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Pet Sins January 2005

Asian racism - an overview

There is not one Asian attitude towards 'foreigners', Asian or otherwise. Some Asians treat Europeans and other 'outsiders' with hostility or indifference. Some treat Europeans unpleasantly, but treat non-European 'outsiders' even more so. Some are fascinated with foreigners, whether European, African, or other Asian, and this fascination gives rise to special treatment. And some worship the European while looking down on non-Europeans, including other Asians. The last attitude, is, by far, the most talked about and criticized since it upsets those who feel they are being discriminated against as well as some Europeans who do not wish to be treated differently, even if it means being treated better.

The idea of white supremacy among Asians is a sensitive issue to discuss among both Europeans and Asians - many Europeans, who enjoy their special treatment in Asia, are not comfortable facing up to the reality of Asian racism against people of color, which is the other side of the coin. Many Asians, faced with hostile accusations from other people of color, feel the need to defend themselves and find 'non-racist' explanations for the double standard in the treatment of Europeans and non-Europeans.

True, there are many counter-examples to the typical scenario of Asians-treat-white-European-better-than-they-treat-people-of-color. And we should at least mention some of them in passing to see the bigger picture and avoid wrongly accusing people of racism, as doing so often hurts people deeply and alienates would-be allies. Here are some scenarios mentioned by Asians in defense against the common charge that Asian salespeople and other service providers generally give better service to Europeans:

  • Some people are just plainly rude to everybody, including Europeans - there are certainly many examples of this. Many people who are ethnically European complain of the rudeness of Koreans, whom they perceive as uniformly hostile against outsiders. Some European-descent whites who have travelled to different Asian countries generally note that the East Asians are colder, unlike the friendly Southeast Asians. But having said that, there are also anecdotes that indicate that blacks have it worse than whites in Asia, even when both are despised foreigners.

  • "It is reasonable to give the tourist better treatment than the local." - I have heard this was the response given by a number of Singaporean businesses when 2 reporters (one of European descent and the other of Chinese descent) investigated how they were treated individually in stores. The European received more prompt attention and more enthusiastic service. When confronted by a print article, the offenders replied, "The tourist will only be in Singapore for a short while, and therefore needs a faster turnaround to his concerns", or "the local prefers to browse unbothered by the staff". While there is some truth to the second excuse, there are few locals who believe that the colonial legacy of white supremacy has nothing to do with this preferential treatment for the European. As the writer bell hooks said, "You don't have to be white to be a white supremacist."

  • "What's rare is a treasure" - this is a Chinese man's response when asked why he thought Asians give preferential treatment to European visitors - the exotic is treated as a celebrity. This is believable in some circumstances - the black American writer Yvonne Welbon was "prized in Taiwan because she is so different", a far cry from how she was treated in the US. Many black expatriates in Japan have found little to complain about by way of friendly people curious about foreigners. But we also cannot ignore the hostility against black foreigners in some parts of China, a hostility that does not extend to white foreigners.

The thing is, all these can be true - all at the same time. As we said, there is not one Asian attitude towards anything for that matter, and in this issue, we are only exploring one aspect of Asian relations with other races - the aspect that is unjust because it discriminates in favor of some foreigners against others.