USA vs. HK #1: Racism

A friend of mine came across a short essay by Andrew Sullivan called The Racism in China, and suggested that it might be an appropriate topic for me to write about.  Since racism has been lurking in the background of many of my posts, I guess I should take the bait and discuss it more directly.  I was going to start off this new USA vs. HK series with something a little easier, like health care or the environment, but I’ve haven’t been stirring up as much controversy as I’d like anyway, so here goes…

Much of what Sullivan says is consistent with my experiences both in mainland China and in HK.  Chinese feelings toward Westerners are definitely complex; there is a mixture of respect and disdain.  I’m considered somewhat barbarous and uncultured (and rightly so).  But I’m also seen as clever and knowledgeable (often undeservedly).  The complexity of the term gweilo is an illustration of this ambivalence.  Gweilo is not a racial slur in the sense that an American would think of one, nor is it a purely positive or even purely neutral term.  Like most things in HK, the meaning of the term gweilo depends on context.

But in general, being a gweilo in HK is hardly something to complain about.  There are advantages with women, and there are the corresponding disadvantages with men (mostly just a few nasty looks on the trains so far).

Sullivan also mentions that Chinese feelings toward non-white and non-Asian minorities (“blacks, browns and reds”) are considerably less complex.  Here, Chinese racism approximates white American racism; racist Chinese people see themselves as racially and culturally superior to dark skinned people.

But Sullivan seems to be drawing a distinction between the uniformly tolerant Americans and the uniformly intolerant Chinese.  Here, he completely misrepresents reality.  There is racism and ethnocentrism in both the US and China.  The difference is a matter of degree.  And particularly in HK, which has attitudes the mainland is likely progressing towards, most educated young people are not racist.  Do they stereotype?  Of course, but I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t.  I don’t see a lot of racial hatred here, and I don’t see (open) expression of racial superiority.  It’s pretty similar to the US in these respects.  In fact, I see much less than I saw in Alabama before I left (the ride from Birmingham to Atlanta on the airport shuttle was quite educational, to say the least).  But I can’t understand conversations between two Chinese people, and my minority status doesn’t make me privy to the kinds of conversations I heard as a white person in a group of white people in Alabama.  So like all my observations here, these are biased by what I can understand.

Still, there are differences that I can detect.  Having worked in the same industry in both the US and HK, things are definitely different here when it comes to race.  In Boulder, if a parent actually requested a white teacher, we would absolutely refuse to accommodate such a request.  And everyone knows that, so even if some Boulder mom really was that racist, she would no better than to ask.  In HK, we get this request fairly often, and though my co-workers think it’s ridiculous, racist, and unreasonable, and they push against it to a certain extent, in the end they generally find the mom her white faced tutor.  My predecessor was Indian, and he experienced several incidents of racism: people assumed he wasn’t qualified to teach classes that required native English ability because he didn’t “look” like he was a native speaker, and some students just made up excuses not to work with him.  But generally it’s the older generation that holds these beliefs.  The cops in HK, like the cops in the US, have their favorite ethnic groups to target: here it’s mostly South Asians they mess with.

But when speaking of the US, Sullivan forgets his own history, and present.  It wasn’t that long ago that the US had all the problems he currently ascribes to China.  And though the US is far from perfect when it comes to race relations, we’ve come a long way.  We aren’t the only ones capable of such progress.  Sullivan assumes that Chinese racism is a fixed characteristic of their culture.  He writes, “It is thus hard to imagine China welcoming millions of hard-working Nigerians and Bangladeshis with open arms. This could change over the next couple of decades as China’s labor shortage grows acute. I wouldn’t bet on it.”  Why not?  It’s been changing in most parts of the world, why not in China?  (As for his prediction that China will have an “acute” labor shortage in the near future…I wouldn’t bet on it.  But I’ll save my discussion of technological unemployment for another day.)  And what planet does this guy live on?  Is he under the impression that Americans are all welcoming hard-working Mexicans with open arms?  Has he seen Fox News?

I love my country.  Now more than ever.  I’m proud that people of different backgrounds can live, love and learn together in the US.  I’m proud that my identity as an American is broader and more inclusive than just my ethnicity or race.  But like the Chinese, not all Americans are so cosmopolitan in their love of country.

HK is in between China’s past and China’s future.  As the planet becomes more globalized, and people move around more and more, egocentricity will continually decline.  I’d say the Chinese are moving in this direction at least as fast as the Europeans.  This idea of “the West” being ahead of “the East” seems particularly misguided, given Europe’s recent troubles with immigrants.  Hopefully, China, HK, the US and the world continue on this track.

So I addressed the issue, and I tried to do so evenhandedly, from limited information.  I encourage comments and debate, particularly from anyone who has seen these issues from a perspective different than my own.

This is also the first in what I intend to make a regular series on my blog: USA vs. HK, so I have to decide on a winner.  The winner in the “who’s less ethnocentric” contest, as Andrew Sullivan framed it, is the USA.  Not a big surprise, but it’s a lot closer than Sullivan implies.  And it’s a matter of degree, and neither society is static or homogenous when it comes this stuff.  But if I have to choose a winner, I choose the USA on this one.  Parts of the US would surely lose to HK, but to be fair, I’m comparing HK to the places I’ve lived in the US (places like Madison, Denver, Boulder, and Minneapolis, not Louisiana and Mississippi).  That will be my comparison throughout this series.  I think it’s a reasonable comparison; after all, HK doesn’t represent mainland China any more than Madison and Denver represent the US.

The main reason for the US victory here is the intolerance of racism by non-racists.  Both countries have laws officially outlawing racial discrimination of any kind.  The difference is that the US (at least my parts of the US) has a cultural norm that reinforces the law against discrimination, and this completely changes the whole equation.  That is one area where I see a qualitative difference.  By being more intolerant, the US wins the battle of tolerance.

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8 responses to “USA vs. HK #1: Racism

  1. Good post…should clarify that Sullivan (who is British) is quoting Reihan Salam (who is not white) for most of that post.

    One interesting aspect I think is how you draw the distinction between the Chinese tolerance of intolerance and the US’s intolerance of intolerance (intolerance^2). But the US also has intolerance^3 where people get up in arms over those who too vocally decry intolerance. I suppose I count myself among that group sometimes because I think people can be way too quick to spot racism/sexism/etc.

    So the question is, is this third stage of intolerance a step back towards the first stage (tolerating intolerance) or is it yet another step beyond where intolerance is so reviled that it should not even be mentioned in the form of intolerance^2.

  2. well, as per usual, this all sounds awfully similar to what i see in korea. racism is always a hot blog topic here. what i find most surprising (though probably shouldn’t) is the fact that those doing most of the complaining are predominantly white middle class and suburban. it’s the ones who have never experienced life as a minority of any kind before, and don’t like it. to be fair to them, there is a fair bit of racism directed as white kids here, and something i got to see often when with my girlfriend, who looks korean but is not. hell hath no fury like a korean looking upon a korean girl with a white guy.

    but to comment on one specific point from your post, and the one that the previous commenter touched on, the tolerance of intolerance is probably the central reason why i could see korea, and, as it sounds, china, having more trouble than the u.s. in working through their problems. minority groups, while growing in asia, still have much less of a voice than they did in america. and koreans, even those whom you would generally not consider to be racist, often don’t think it’s at all a problem and many even don’t recognize that it exists at all, and become indignant at the suggestion.. these are often liberal open-minded and educated people who simply don’t recognize it. unlike with the strengthening of civil rights in america, there is almost no one from the majority standing up next to the minority. now, one could say that the brand of racism here is much weaker, and if it were ever as serious as it had been in the u.s., people would certainly be quicker to recognize it. and that may be a valid point. south korea just recently passed into law its first bill identifying discrimination based on race as a crime, due to a fairly high-profile case where an indian man was slurred and berated on a bus by a korean man. perhaps that will force others to re-evaluate the situation.

  3. Yeah, it seems like all the action these days is at the intolerance squared and intolerance cubed levels.

    I think where you’re having the conflict tells something about how far your society has progressed in this area. So HK is a step behind the US because the conflict here is still between the tolerant and the intolerant. (This is still a step above the US prior to the Civil Rights Movement, where most of the action was directly between the intolerant and their victims.) In parts of China, the action is definitely between the intolerant and their victims, but not in the cities on the East Coast.

    In the US, the action is, as Bondo pointed out, between those who are intolerant of intolerance and those who are intolerant of the intolerant of intolerance (between the squared and the cubed). I recently had a pretty nasty conversation on Facebook with some people from Georgia who got really angry with me because I thought we should try to understand why some Muslims might want to kill Americans. (Like the fact that we’re killing them, and supporting Israeli terrorism.)

    And of course a hot-button issue in the world today is between tolerant cosmopolitan Westerners (or Easterners) and religious fundamentalists (mostly Muslim or Christian). When a foreign culture oppresses it’s women (or homosexuals or whoever) what’s the “tolerant” response?

    But all this is making my head spin. These sentences are like equations: with squares and cubes and lots of plus and minus signs that cancel each other out.

    Health care should prove to be a much more straightforward discussion, as long as I can get to it before Obama signs any bills into law.

  4. ” I suppose I count myself among that group sometimes because I think people can be way too quick to spot racism/sexism/etc.

    So the question is, is this third stage of intolerance a step back towards the first stage (tolerating intolerance) or is it yet another step beyond where intolerance is so reviled that it should not even be mentioned in the form of intolerance^2.”

    I suppose the OP of this comment has these feelings because maybe he/she has never actually experienced racism? I’d love to hear if they have or haven’t.

    My response is yes, there are most certainly people who are WAY too quick to call something racism when it is blatantly not. However, I do feel like there are those people who ignore the topic all together because racism is a “hot-button” topic and we don’t want to actually find out that we “offended” someone. As a black male who has experienced racism several times in several different cities and even from other black people but in a different form. I am able to spot racism and what is difficult for me is when I openly talk about it and try to explain it to people who haven’t experienced it at all. (that goes for white/black/brown/purple/green/yellow/whatever). Trying to explain to someone the experience and feeling is impossible.

    I think its interesting to note that it seems in HK there is an existence of racism, but it seems almost closeted at best. Perhaps due to their culture? I don’t know….but aside from the nasty looks, there doesn’t seem to have been much more. I could be wrong as I have never been to China, but just living vicariously through the words here. In exchange to that, your experience in Alabama isn’t just specific to that region. It may be more openly prevalent in the south, but in the rest of the country, its kept under wraps. I guarantee there are racist people around everyday who won’t say anything because they dont want to cause a “scene” and seem intolerant. They are fearful of being considered intolerant by those who are intolerant of people being racist. It’s a conundrum to me but that’s where we live.

    Lastly, I feel like in HK, the racism there can’t really be qualified as racism on one hand, but on the other hand I can see why it would as well. Thats a tough one to see…..racism here is due to ignorance of people and a stereotype. Can the same be said about those in HK?

  5. Being white and growing up in very white places (though I now live in a place that is about 50% white), I certainly would not claim to have experienced racism. Being a transgendered bisexual I am not entirely unfamiliar with being a member of a discriminated against group (though the less visible nature of it makes it less directly felt).

    • In HK, the “racism” toward me is probably different from what an American would consider racism. My stereotype here carries too much positivity, too many advantages to go along with the (relatively few) disadvantages. Certainly nothing like what African Americans experience in the US.

      Now Indians in HK, on the other hand, seem to be discriminated against in a way that is quite similar to discrimination against African Americans in the US. From my perspective, it seems pretty much like home: the dark skinned people get harassed by police, and experience some degree of job discrimination (varying by region and industry), among other things.

      But a Boulder mom would never dream of requiring a certain race or ethnicity when requesting a teacher. And a racist student in Boulder would know better than to create a fuss because he didn’t like the color of his teacher. In HK, these behaviors are considerably more common.

      I think this cultural norm enforcement mechanism (the intolerance of intolerance) is a significant development, and it’s the difference between the US and HK, or the US and France, or the US and Alabama, for that matter. I don’t mean to get all academic on here, but I think Axelrod (1985??, something like that, I don’t do citations) writes about cultural norms that “punish” defectors, and how this makes rule-breaking behavior go down to almost zero, at a fairly minimal cost.

  6. As a Vietnamese woman living in Boulder, I am a beneficiary of this intolerance of intolerance. My experience with racism is limited to people giving me the benefit of the doubt when it comes to academics because of my yellowness. They assume I’m studious and excellent at math. And occasionally someone will direct questions about different ethnicities in Asia towards me as if I represent all Asians. White people also seem to feel very awkward when asking about my ethnicity, as if they should already know. Perhaps that self-awareness of their ignorance when it comes to differentiating Asians physically is to their credit. But in general, I have little to complain about.

    I think one of the factors which should be considered in conjectures about whether China will have a difficult time overcoming (or suppressing, as it goes in the US and most places) racism is the political and economic context of the region. China and India are in engaged in a heated competition over dominance in the world market. Relegating the competition to a lower social status is a useful tactic. But like you pointed out, an increase in mobility will inevitably lead to a decrease in egocentricism. I’d add that an increase in economic interdependence between the two countries will lead a decrease in racism. And as Chinese investments in Africa increase, this trend may carry over to their perspectives towards Africans.

    In Vietnam, the racial hierarchy is almost identical to that of China’s which you describe. Vietnamese people are very racist towards the Chinese, and much of that has to do with China’s historical conquest of Vietnam.

  7. a teacher who has been in asia for ten years

    I dont have a lot to offer about racism in China toward other races, but I can talk about how the Han Chinese see themselves as superior to others in Chinese. I spent time in Outer Mongolia and saw directly the racism toward the Ughers, who were the nationals living there for decades before the government decided to relocate many Han to improve the city. Yes, the city did gain infrastructure, oil development, etc but the Ughers became second class citizens, isolated into their own parts of town. recently they have revolted and been physically, politically and psychologically punished to keep them “in their places”. A frequent term in the early 1950s in USA about negros (ala now blacks) in the south before the civil right movments.

    I have seen the same if not worse in south africa. there too many blacks work in the homes of the wealthy whites having many “privledges” of taking care of the white families and having freedom, safety and protection of housing, food, and family living on the white estates.

    One of my most memorable courses in graduate school 20+ years ago was on race and gender. I grew up in the time of desegradation and with a racist father. I was on the debate team, taking the stance for integration and practicing speeches outloud to the horror of my father. In this course I learned how racist I was just by being part of the majority white culture I was…..unconsciously I was.

    I would ask all who consider W’s blog who are of the majority in their culture to ask themselves about their own racism……?

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