Well. Have shovel, will dig own hole. But let’s talk about this.
Ever since coming back to Asia, I’ve had Thoughts on this, and I’ve met some interesting people along the way who have sparked further Thoughts on it. I don’t intend to create answers here, but would rather clarify the questions I think people should be asking.
So as a premise, we should talk colonialism, and I’m going to have to talk about it in general terms. While the method varied from coloniser to coloniser, the British are most famous for it. As far as Europe goes though, we shouldn’t forget the variety of effects of French, Belgian, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Italian colonialism in this interpretation of the colonial empire. That said, I should also preface that empire is nothing new, and the subjugation of foreign peoples for a more powerful one is not unique to Europe. Most of contemporary Russia is still the result of conquest, the Ottoman Empire ruled huge swathes of non-Turkic peoples, and China is its own thing and still is.
It’s important to note that while people think of China today as one big ethnic group with the exception of Uighurs and Tibetans, at least some of that was with a conscious repression and nationalisation effort over the decades, when historically much of the country’s history was one of domination of Han and Mandarin-speaking Chinese over various minorities within an imperial context. This was especially the case during the Mao years when CCP control was near-absolute, and “Cultural Revolution” is not a misnomer. We should separate imperial repression from the similarly conscious British imperial and economic goals of the Opium Wars and the various imperial goals advanced during the Boxer Rebellion. Does it make a difference whether exploitation comes from Peking or from London?
Thus, exploitation and racism are not unique to white people. However, it was during a time when science, technology and philosophy were coming into conflict with the practical reality of empire building that exploitation and racism then had to be justified.
In the 1200s it was probably enough for Mongols to rape and burn their way across most of Eurasia in the confident belief that they were the Chosen People to rule the world. It’s how their Secret History even recalls it. They treated their enemies like cattle during battle, and so it’s not a huge stretch that they would simply believe so. A suitable question to ask is whether atrocities leading to millions of deaths in the 1200s are any less acceptable than those in the 1800s or 1900s.
But this gets complicated when some popular thinkers start talking about how all men are equal, or that the only thing separating man from barbarism is socio-economic stability and good governance. If all men are equal, how can you justify the exploitation of foreign places and peoples? You accentuate their foreignness, you teach your new generation that they are not as human as you are. But it’s not enough to just say that God said so anymore because your increasingly educated and prosperous people will question that. You have to make a system out of it. The long-winded justification for systems that survived on racism is where the whole thing gets rather sickening, but the base assumption is “We’re better than them, that’s why we’re ruling them” with the addition of “And this is why.”
It would be remiss to not also briefly touch on slavery, because this is what makes the difference between the practice of slavery which goes back millennia across many cultures, to the intellectual attempts of justification and systematic implementation of slavery as practised in the Atlantic slave trade. When Rome held slaves, there was often little pretence of intrinsic human rights, but the contrast comes from the idea of the intrinsic value of humanity being used to justify the oppression and enslavement of certain groups of them.
When you travel anywhere, you start to see that no matter what country you go to, richer peoples look down on poorer peoples, and because there is a demographic correlation based on race or nationality, people assume them to be racial or national cultural characteristics, rather than as a consequence of their socioeconomic history.
This is why the Victorian period is such a fascinating contrast of influences because on the one hand, you have high minded enlightenment rhetoric being used to justify the brutal exploitation of foreign peoples. It’s very arguable that we’re still working out the problems with understanding this today, because how can we love the intellectualism and literature of the day, while also understanding the system that it was a part of and arguably helped to perpetuate? The Jungle Book is a classic piece of literature, the adaptations of which are still being made and enjoyed today, but it wouldn’t exist without Rudyard Kipling being a British man raised in India. When you get into his own life and views it becomes even more complicated, but we’ll have to keep away from literary criticism of authorial intent for now.
So, fast forward to the present day realities that I have experienced. Just to set the stage, my family is Vietnamese, but I was born in the US which gives me an American passport, but from age 3 to age 18 I lived in Indonesia, but while I was there I went to a British International School. I later returned to the US, discovered American race discussion completely fresh, but then moved to Switzerland. We’ll get to contemporary Europe later.
Self-segregation of communities is a thing that definitely happens. In the US, it’s a discussion of how schools, despite being legally non-segregated, become segregated as a result of socio-economic differences according to neighbourhood. However, in my Asian context, it’s a little different. We’re going to put the exoticism to do with Asia on a shelf for this discussion too.
My British school was an international school, and from the beginning there were a mix of kids there: British and various Commonwealth-related countries, Asians from Singapore, Malaysia, Japan or Korea, kids of mixed parentage (half Asian, half white), a few Indians and Sri Lankans, some Europeans, and so on. And there was me, too, and I don’t remember it being that much of an issue that I was American but not American at the same time. Nevertheless, you could still feel kids of more Asian upbringing and kids of more Western upbringing tend to hang out with each other more. It didn’t stop people from talking to each other or hanging out, but the trend was definitely there, though it got less as we got older.
The US has a noticeable Asian population, and as part of the race narrative there, they also want to be seen as just other kinds of Americans. I lived there twice, and it felt like that process had progressed, which is overall a good thing… except that in my specific case it wasn’t something I identified with. I hadn’t grown up with their problems and so I didn’t like the way they sometimes tried to speak on my behalf.
America’s parochialism sometimes means that they assume that their race theory is universal. I had a Jamaican colleague in Florida who would insist that he’s not African-American, he’s Jamaican, but a lot of Americans don’t really have the exposure or experience to think in terms of the differences that national context can have. For a lot of them, it is all about the dominant white majority and they project that onto the world because it is easy to see European colonialism as being the same thing. On the surface, it does look like the same thing, but it gets more complicated when you dig deeper.
Which brings me to people who have grown up with a post-colonial education, such as out here in Asia, and this can manifest in different ways. For the vast majority of people, colonialism is something that happened a long time ago, but the nation-states that they live in today are relatively new and modern and defined by not only the circumstances which birthed them but also the current ones they live in. Even if it, historically, wasn’t long at all, memories can be quite short.
I have met some truly compelling and intelligent people out here who, in some ways, still see the world in those racial terms, but from the reverse. For them, you could believe that they see everything as being about the relationship between white people and non-white (brown) people, and this has always made me uncomfortable.
In 2014 Switzerland had a referendum spearheaded by the populist right-wing against Mass Immigration from the EU. Red denotes being in favour of the then-current policy, green being in favour of implementing quotas. You can see a clear delineation between French-speaking and German-speaking regions, as well as urban-rural divides. @Wikimedia
Spend any time in Europe and you will see different people experience racism that can have nothing to do with skin colour. In Switzerland, it is all about the idea that some people don’t know how to behave properly in Swiss society, and that concept is projected onto Cultural Others. This can include anyone, but while most people from the Balkans or Eastern Europe have no perceptible difference in skin colour, but still experience racism because they are seen as different. This varies a lot regionally though, as the French-speaking regions tend to be more open to immigration (as has been reflected in their voting behaviour). The Italian-speaking Ticino has the strongest record of anti-immigration policy, but it should also be said that their prejudice is actually mostly against Italians, and sharing a language feels like it encourages them to accentuate their differences.
“Our client would not like the following nationalities: Albanian, Croatian, Turkish, and people from warm countries, for example, Brazil.”
And let’s repeat the old tendency: The only commonality is that these Cultural Others come from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds. People assume it is race or nationality related because of correlation, and assuming it is causation. It is not one’s fault that they grew up in a slum, came from a war-torn country, or that country experienced 30 years of economic mismanagement and dictatorship.
People only see what they see in front of them though, and they see people who are the result of a lack of education and/or socio-economic stability but only see skin colour, language, and other cultural or national signifiers of Otherness.
I find it strange, however, to look from this perspective at your life and personal interactions and see everything in terms of race. It might say more about the way you see the world than what actually happens.
I’ve been told that local people here sometimes feel uncomfortable with white tourists, because they feel like the white tourists think they’re better than them, and this gets corroborated with their experience in Europe sometimes. I should first of all say that sometimes they’re right. I have met people who travel out here to Asia but also complain that their home country is full of Chinese people and not see the irony.
On the other hand, interpretation of intent is an analytical behaviour that’s rife with potential flaws, particularly subjectivity and confirmation bias. People see what they want to see, and this self-centeredness is pretty human. When someone isn’t friendly to you in a context you would expect them to be friendly in, it could be for all kinds of reasons. They could be having a bad day, they could be socially awkward, or they could just be inexperienced with different people but still open-minded to them. If you’ve never come close to meeting an Asian person before, especially in this climate which tries to teach everyone to be culturally sensitive, a little hesitancy is to be expected. It’s also just as possible that they’re an asshole to everyone regardless of race.
Something I think everyone should learn sometime in their life is not to project their own insecurities on other people. I like to think most people grow out of it past adolescence, but in general, what you think people notice about you isn’t necessarily what they do. Speaking as an amateur historian, it can be easy to see the contemporary world as still motivated by the historical forces you study, but that is still presumptuous and disregards the agency of contemporary people to make their own mistakes.
You might see their behaviour as the manifestation of centuries of racial justification of socio-economic exploitation into current day economic inequality where tourists claim that seeing poverty is seeing the real locals… Or they could just be a bitch.
This is not to say that you can’t educate, in an everyday and practical sense, about the potentially troubling behaviour which hearkens back to colonialist or racist history. It also isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen. Rather, my point is to keep an open mind, and that it doesn’t pay to view the world exclusively through this lens. Nor does it help to put an American racial lens on other regions or cultures, despite that they produce a lot of our contemporary academic discussion on it.
Whatever you decide to do with your knowledge and perspective, always remember that it doesn’t always translate into real life and that you could always be wrong. Indeed, the times you are wrong should be celebrated as little course corrections on your path through life.