Sunday, March 18, 2007
Asian Racism: Cold Truths Are Beginning to Surface
The human race, according to a Chinese legend, was created by a divine potter who left his clay figure of a man too long in the kiln. When it came out burned and black, he threw it away as far as he could - and it landed in Africa. The second one he pulled out too soon: It was too white. So he threw that one away, more gently, and it landed in Europe. Now he knew the correct timing. The third man was a gorgeous yellow, and from him the East Asian races descended. Mr. Wilson is a London-based writer on Asian affairs. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.Such fanciful tales are found in many cultures. They assert the primitive, if understandable, proposition that one's own skin color is best. Until recently, many white Westerners have presumed that they are more guilty of such racial prejudices than are the other races of Asia and Africa. Research is only now showing what Westerners living in the Third World had guessed: that the formation of racial perceptions, stereotypes and prejudices is common to all civilizations. An important breakthrough was the publication this spring of a book about Chinese race perceptions by a Dutch anthropologist, Frank Dikotter. In "The Discourse of Race in Modern China," he shatters conventional notions about China's being relatively free of racism. Like India and Japan, China may be charged with "internal colonialism," but it has not attacked other countries or subjugated other races in modern times - not in the wholesale manner European nations have used. This fact may have protected China from accusations of racism. Yet hundreds of young Africans studying in the People's Republic of China have reported ingrained racism. Only 90 years ago, the reformist luminary Kang Youwei advocated "Improver of the Race" medals for whites or yellows volunteering to marry blacks in order to purify mankind. Such attitudes developed before the first Chinese-Western encounter. Europe did not introduce anti-black racism into China. Mr. Dikotter tells how ugly the Chinese found the "ash white" skin and indelicate hairiness of Europeans. Their large genitals were also noted with disapprobation, and perhaps with envy. As for blacks, they were described in earlier centuries as even uglier - as animals, devil-like and horrifying. "Yellow and white are wise," a Chinese poem ran, "Red and black are stupid . . . " In Japan, a black, Harvard-educated anthropologist, John Russell, is publishing research showing that Japanese prejudice against Africans and American blacks is similar to what these groups experience in the West. The famous advertisements in Indian newspapers for fair-skinned spouses show that the higher value placed on light skin is widespread. This does not excuse racism. It does suggest that we should define it more tightly while seeking to defeat it from a wider base. Of course, not everyone acts on these perceptions in the same way. Mr. Dikotter is careful to note that racial prejudice in China has never led to anything like the Nazis' genocidal killings in Europe or the apartheid system of South Africa. But in telling themselves not to act inhumanly toward other races, Westerners have assumed that the very perception of another race as physically different is to be shunned. In fact, none of us can avoid such perceptions, and the sooner we admit them and talk about them the better. Mr. Dikotter and Mr. Russell are beginning to melt the ice that had kept this natural aspect of human relationships refrigerated for so long.