By Fumi Kurihara
This piece has been adapted from a talk given at the panel discussion on anti-Asian hate and racism organized by the China and East Asian Studies Initiative (CEAS) on 18 May 2021. The reflections in this piece are based solely on the author’s individual experiences as a privileged Japanese Asian woman.
What does “anti-Asian racism” and “anti-Asian hate” capture and omit? Let me try to answer this question by reflecting upon three words: Asian, racism, and hate.
Let’s begin with the word “Asian”. When you ask yourself, “Who do I consider ‘Asian’?”, who do you instinctively think about? For me, the first three nationalities that come up intuitively are from the East of Asia: Japanese, Chinese, and South Koreans. I can’t tell you why, but other countries seldomly make it on that list.
Upon reflection, I realized that growing up in France shaped my instinctive and subconscious assumptions of who is Asian. Everywhere I went, people simply labeled me as “Asian”, and over time, I internalized this label without ever questioning it. Twenty-plus years later, this label has stuck with me. The stickiness of these types of labels is, I believe, grounded in the influence others have on our own perceptions: how we see and understand our positionality is shaped by the way people read and treat us, whether it concerns our looks, religion, gender, sexuality, or socioeconomic background.
From my experience talking to others about this subject and asking them who they think about when they hear the term “anti-Asian racism” or “anti-Asian hate”, many primarily think about the situation of “Asians” in the so-called “West”, such in the US, Europe or Canada. But what about racism between Asians, both within and outside of Asia?
For example, as a Japanese citizen, I’m speaking and writing within the context of the history of Japan. This history includes Imperial Japan, which pursued an ideology of Japanese supremacy, culminating in the colonization and occupation of wide parts of South-East Asia up to 1945. Traces of this ideology can be identified today in Japan with respect to migration laws and attitudes towards people from other “Asian” countries. This history also includes the continued discrimination of minority groups such as the Zainichi Koreans, the Ryukuans, and the Ainus, just to name a few. And I know a lot of people, especially the older generations, who flinch when they hear that someone is dating or marrying a person who’s not considered “Japanese”.
I’m saying this because when we see particular events on social media with a certain terminology attached to it, we often consume it as is, or filter the content based on our values, morals and beliefs. However, it’s important for all of us to take a step back and ask ourselves: Who is generally considered or portrayed as “Asian”? Or, where do these Asians face discrimination? My impression is that the term “Asian” is used as an umbrella term to cover various people with different positions in society, which can obscure nuance and differences in favor of generalizability.
This leads me to the other two words I want to reflect upon: racism and hate. Now, this is just my opinion based on my own personal experiences, but I think all forms of anti-Asian hate are manifestations of anti-Asian racism. However, not all anti-Asian racism is expressed through hatred or physical violence. It can be very subtle or even appear “benevolent” on the surface, which is particularly the case for Asians that are often labeled as the “model minority”. Yet, what often makes it to the news cycles, spurring and shaping public debates, are the most extreme manifestations of hateful racism, namely acts of physical violence. This is even more pronounced in an era that is characterized by the attention economy and click baiting.
I really want to underscore here that I am not trying to undermine anybody’s experiences or downplay the severity of such horrific events. What I do want to point out is that if we focus solely on these extreme manifestations, we lose sense of the other manifestations of racism that people around us experience. It can also shape how people who are the victims of racism interpret their experiences, perhaps not labelling incidents as racism because they do not cross a certain “severity threshold”. I don’t know how many people I reached out to for my podcast who declined to speak because they think they haven’t experienced racism, or because they think their experiences are not horrific enough to share, and expressed that they should instead give space to other People of Color who are “worse off”.
Even when people ask me, “Tell me about some of your experiences of anti-Asian hate”, I find myself in a difficult position because I know I have been subjected to different manifestations of racism, but I’m not sure I can say these experiences were necessarily driven by genuine “hate”. Let me give you an example.
A few years ago, I was in Lyon for a football match and I encountered a group of guys who said in French, amongst many other degrading things, “Ching chang chong!” Back then, I knew what they said was wrong because it felt wrong, but I didn’t recognize that it was a statement born out of racist beliefs, as well as a form of executing power.
I share this story because this was not necessarily motivated by pure, cold hate. One might even trivialize it by saying, “It was just guys messing around”. But they were using racialized slurs and acting upon power asymmetries, and I think that by focusing too narrowly on terminologies such as “anti-Asian hate” – which are necessary to encapsulate certain experiences of Asian communities in certain places – these manifestations of racism are at risk of slipping through the cracks.
I want to raise one more issue which I think underlines my point about the importance of reflecting on words such as “Asian”, “racism” and “hate”, and their blurry intersections. I am specifically choosing this example because I believe it’s particularly relevant for students at the Graduate Institute. It’s on the issue of job hunting, work permits, and visas.
Now, this is a topic that a number of speakers in my podcast refer to, and is an issue I’m personally experiencing right now. Luckily, after graduating, I was able to stay in Geneva longer than many of my other “Asian” counterparts because I was eligible for the 18-months Young Professional Visa. This visa is tied to a job and is granted to certain countries that have bilateral agreements with Switzerland. While this list might not be an expression of “hate”, it creates a “hierarchy of nationalities” in Switzerland.
Once my 18-months visa ended, my contract also ended because my employer wasn’t able to sponsor my visa. Long story short, I was a sans-papier for half a year (though I recently managed to obtain a short-term permit due to specific circumstances). During this time, I’ve been applying for jobs in Europe. However, I can’t apply for everything that’s out there because I’m not an EU/EFTA citizen. This means I can only apply for jobs that sponsor my visa. At one point, I realized that I’m no longer looking at the job description when I’m applying for something: I’m automatically scrolling down the page to see whether they grant me a visa or not. And I’m talking about this as somebody who possesses one of the “most privileged” passports in the world.
Some people might ask, are permit and visa issues really racism or hate? One of my speakers in an earlier episode answers this question. They say: “I don’t know. But it does a similar job.”
I want to end this piece with this quote because we can discuss definitions of racism and what should or should not be labeled as racism – these are certainly very important discussions that we need to be having. But what my interactions with all the amazing people I’ve spoken to on my podcast so far have taught me, is that racism is also a very personalized experience that is different for everybody. Sometimes experiences can’t be defined or categorized under any umbrella term because it’s not always clear-cut.
To truly understand racism, it’s important that we humanize the subject. By humanizing, I mean that abstract definitions have to be complemented by listening to people’s stories, no matter how trivial they appear at first, and most importantly, believing in what people are telling you.
Fumi Kurihara (IHEID MIA ’18) is the producer and host of #OUR_racism, a podcast that explores the various manifestations of racism through personal stories and lived experiences. If you have a story to share, reach out to her at email@example.com.