core of tomorrow’s inclusive societies.