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Difference, Hatred and Empathy: Asian-American Racism

The violent aspect of racial hatred has become much more prominent, especially in the Spring of this year. In the US, there has been a rise in anti-Asian hate crime due to recent racist appellations of COVID-19 (‘kung flu virus’, ‘Chinese virus’).[1] The demand for recognition of racially motivated acts of violence against Asian-Americans follows earlier outcries, headed under Black Lives Matter, against Black racism. This demasking of Asian racism, whose silent – the consequence of which was its latency – presence was broken by the crimes that grew from the racialised scapegoating of the inadequacies of American COVID-19 policy, underlines the violence of difference in a country where racial paradoxes lies at its core. The idea that American citizenship is an endowment of equality within a ‘melting-pot’ country is shadowed by the very racial hierarchy that has been integrated into American judicial systems and daily life.

As others have cited, immigration laws shaped the identity of Asian Americans and formed a lens through which Asians have been viewed in the United States.[2] Chinese labourers of the California Gold Rush era were perceived as threats to the non-immigrant population’s right to work; as a result, Chinese women – depicted as prostitutes and therefore morally malignant – were effectively deprived of the chance to migrate along with their husbands. Whiteness had assumed power in the US and had also sustained racial othering in order to be able to retain dichotomies (white-black, white-Asian, white-Arab) and therefore build the idea of whiteness.

The rise in Asian-American hate crime became publicly addressed – voiced – after the deaths of six Asian Americans due to shooting incidents at Atlantan massage parlours in March 2021. The massage parlour has been euphemistically called a ‘spa’ in several articles, already underlining the desire to shy away from the inevitable associations between Asian women and illegal – abnormal, illegitimate, inacceptable, wrong – sex work. The Asian woman is therefore both subservient and deviant: an object to be used for sexual gratification and upon which one’s hatred can be enacted.

The suspect of the shootings, Robert Aaron Long, claimed to act not out of racial hatred, but out of frustration with his struggles with sex addiction. It is unsettling to think that it would be conceivable, to a perpetrator of such a crime, that they would be exonerated by appealing to misogyny, as if it were a more readily acceptable form of hatred. Furthermore, if the Orient is a place onto which one can re-inscribe their sexual desires,[3] and Asian-run massage parlours are linked to the image of Asian prostitution, then the separation of sexual violence and Asian-oriented violence cannot be maintained. This call for re-examining anti-Asian racism also questions the separation between physical and non-physical violence, formerly mapped out on a binary of worthy-of-attention and unworthy-of-attention. The ‘model minority’ is not unharmful: it promotes silence and obedience at the cost of increased violence against those who do not follow the ‘model’; and, as the image of China as the perpetrator of Covid-19 had begun to take root in the US, the Asian American no longer fell under the sheltered category of ‘model minority’, revealing society’s susceptibility to turning to physical manifestations of racism.

Given the debates in America, therefore, it is important to ask ourselves how to receive and regard these issues. The ties between racialised crimes in America and highly marking events that shaped the trajectory of race politics are indeed ones that have developed in the US. Of course, there is the international element: tracing the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak to a place located in China has provided fuel for racial prejudices on a global level as well as a nation on which to lay blame.

These national and international contexts of Asian racism are demonstrative of the interlocking realities of difference that exist in the concept of any given race. The world’s eyes are without a doubt fixed on the US, for several reasons, and so the exposure of their events spreads across the world. At the same time, it is important not to deny the conditions of ‘race’ in the US. Racial laws in the US do not match those of the rest of the world, nor can their migration history be projected onto European history, for example, and to focus solely on the situation in the US would not only deny the plurality of racisms in the world, but also lay greater emphasis on American forms of resistance/policy, which themselves cannot be ubiquitous.

In a similar vein to the ripples generated by the BLM movement, there have been conversations surrounding Asian hate crimes in other countries: in Canada, the Chinese Canadian National Council has endeavoured to combat anti-Asian hate during the Covid pandemic, and France has been addressing its racial inequalities in correspondence with American movements.[4] This correspondence has not merely been one of cooperation: recently, there have been debates that question the influence of American racial politics, alongside the desire for racial equality in America, on other countries in the world. Within these racial politics, distance and proximity interplay constantly: America is ‘over there’, with ‘their’ laws, ‘their’ particular history of immigration; but we see them, we view these debates and these accusations, and we are not exempt from similar associations. And indeed, the sexualised Oriental, the quiet hardworking Oriental, the un-integrated and the family-driven South-East Asian: these perceptions span across countries.

I therefore seek to ask another question: how are we meant to – or even permitted to – react to these news stories and dynamics? Frantz Fanon placed racial identity in a dialectic with the white body: we are, unfortunately, defined by our non-whiteness. That is the relation that he underlines, despite his main concentration on black-white dialectics. In The Melancholy of Race, Cheng examines Asian-American racism through the lens of nostalgia: those that are continuously victim to racism come to be defined not only by their racial difference, but also by the lack of all that is associated with whiteness, such as being appropriately representative of and belonging to a certain society.

Thus Asian-Americans are caught in a perpetual state of lack: their identity is ‘not-American’, though of course a particular form of ‘not-American’. If the Asian body suffers a particular relationship with the white body, what are the relationships between Asian bodies outside of bordered territories? I wonder if my own Asian body, created out of the way in which I have been opposed to Europeanness (and by that, I mean whiteness), inflicts my grieving for those who would presumably be considered on some way similar to myself. Am I allowed to be melancholic for the American Dream? Am I re-inscribing a dynamic that is not ‘mine’ (I have never been to America) onto my own identity? Though I do not argue in even the slightest way for the regulation of empathy, a universal conception of compassion seems to be in conflict with the material apparitions of identity that reveal fractured ties of solidarity and inconsistencies rather than similarity.

Upon hearing of racist attacks, both physical and verbal, I felt intensely aggrieved and it would not be an exaggeration to state that my emotions were similar to mourning. I have recently been thinking about the question of Others and how we respond to difference, but being forced to think about sameness and empathy has left me slightly bewildered. It seems that violence, which erupts from difference and clashes between One and the Other, has suddenly moved me into a position of solidarity. Should it? Is racial difference, an experience that has accompanied me from birth (and even prior to that, through my mother’s body), so ingrained into my identity that my empathy comes out strongest when I see acts of racism?

[1] [2] [3] Said, Orientalism [4] A recent talk explored such issues: “Why are post-colonial studies, race and gender studies, and “intersectionality” seen as “American imports” threatening the French “republican” model?” Though the talk focused on claims of French universities as a breeding centre for “islamo-leftism” (a term used to direct islamophobic sentiments more concretely on the Left), the question raised above nevertheless highlights the tensioned way in which certain forms of studies – and therefore critical thinking – have themselves been nationalised in order to exteriorise them and keep them at a distance from a certain ‘home’ way of thinking (in this instance, the French “republican” model). French Culture Wars? The Political and Intellectual Stakes of the Polemic on “Islamo-leftism”, Eric Fassin and Maboula Soumahoro in a conversation moderated by Emmanuelle Saada, Maison française, Columbia University, 6th May 2021.


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