Thursday, February 7, 2008

Japanese Racism

OK, i was sent these through a friend who is in Japan - take a look and have a laugh at the following 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Most of these seem to be triggered by the recent whaling by the Japanese in Australian waters. That will be an interesting test case before the world courts and I think that the disputed island of Pedra Branca / Pulau Batu Puteh case will provide a great precedence for any legal action taken by the Australians.

Australia has maintained a presence on Antarctica for many, many years, has tried people for criminal actions committed there - all solid proof of sovereignty. So it will be interesting to see what happens when Australia does take the case to the international courts and wins (if it does). What then? will Japan cease whaling in Australian waters? If they don't will Australia use it's military to enforce the whale sanctuary? We live in interesting times.

This all started (the videos) from a lovely 10min+ video produced by a Japanese youtube user (the video has since been removed) but a copy can be found HERE. Basically the author of the video compares whaling to the slaughter of Dingoes (a native species of wolf in Australia i think) and accused Australia of being racist against the Japanese. One of several good responses to the original video is posted HERE.

This is just more proof of the most frustrating part of dealing with racism in Japan (and elsewhere in Asia): the typical response to lampoon the country the person commenting on it comes from. Whilst it is true that no country is perfect, this doesnot preclude other countries from providing criticism of other countries on racism issues.

A good example of this can be found here. For more background information on racism in Japan you can also go here. You can also find an article on racism in Japan against visiting academics here. Another good video on Japan is here and another good article can be found here.

Finally, i have cut one of the articles above to post here in case the URL disappears, so sit back, have read (it's a long one, but worth it) and think about the issues raised. Thanks for reading and being part of the on-going struggle against racism around the world, no matter who it is perpetuated by.

Peace out

ABC Radio National - Background Briefing: 11 July 1999 - Are Asians Racist?

[This is the print version of story]

Program Transcript

Kirsten Garrett: The question posed on Background Briefing today is provocative: Are Asians Racist? The program is based on a forum set up in the Mitchell Library by the Asia-Australia Institute last month, in a packed hall on a very rainy night in Sydney.

I'm Kirsten Garrett. Hello, and today you'll hear some of that forum. The Human Rights Commissioner, Chris Sidoti, opened the evening.


Chris Sidoti: The question, Are Asians Racist? is perhaps a challenge to us to address in response to those who seek to excuse racism in Australia by saying 'What's the Problem? Asians are racist, indeed even more racist than we are'.

Now of course, that kind of response is of itself a nonsense. Is it any excuse for racism in Australia to say that somebody else is racist? It's a bit like adultery: when the adulterer comes home to explain to the betrayed spouse that there was really no problem because after all, everybody else is doing it, I don't think it really provides very much comfort to the innocent victim. And it's a bit like war crimes: there is no excuse before The Hague Tribunal for the person who gets up and says, 'Well really yes, it was a war crime, but after all, everybody is doing it, even the President of Yugoslavs.'

But arguing on the basis of logic, and indeed arguing on the basis of moral righteousness, as correct as it may be, fails to address the fundamental issue that we are confronted with, by those who seek to excuse our racism by levelling accusations at others. And I think it's typical of the Asia-Australia Institute that tonight it's asking us to go beyond logic, to go beyond moral righteousness in replying by seeking to address the fundamental issue that is put up to us as a challenge to our own commitment to anti-racist policies.

We have tonight Cavan Hogue. Cavan is a retired Australian diplomat who has served in Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. His current positions are as senior adviser to the ASEAN Focus Group, adjunct professor and Deputy Chair for the Advisory Board of the International Studies Institute at the University of Technology, Sydney, Director of the National Thai Study Centre at the ANU, and consulting, lecturing and writing on a variety of international business and cross-cultural topics. He is a graduate of the University of Sydney, he's been a Fellow at the Centre for International Affairs at Harvard, and has just completed an MA in Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University.

He joined the Department of External Affairs, later the Department of Foreign Affairs, and later still, Foreign Affairs and Trade, in 1960, and he's served in Rome, Seoul, Mexico, Santiago de Chile. From 1973-75 he was Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission in Manilla, later Minister and Deputy Head of Mission in Jakarta, later Ambassador to Mexico and Central American Republics. In '85-'86 Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, during the period when Australia was on the Security Council. From 1987-90, High Commissioner to Malaysia and from 1991-94, Ambassador first to the USSR if you remember what that was, later to the Russian Republic and subsequently to the twelve new States of the former USSR in Europe and Central Asia.

Cavan, we invite you to speak and lead the discussion this evening.


Cavan Hogue: Thank you very much. I should say at the outset that I guess my philosophical approach is the same as Chris'. When I was a small boy, my mother used to always say when I said 'But other people are doing that', she said, 'Well yes, if someone put his head under a railway train, would you feel obliged to go and put your head on the track too?' And since my mother is still alive, I show proper filial respect.

Racism and race are a lexicographer's nightmare, because they have that Alice in Wonderland ability to mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean. Also what exactly constitutes Asia is a very moveable feast. It originally of course was part of the Roman Empire. But while I'm not quite sure what race means, and I'm not quite sure what countries are part of Asia, I am quite sure there's nothing unique or special about racism in Asia. And that of course is the kind of opening you would all expect from someone of Irish descent, even if opinions differ on whether or not the Irish are a race.

So let's start with some formal definitions and see if we get any clues from that. The Macquarie Dictionary defines racism as: 1. the belief that human races have distinctive characteristics which determine their respective cultures, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule or dominate others; 2. offensive, aggressive behaviour to members of another race stemming from such a belief; and 3. a policy or system of government based on it.

So then of course, what is race? Well, that is 1. a group of persons connected by common descent, blood or heredity; 2. a population so connected; 3. the ethnological definition of a sub-division of a stock, characterised by physical traits were transmitted in descent and then 4. a group of tribes or peoples forming ethnic stock. So you can see that there is something called race and racism which is not exactly the same as a whole lot of other communitarian differences, and this is a theme I want to develop.

For the sake of simplicity here I'll define Asia as the Indian subcontinent eastward to the Philippines, north to China and south to Indonesia. This is a totally arbitrary definition which leaves out all the countries that originally made up Asia and includes countries that were never part of the original Asia, but it's probably what most Australians have in mind when they speak of it.

To dispose of race and racism so easily is just not possible. Whatever you think should be left in or out, race is clearly a sub-set of a wider grouping of ethnic or communal groupings, and some people that argue we should completely forget about race and just talk about groups. Groups can be based on physical characteristics, which is race in the narrow definition, religion, language, dress, culture, geography, history, nationality or anything which the members perceive themselves to have in common, that sets themselves off from other people who don't have that in common.

Now sometimes you can move from one group to another and sometimes not. For example, I met a man in Guatemala some years ago, who when asked whether he was an Indio, which is a native, or a Ladino, a Latin, said well he used to be an Indio but now he was a Ladino. Now what he meant was that he was born into a traditional Maya speaking culture but he'd subsequently learned Spanish, gone to live in a city and now wore western clothes. And this was a perfectly sensible statement in this context, and on that basis he was accepted by others as having become a Ladino, which is what he wanted, and they accepted. However, it would not I imagine, have been possible for a Jew to tell the SS that he'd decided to become an Aryan or for a black to tell the Ku Klux Klan 'Well lay off fellows, I've really decided I'm going to become a white.' So some things are rooted in sort of physical characteristics that you can't change, and others you can change. And an important factor here too, is what people accept.

Much effort has been put into defining, classifying race. A hundred years ago scientists took their callipers around the world measuring skulls and waxing eloquent about dolichocephalic and brachycephalic skulls and races. Today of course, DNA and Y-chromosomes are much more fashionable, we've come a long way. Just what all these classifications really mean, if anything, is not entirely clear. And as I suggested, rather than measuring the size of heads and noses, maybe racial groups are those which are perceived to be racial groups. But the problem with this is that it excludes a whole host of groups who don't have different physical characteristics.

Now in the second half of the last century a philosophical underpinning to racism appeared in Europe, which went beyond the universal 'them and us' approach that you get everywhere. A number of European philosophers developed an intellectual framework which showed scientifically that the white race was superior to the lesser breeds without the law, and learned professors wrote learned tomes proving this beyond any possible doubt, and all rational people believed it. This was of course combined with social, or based very often on social Darwinism, buttressed by economic and military power. It was the mainstream view in Europe and its offshoots, North America or the Americas, and Australasia. It was used to justify conquests, colonialism, slavery and racially exclusive immigration policies like the White Australia Policy.

The more extreme manifestations of this philosophy were found in the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and the South African Apartheid architects. While slightly less violent versions were to be found in the European colonial regimes. While the Third Reich and the British Empire had different solutions and very different methods, both accepted the same underlying philosophy, the same racial hierarchy. The British of course were pragmatic and thought it much more practical to exploit their subjects for the economic benefit of the British, rather than exterminating them as impure. Other colonists, like the French, the Dutch, Americans, Australians, tended to follow the British pattern in their colonies.

But whatever view you take on this detail, there can be no doubt there was this specific European philosophy of racism in its narrowest sense, which was more than just communal prejudice. It was more than just 'My mob's better than your mob because I like my mob and I don't care for your mob.' There was an intellectual framework.

So finally we get to Asia. Can we find similar theoretical approaches in Asia, or is it more accurate really to speak of communal differences? I think we can identify cases which might reasonably be called racism, cases of communal discrimination which are not really racist, and others where there's an element of doubt. The clearest cases of racist attitudes are probably going to be found in Northern Asia: China, Japan, Korea, which incidentally tend to be rather homogenous societies. The Japanese in some ways go closest to the Europeans because they do have foundation myths about the superiority of the Japanese race. Their behaviour towards foreigners has often been racist, their treatment of their colonies and conquered peoples show the same kind of arrogance as their European models. The Japanese have a well established sense of hierarchy, which they apply to races. You can see this in the treatment of minorities within Japan.

Having said that, I do suspect things are changing, and that younger people, younger Japanese are gradually shaking off these attitudes, particularly the ones who travel abroad as indeed has happened in Europe. Interestingly, the Japanese are a bit ambivalent about identifying themselves as Asian or as a world power, and they've sometimes been criticised by other Asians for this, although perhaps in that case, it's the critics who are being racist, not the Japanese. And this ambivalence goes back a long way and has been shared by Europeans. Rudyard Kipling admitted that the Japanese created something of a problem. While they were clearly not really natives, they weren't quite Sahibs either.

For centuries the Chinese have considered themselves to be a race apart and to be superior to the Barbarians around them. Chinese students going abroad were warned not to come back married to a red haired devil, a Chinese expression of course, conveying the implication that these creatures were not really 100% human. Those of you who have daughters will of course realise that very often they bring home hairy devils which are not quite human anyway, whatever their race!

But some of this could well have been cultural, and it is true that the Chinese did absorb Mongol and Manchu invaders and that there are minorities in China and it's maybe not quite as simple and open as some people would believe. But I suspect that traditionally anyway, the Chinese believed that it was very hard for the Barbarians to become like them. But again I notice changes taking place, particularly amongst overseas Chinese. Intermarriage in places like Hong Kong and South East Asia is very much on the increase, and Chinese immigrants in Australia tend to marry out more than many other immigrant groups. So again, we're seeing this same kind of evolution.

The Koreans also retain a strong sense of racial identity and have perhaps absorbed some of these Japanese ideas. It may be extreme xenophobia but it's instructive to note that the Koreans topped the poll in a recent survey by The Far Eastern Economic Review in which people were asked whether their child could marry a foreigner with their blessing. Only 30% of Koreans agreed, compared with 95% of Australians and 84% of Filipinos. As in Japan, mixed-race children were looked down on, and foreigners who married Koreans were given a pretty rough time. And Koreans don't like enclaves, and the Chinese minority in Korea has been treated every bit as badly as the Korean minority in Japan, and each of course waxes eloquent about the other.

Now I could quote many other examples from North Asia but the above does seem to me the closest you're going to find in Asia to the kind of racism which was characteristic of the European colonialists. I don't think it was exactly the same, but it's the closest. It's based on the belief they're racially unique with some suggestion they're also superior and it is waning amongst the young, as it is in Europe. But older Japanese parliamentarians remind us at regular intervals that it's far from dead. I see one character recently said the reason the United States was falling apart was because they had too many blacks and Hispanics who were diluting the purity of the race. I mean these kind of comments would not be out of place in Europe 50 years ago.

In South East Asia I think things are more complicated. While communal strife and ethnic prejudice are common, it's not based on the same kind of philosophical framework. There is a general prejudice against local minorities like the hill tribes in Thailand, the orang asli in Malaysia, the Papuans in Indonesia, the Mountain people in the Philippines, and the paternalistic attitudes there are very reminiscent of the now-unfashionable Australian view that the Aborigines should be assimilated and made 'just like us'. The difference of course is that most of these groups are physically similar to the mainstream groups. So it's a moot point how much of this is really racial in the narrow sense of the term, and how much is social or cultural. It might be relevant here to observe that Asians are not at all interested in the fate of Australian Aborigines whom they basically see as our hill tribes. They get worked up about racial prejudice which is directed against themselves, but not others. In that, they're very human.

This was brought home to me when I was in Bangkok when the Pauline Hanson racism frenzy was at its height. There was much concern about whether Australians were turning their collective back on Asia and going back to their racist groups, i.e. the White Australia Policy, but Aboriginal issues were mentioned only in passing, if at all.

Racist attitudes towards Chinese immigrants certainly exist, but they're not the same as the northern attitudes. For a start, the Chinese are often seen to be superior, and Dr Mahatir's book 'The Malay Dilemma' makes it very clear that Malays need special treatment to enable them to catch up to the immigrants. The special claims of the Bhumiputera, the Malay, are based on prior occupancy rather than on racial characteristics. There may nevertheless be some racist element here. Many poor Malays console themselves with the thought that the infidel rich Chinese will burn in hell and the Chinese are not really encouraged to convert to Islam. This is quite contrary to the letter and the spirit of Islam, which advocates conversion and a very good record on opposing racism.

In contrast to the generally good record of Islam on racial tolerance, we could perhaps compare the Malay attitude with that of the colonial British, whose Christian religion also preached a racial tolerance which they seldom practised. There's the famous story of the wife of a colonial Bishop in Africa whose younger sister proposed to marry an African Christian. When the elder sister was reminded the man might be black, but he was Christian, she replied, 'He may be our brother in Christ, but he shall not be our brother-in-law.'

Now all this assumes that Malays and Chinese are to be seen as separate races, which is the expression used in Malaysia, and not just separate communities. And I recall on arriving in Sabah once having to fill in a Malaysian immigration form which could be filled in either in English or Malay. In English, it required the incoming passengers to state their race, but in Malay, they were to state their suku which really means a sort of ethnic group or tribal group. I think the Malay version was a much more accurate indication of the information the authorities were seeking, that is, were you a Chinese, a Malay, Kadazan, Kelabit or whatever. Malaysians talk about their communities as racist but the term's not being used in our dictionary sense. They talk, for example of Indians as a race, which includes Tamils and Sikhs, who are totally different races. Malays and Chinese are described as different races, even though physically they're a lot closer than the Indians.

So in Malaysia, the communities are divided not just by physical characteristics, but by religion, language, length of occupation, native versus immigrant, wealth (a very important factor), time of arrival in Malaysia, a whole host of factors. And intermarriage however, is minimal and there can be no doubt that the communities there don't show much sign of becoming one. Comparisons with Ireland or Yugoslavia may perhaps be more accurate in the case of Malaysia.

It may not be possible to drop your chewing gum in Singapore, but it does have a pretty good record on racial harmony. I hate chewing gum anyway. Their underlying tensions and intermarriage is far from random, but such separation as there is tends to be more communal than strictly racial, and I think by world standards it's pretty good.

Thailand and the Philippines are also good, but by no means perfect. A friend of mine whose father was a Tamil told me how tough it was growing up in Bangkok school playgrounds. It was because there was a prejudice against people of Indian origin. It did no good to point out that the Lord Buddha was a kheek, an Indian. Any more I suppose than it profited European Jews to point out that Jesus Christ was a Jew.

There used to be prejudice against immigrant Chinese in the '20s and '30s, quite strong. They had their equivalent of 'reffo mugs' and all those epithets. There are few restrictions on foreigners, but Thailand I think by world standards, has to be counted as a very tolerant country. The Philippines? Chinese have been massacred at regular intervals through the centuries and some prejudice based on their economic success still exists. There's prejudice against the Moros in the south, which is based purely on religion or again religion and sort of social historical factors, because they're the same race. And there's also prejudice in favour of looking white. My first encounter with Asia was as a student at Sydney University in 1955 when the early Colombo Plan students began to arrive. I could never work out why my Filipino friends thought that one girl in the group was prettier than all the others. To me, she wasn't that hot. After a while of course, the penny dropped: she was fair and she had a straight nose, and to this day I don't think the Filipinos have ever quite worked out why I didn't court the fair one but ended up marrying one of the group who was darker and had a flat nose. A decision, my love, which I have never regretted, let me hasten to add!

I suppose this can really be compared with all those advertisements in Indian newspapers seeking fair skinned spouses. In the Philippines it clearly has its origins in colonial racism, but I think these days it's more of a fashion statement than a racial one. That said, of course, you have a much better chance of getting a job as a model or film star if you have that mestizo look.

Contemporary events in Indonesia also seem to me to reflect communal tensions rather than strictly racial ones. The Western press tends to report ethnic conflicts as between Moslems and Christians, but it makes more sense to talk about different ethnic groups like Bulgars, Javanese and Ambonese, or even natives and immigrants. The people of Aceh are no different racially from other Indonesians, but they have a strong separatist movement. We may compare these reports with those in the Balkans where people are described in racial or national terms as Serbs, Albanians and so on, whereas religion is much more of a factor in the Balkans than it is in Indonesia. The basing of the groups is not race but religion: Orthodox Christian Serbs fought the invading Moslem Turks, and the Western Christian Croats fought everybody; the Albanians were converted to Islam, while the Bulgars became Christians. But racially they're all the same.

Dr Mahatir, in his inimitable manner, recently observed that the Western media doesn't play up the religious factor there because it's the Moslems who are the good guys, and the Christians are the bad guys. Had the religions been the other way round, we would have been inundated by screaming headlines about Moslem fundamentalists massacring poor innocent Christians. He probably has a point actually, I don't often agree with him but on this one I think I do. In neither case is race the real factor. Even the Indonesian massacres of Chinese are communal rather than strictly racist. The Chinese are seen as the rich immigrants, everybody hates successful people. The cliche about the overseas Chinese as the Jews of Asia does in fact have some validity, hackneyed as it may be.

If there's one universal prejudice throughout Asia, it's against black Africans and probably by extension, black Americans. I have neither the time nor indeed the knowledge to trace the origin of this prejudice. I suspect it probably came in via the Europeans. While it tends to be rather gentler in South East Asia, it does exist. It's now possible for example, in many cases for young people to bring home a hairy white librarian as a husband and get away with it. But try bringing home a black man and see how far you get.

The perception in Asia that Australia is a racist country goes back to the White Australia Policy. In those days Australia was a racist country in every sense of the term. Those of us who used to administer the White Australia Policy were left in no doubt about what it was designed to do and what it did. Today I think Australia has changed quite fundamentally. Although I'd not be so naive as to suggest racism is dead in Australia, I believe Australia is one of the more tolerant countries of this world. Perhaps we just make a lot more noise about it and debate openly things which many other people keep quiet about. Maybe they're right, and we should shut up a bit more, but racist attitudes which used to be mainstream views in Australia, and this is an important point, in the 1950s what is now fringe views, you know, and in many cases things which are illegal and certainly not very popular views, they were mainstream views in the 1950s.

And so I see in Asia racism in the narrow sense as being on the decline, as indeed in Australia, but I do feel that communal or ethnic prejudices, often dressed up in racial terms, is still far too prevalent in Asia as in other parts of the world. So I distinguish racism in the narrow sense from communalism, because racism tends to be something to be dealt with by psychiatrists, while communalism has to be dealt with by politicians. There's usually some kind of rational basis to communalism, even though it may sometimes be buried in the past and no longer rational. No doubt in the 1300s at the Battle of Kosovo, it really mattered and a couple of hundred years ago in Ireland it really mattered. But today? To eliminate it, you've got to attack the causes on a group basis and so while racism often has much in common with what I'm calling communalism, it's perhaps closer to mental illness and may need a different approach.

Finally, I note that groups are an essential part of human society. We're all members of some group, even if it's only the Boy Scouts, or a pub group. What matters is probably how you approach that membership, rather than what it is. It can be argued indeed that the Nation State is simply one form of ethnic or communal group, and that patriotism is just a form of group solidarity. Patriotism can be a quiet pride in the achievements of your nation, or it can be screaming xenophobic jingoism. Religion can be a quiet and sustaining faith, of the self-sacrifice of Mother Theresa and the Lord Buddha, but it can also be a mindless mob burning heretics, or the ethnic cleansing of people of another faith.

With a few exceptions, I think religion in Asia has not played the destructive role that it has in Europe, but communal differences certainly do exist. The greater diversity of South East Asia may explain why it tends to be more multicultural and perhaps less racist in the narrow definition of the term. But plagued by communal problems. These are questions to be considered.

Well in the time available, I've only touched the surface, but I guess I would end where Chris Sidoti began, which is that for every example of racist or communal prejudice in Asia you can find a parallel in other parts of the world. Human behaviour is human behaviour. We're dealing with the behaviour of the human race, and on the whole Asians are no better and no worse than other members of that race.

Thank you.


Kirsten Garrett: That was diplomat and academic Cavan Hogue. Among many other posts, Mr Hogue has been an ambassador overseas, and he's been with the Department of Foreign Affairs in Rome, Seoul, Chile, Manilla, and he's been High Commissioner to Malaysia and held other posts in Asia.

Not included in today's program is a speech by Vietnamese born Dr Nih Van Tran. She is a Professor of International Studies at Adelaide University, and she's a writer and a member of many boards and groups.

After the Forum, Dr Ghassan Hage from Sydney University talked through some of the main points of his speech in an interview. Dr Hage is author of the book 'White National: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society.'

During his speech Dr Hage had talked of the very subtle racism hidden in a too great admiration of people of another culture or race. He had made the point that there is a tendency to make the victims of racism into the embodiment of unreal virtues and expectations, as victims they are more noble or must have better behaviour than their oppressors. Ghassan Hage says that any simplistic view of another people becomes racism.

Gassan Haj: What I was concerned with here was the idea that when people have too much of an absolute view of other people, such as 'They're great', or 'They're lovely', whichever.

Kirsten Garrett: Graceful, or have rhythm.

Gassan Haj: Yes. Because from my disciplinary perspective in anthropology, most of my work is field work, where I'm meeting people and trying to see how they think in everyday life. I notice very well that in everyday life people don't have such absolute views if they are truly interacting with other people. So I do hear people saying 'I love the way Asians are', or Asians saying, 'Oh I like the way English people do this.' But at the same time they say, 'Oh, I hate the bloody English the way they do that'. So what we often perceive as racism is a moment in a conversation; someone might say, 'Oh I hate those bloody Lebanese, they do this', and a second after they say, 'I love the Lebanese for that.' Their views are constantly shifting and sometimes they're racist and not racist at the very same time. Statements are never so clear cut.

And so what I was trying to say was that usually people who have very definite views, such as, 'I think Lebanese are this', or 'I think English people are that', are usually people who don't interact with other people. Whether their view is about how incredibly wonderful these other people are, or because if you interact with other people, it's hard work, interacting with people from other cultures. Not everyone has got a PhD in cultural diversity, and it's hard work. Certain things you don't know, it's hard work meeting your new neighbour, whether they're of a different ethnicity or not, they also have a different culture. And you start having views about them 'This I like, that I don't like ' etc which you develop in interaction.

Kirsten Garrett: I think the point you're making is that at that level of interaction in a community or in a family or as visitors to another country, the racism and the not-racism and the casual comment is all part of a complex mix. It's when you get into a position of power or where there is no interaction, where a person is speaking from ignorance or lack of closeness, that it starts to carry a little bit more weight.

Ghassan Hage: I think it's not just a question of speaking from a position of ignorance, but rather speaking from a position where your purpose is political. So you might not necessarily be ignorant, but you have a purpose and you're directing your supposed views, not because you really did get them from interaction, but because you want them to serve your purpose, your political purposes, whether it is to support multiculturalism and it's like saying, 'Oh I love Asians' etc., or 'I love whoever', or whether you are engaged in racist politics and want to know the negative view of other people.

Kirsten Garrett: But you can also find quite profound and nasty racism in ordinary people who have no political power, or overt political purpose anyway.

Ghassan Hage: Yes, well this is precisely why it's really so difficult to use the concept racism in any decent social scientific status. It can mean all sorts of things; even in a conversational sense it's becoming just too hard to use it. Even though we'll never stop using it. But yes, people can be nasty. The thing is, we have to know whether we're talking about racism as a non-virtuous, ugly mode of behaviour, as we're seeing it from a moralistic perspective. People who think of other people as being inferior or nasty or what-have-you. And that was one of the points I tried to make in the conference, that if we are talking in moral terms, then the question that the conference organisers had put about Are Asians Racist? is very good, even though it's clearly meant to tickle, to be provocative, and not taken too seriously. But at the same time it's welcome because we do have a tendency to assume that the victims of racism in Australia are the repositories of virtue. So if Aboriginal people or Asian people cop it too much as far as white racism is concerned, then we tend to think in moralistic terms and assume that therefore in Australia, whites are immoral and Asians or Aboriginal people 'Oh, aren't they wonderful, they're fantastic, they're great.' We know logically that it doesn't make sense. You know, I mean just because you've been the victim of racism it doesn't make you any better a person at all. There's no reason whatever, logically or historically.

Kirsten Garrett: I think Mr Hogue brought that out very well, that in the end everybody is just a human being, Aboriginals and Asian people are just as capable of bad behaviour.

Ghassan Hage: Exactly, as far as we are dealing with this racism as a mode of behaviour, as a way of thinking about other people in everyday life. But of course that's not really the crucial point about wanting to analyse racism, because what is most important is not just whether you think of people badly, but who has the power to act on their thinking to discriminate and stop other people from doing what they want to do. The point is not that the white person in Northern Queensland is morally bankrupt as opposed to the Aboriginal people who is a wonderful person, but the point is that somehow this white person has acquired the power to stop this Aboriginal person from going into the pub. Just that small act, which means stopping someone from going into a pub is an act in which you have the power to act on your racism to discriminate, to consider people as if they are objects that you can move in what you perceive as your space.

Kirsten Garrett: Just getting back to that idea of investing too much goodness in any other race, that's the sort of 'noble savage' idea too, isn't it, that the other, particularly the other who is less developed embodies some kind of great nobility in relation to -

Ghassan Hage: That's the more common racist way of not being racist in terms of 'noble savage' ideas. But it exists also when you are essentialising people.

Kirsten Garrett: Essentialising, can you just tell me how you use that word, as an anthropologist?

Ghassan Hage: Essentialism is when you consider people's identity as an essence, and considered as an essence means to consider it as if it is the source of one's character and one's behaviour. So why is this person doing this? Well because they're Lebanese. So to think that you don't need more than knowing that a person is Lebanese to know that they've done this, means that you think that them being Lebanese explains everything that they've ever done, and so you essentialise their Lebanese-ness. Locking people into whatever too much into what they are. They are this because. So not only underdeveloped people who are categorised as underdeveloped, but even Asian people who are now perceived as part of the cycle of capitalist development, you can essentialise them by starting and one of the points I'm making is that some Asians essentialise themselves too, when you start attributing your level of development to your character, or to what kind of people we are, or to our values, is the whole idea of what I call developmental racism. It's precisely this racism which emerged with capitalism, and which started to see whether one region was developed or not on the basis of explaining it in terms of the character of the people who are there. So British people have got developed society because of the British character. And so this has emerged in Asia in terms of Asian people starting to run around with the idea that it's Asian values, or the Asian character which explains why Asia has developed while Africa has remained underdeveloped. And so we see this developmental racism which was first only European.

Kirsten Garrett: That's a kind of self-racism, where they hide their human rights abuses for example, behind the notion of Asian values.

Ghassan Hage: Yes but even so, I'm very careful when I say 'they', who do we mean by 'they'? That's sort of like 'they', immediately we're locking too many people when we start using the concept 'they'. I don't know, whoever uses that is doing that, but I'd rather not use 'they'.

Kirsten Garrett: OK, no, fair enough.

Ghassan Hague: But this kind of like what you're calling self racialisation, again it seems to me that's extending a bit the concept of racism, but you're right, there is an element of racialisation and racism in this. We see it not only in Asians in Asia, but we see it in Asians in Australia; and not only Asians, all sorts of ethnic groupings in which there's a leadership which calls for a very ossified concept of an ethnic culture to maintain certain forms of powers. So this is stopping people from being whatever they want to be in the name of some mythical, eternal, cultural form.

Kirsten Garrett: Dr Ghassan Hage, who was interviewed after speaking at a forum addressing the question 'Are Asians Racist?' last month.

In his concept of 'developmental racism', in which people link social and technological development to a particular characteristic, Dr Hage raised the term 'Asian values'. I put it to him that this term has been used by political leaders in parts of Asia themselves, as a kind of smokescreen behind which to hide human rights abuses, the idea that somehow Asian people inherently do not have the same values, rights and needs as others. Is this again, self-directed racism?

Ghassan Hage: Well it can be and it's not necessarily. That's what's so difficult about that issue. To start saying that to talk about value is racist, well we talk about Australian values. It's how you put this concept to usage, how do people use it? Now if you say Australian values are about respecting the Queen, someone might like to say this. Clearly they are using the concept of value here to exclude certain people.

Kirsten Garrett: Who don't respect the Queen.

Ghassan Hage: Yes. The same way with the concept of Asian values, but at the same time using the concept of Australian values like respect for democracy etc. you use it to try to foment a certain ethical climate that people should aspire for. And in this sense it's good, even though it's not intellectually correct. But it's useful politically and has a good function in society. So we don't need necessarily to judge things as to whether they are intellectually correct of not. Asian values are simplistic, like Australian values as a concept. There isn't really such a thing. One can immediately dissect it, and it shows that there's a lot of bulldust in it. But at the same time it conveys a certain respect of hard work, which can be valuable, but it conveys also anti-union modalities, it conveys the extreme exploitative practices which are not so good. It's a question of how it is put to usage really, which determines its degree of racism or not racism. So it's hard to use racism like this.

Kirsten Garrett: You used another word during your talk at the forum: aesthetisisation, and I found that fascinating, but a little difficult again.

Ghassan Hage: Well aesthetisisation is when you make an image in your mind of your people, aesthetically nice, pleasing. Racism, especially developmental racism that I was talking about, does that a lot, which in the sense that let's say you are a European racist, and you think that Aboriginal people are lowly types. Now let's go in a microscopic way if you like, into the way your mind works here. What do you do? You say, 'I belong to the race of superior people. The Aboriginal people belong to the race of inferior people.' Now what do I do when I make the statement, when I say I belong to the race of superior people, who do I imagine in my mind as my people? If I'm white, I'm saying that the wise people are superior people. Obviously the wise people in my mind are not a drunken white guy sleeping on the bench overnight in the park. I immediately think of beautiful people. My people are the middle class people, the spunky people, the people who groove, who move well etc. So racism operates first by the person who is assuming superiority, picks up images off those groups of people among the race that they are constructing, who are wonderful and who they consider are really fantastic, and excludes, and represses images that undermine his concept of 'My people are superior people'. Now that person does exactly the opposite way as far as the other people. So when say the Aboriginal people are a race of inferior people, now usually the racist does not start thinking immediately of Ernie Dingo, but starts thinking of wretched people, precisely, people sleeping on a bench in the park. So asthetisisation means precisely when you start portraying your people as aesthetically beautiful and the other people as aesthetically non-beautiful. And your concept of beautiful is always a class-based concept in these processes.

Kirsten Garrett: And as you say, groovy, spunky, handsome, gorgeous, and we would have seen an apogee of this in Nazi Germany with those magnificent blond men.

Ghassan Hage: Exactly. We've got elements of that very much in Nazi Germany. That's precisely where aesthetisisation become institutionalised.

What I was trying to say is that we are starting to witness a next-step Europeanisation of the Asian in Australia. Because if you look at the Asian population, the Asian migrant population in Australia, it's not made out only of those spunky, groovy, people you see in ads, but there's a lot of working class Asians, people who are doing piece work and being exploited in Australia. And my problem is precisely that there is a tendency of us starting to think in terms of 'We Europeanised Asians' are groovy. And in that process, sort of like creating a beautiful image that you can see in ads, airline ads, all sorts of ads, of beautiful Asian people and beautiful European people, and in the process, the image of the working class Asian in Australia is being repressed increasingly.

Kirsten Garrett: It seems to me the point that you're making is that what's going on is as much a class issue as in fact a race issue, that we can incorporate people into our world view, our acceptance, if we accept that they are aesthetically equal or superior or magnificent, but we will never accept or deal properly with the people who are for whatever reason, working class, drunk, poor, ugly.

Ghassan Hage: Yes, these images of who we conceive as ugly and who we conceive is beautiful, are themselves class images, to begin with. We use these class images in constructing our racial stereotypes.

Kirsten Garrett: Ghassan Hage, I find that absolutely fascinating. Thank you very much.


Kirsten Garrett: Dr Ghassan Hage of Sydney University. Today's program has been based on a recent forum arranged by the Asia Australia Institute which had as its title, 'Are Asians Racist?'

Background Briefing's Co-ordinating Producer is Linda McGinness; Technical Production, Craig Preston; Research, Jim Mellor.

I'm Kirsten Garrett.


Further information

Asia-Australia Institute at UNSW
Sponsors of the 1999 Australia in Asia lecture series.
National Thai Studies Centre at ANU
Cavan Hogue is the Centre's Director.
Institute for International Studies at UTS
For the study of comparative social change and cultural diversity.
ASEAN Focus Group


White National: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society
Author: Dr. Ghassan Hage
Publisher: Pluto Press, Sydney 1998


Carl said...

The idea of racism as being as fluid concept that changes can be very nicely summed up in the Apartheid era of South Africa. The government had any number of classifications of race, and of course people of Asian descent were not considered to be European (white). However this led to a major problem in dealing with the Japanese who were a major trading partner.

The solution was quite simple, Japanese people became 'honorary Europeans', a designation that satisfied both parties since neither had to give up the essentially racist way they view their own cultures/race. It places Japanese people on par with the Europeans without forcing them to be white, and allowed the South African government to maintain the status quo without giving more rights to Asians generally. Isn't word-smithing wonderful?

AsianRacism said...

That's a very apt observation Carl. South Africa is a classic example of racist policies at a governmental level, and Japan at a societal level. Both (in the 80's for south africa, nowdays for Japan) were also in denial about the destructiveness of their respective stances on minorities who had to suffer under their racist ways.

However, word-smithing, weather by Malaysia, Singapore or Japan doesn't change the nature of the problem: prejudicial behavior against minorities either at a wide-spread societal level or governmental level ON the basis of 'race' is just disgusting. What's also disgusting is the way many of the affected asian nations continue to simply try and deflect criticism of racism in their own countries by highlighting racism in other countries.

You can acknowledge your own negative behavior and correct it whilst at the same time help others do the same, humans do have that capacity.

Thanks for reading Carl, hope to see you post again.

Anonymous said...

Aren't you doing the same highlighting Asian racism? Crying out like a kid saying, "See the other kids do it too, why pick on me?"

As a White person you will never understand what it is like being non-White. You will never be able to understand what it is like being an African American kid in suburban America, being Mongolian in Moscow and being Pakistani in Adelaide. When you are interrogated at immigration desks you know it's just a formality and part and parcel of contributing to political correctness, and you will never be able to fully empathise with what a Muslim-looking man goes through whenever he passes through immigration at White countries.

What you experience in Singapore is trivial and the difference is you have White privilege and are not disadvantaged economically in Singapore and it does not hurt your self-esteem when these incidents happen because secretly, deep down inside your heart, you know you are White and the negative effect any racism has on you will not be as great as what it will have on a non-White person.

AsianRacism said...

What a droll observation, and typical of the vitriolic responses i get on this blog minus the swear words and hatred.

I have been interrogated at airports, in asian countries, for no apparent reason other than the colour of my skin. So the whole line about 'white privilege"is bunk and hollow. White Privilege is Singapore is as powerful as Chinese Privilege is in Malaysia.

You seem to have missed the key point of this blog: all racism is bad, but racism in asia is under-reported and often swept aside at the local level and ignored at the international level with the usual 'but your country is racist too' defense being used, so, if as you say, See the other kids do it too, why pick on me?" then the same can apply to asian countries when they complain of being portrayed as racist in non-asian media.