Unpacking Racism

At sixth form, I chose a day school over a boarding school - in hopes that I would get a full experience of what it’s like to actually live in the UK. Whilst I learnt about where to go for brunches and how to cycle with one hand, I also experienced my first encounter of overt racism there. In this article, I am going to share my first and and second hand experiences with racism; and will be incorporating some technical terms that I have learnt over the years in the discussion to hopefully unpack this in a more academic way.

So here goes the story: it was during the A-levels exam period, I cycled into town. The plan was to get a coffee somewhere and meet my friend to make essay plans together. Whilst I was parking my bike a dishevelled man who was carrying two bin bags filled with whatever, came up to me and asked if he could ask me a question. Thinking that he wanted directions, I said yes. He replied, “Why are all asians so ignorant?”. This was in the middle of town, in front of families with children who were sitting on the benches soaking up the rare English sun. I shall speak about how the rest of the encounter went later in this article.

So me, a confused, shocked, baffled teen with a Snapchat addiction at the time, shared my experience on the aforementioned social media platform. The amount of responses that I got from my friends and acquaintances was overwhelming: people of color resonated and talked about their ‘inferiority complex’. This was a term first used by French psychologist and philosopher Franz Fanon during 1950s to describe people of color feeling as if they are inferior as they have been oppressed, and hence believe that they deserve to be discriminated against because of the color of their skin. My friends who are white thanked me for sharing, they seemed concerned, maybe even ashamed. They apologised for the man - many times more than they do already, usually.

Focusing on the former type of responses, I got consent from my friends to share them here: some friends doing their degree in Vancouver talked about how they have witnessed instances where some professors only ever choose East-Asian-looking people to read aloud in class, and critiqued them for their accents. Another friend in Hawaii talked about how she was automatically placed in a beginners’ class for English Language despite having gotten a 7 for English Language and Literature for the IB. Another, and I quote, said ‘I used to feel really ashamed of being Asian because it was as if I am less cultured. People assumed that I didn’t speak good English despite having been raised in the UK...’

These experiences only became more immediate and real at university. During my first term here, I witnessed the events following a non-black person’s usage of the N-word have on a black person, a story which the latter was gracious enough to have agreed to having it shared. In short, the story goes: the former student shouted the N-word in front of the latter, whilst looking her straight in the eye. The latter requested for him to never use the word again given its problematic connotations. The former, who is a person of color himself, argued that the black rapper usage of the word in a song automatically gave him the right to say it as a listener. He also mentioned that he has never had any black friends and therefore did not think that it would be a problem at all. The black person was very much infuriated and disappointed to say the least. However, she made the effort to tell him all about the history of the N-word and the effects that it had on her family. I would not claim to be knowledgeable about black history at all, nor did the black person share those stories with me. However, I personally believe that if, one has not bear the pain and suffering that comes with the incarcerating, enslaving, demeaning effects of the word; if one’s ancestors had not fought overt racism and internalised racism for years; if one has not been an active participant in political movements such as Négritude -- one simply does not have the right to use the word which black people paid for and reclaimed with their painful endurances and dignified resistance.

After having heard the stories about her family, the non-black person apologised to the black person for his insensitivity.

Unpacking this, his ignorance is demonstrative of the problem with ignorance and blindness to another race’s cultural experiences. The story illustrates the importance of engaging with everyone and hearing their stories before you make a judgement on a group, which is what modern philosopher Miranda Fricker coined and promoted as doing ‘epistemic justice’. Simply put, it refers to seeking and evaluating a full range of reliable information before we act. Diving in deeper, it is perhaps with epistemic justice that we can combat ‘aversive racism’, a form of racism which Gaertner and Dovidio (1986) defined as that which stems from a lack of interaction with or avoidance of interaction with other racial groups besides one’s own; and which I believe the racist individual in my first encounter of racism displayed.

Finishing my story. In my encounter, I felt vulnerable and scared. Yet looking back, what gave me courage to speak up against the racist person was perhaps the thought that if I could not change his opinions there and then, I am still obligated to speak up against racism and share my perspectives as a colored person with those who were looking at us, waiting to hear what this foreign-looking girl has to say. What happened then was that I asked the racist individual 2 questions:

‘Clarify for me, sir --

1. Asia is a big continent, are you referring to east asians or south-east asians or? Or are you making a sweeping judgement about billions of people?

2. And, what do you mean when you say “ignorant”? Do you mean that they don’t speak English, or that they have say no spatial awareness whilst travelling in a foreign country? What do you mean?’

People witnessing the conversation turned their heads to look at him. I am not sure if he is embarrassed or that my rhetorical questions did affect him (a little), he replied saying, ‘You know what? I don’t like talking to you and I don’t want to talk to anyone from your country,’ and so he walked away.

Besides the fact that the irony is that Asia is not a country, I believe that what the man exhibited was a classic example of aversive racism as Gaertner and Dovidio described.

So the story ends with me saying ‘Have a nice day sir!’ in my American / International accent, my body shaking still then however.

Academic Robin DiAngelo coined the word ‘white fragility’ in 2011. The New Yorker summarises the definition to be a sense of ‘disbelieving defensiveness that white people exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged -- and particularly when they feel implicated in white supremacy’. Interestingly, when I shared my encounter with my substitute history teacher at the time (who commented on one of our classmates’ accents), her dismissal of the reality of my experience made me realise just how ‘fragile’ and defensive she might be. More importantly, how much work we still ought to do in order to realise ‘epistemic justice’ and truly bring about a maximum amount of equality for the human race. As an international student, I feel incredible privileged to be able to call Hong Kong, a city with an asian-majority my home, an environment in which I am sheltered from these experiences that my opportunity of studying abroad brings me. My position makes me feel all-the-more responsible to talk about race with friends back home and friends here - colored and white. My personal encounter with racism has actually cured me of my ‘inferiority complex’, more specifically, the younger me’s rejection of my own culture and aspiration to be more ‘white-washed’ as they say. I hope you could take comfort in knowing that others have similar experiences too, if you ever have to (or have already) encounter racism. At the same time, I hope that these experiences that I shared in a shortened manner (and news concerning death by racism that are still happening today) demonstrate the reality, prevalence and proximity of racism in the very place that we live in everyday. I hope these inspire you to actively carry out the aforementioned ‘epistemic justice’ as a person of color coming from a post-colonial background as well!