Written by Shzr Ee Tan
During the early days of COVID-19 in February 2020, I watched latent Sinophobia unleash itself upon the veneer of genteel British society. At a railway station in the Southeast, one of my Hong Kong students was followed, spat at, called names and threatened with ‘I’ll report you as a perv’ the minute he began recording the incident on camera. In the North of England, a colleague from China was shouted at to ‘go home to your virus’.
Ha! I thought – I knew it: buoyed by nationwide xenophobia sanctioned by Brexit, (some) people in the UK were finally displaying their true colours, telling (and violently showing) Yellow persons open and blatant prejudice. News articles were written about ‘incidents’. Marches and performance interventions were held. Academic and activist panel discussions – at which I spoke alongside thinkers on the British Chinese diaspora and on China studies – were convened. Awareness of longstanding wrongs was raised overnight, even as many East Asians and Southeast Asians in the UK found the (anger-fuelled? anxiety-hastened?) courage to speak out, publicly. Finally, I sighed with frustrated relief – we were being heard.
And then, in June – #BlackLivesMatter happened. The fact that the latest tragic killing of a person in the US this time around (and one killing in a history of many) had ignited so much response within and beyond Black communities around the world was no coincidence in terms of timing. Far from a ‘society-levelling’ mechanism, the pandemic had clearly exacerbated longstanding inequalities and oppressions. People were angry; and why shouldn’t they be? Those who were already poor, unemployed or marginalised suffered the unfolding health-turned-economic and political crises around the world much harder and more unjustly… which also meant that for many East Asians like myself with at least some kind of economic privilege, it was far more important to hide our pain for now. It was crucial that we took a back seat for the moment and allowed the voices of our Black friends and colleagues to be fully and loudly heard. Even more important that East Asians take responsibility in acknowledging that not a few in their community were themselves guilty of racisms against Black people(s).
On March 16th, however, the shooting of six East Asian women in Atlanta, US, triggered fresh waves of responses around Sinophobia. Indeed, even the concept of Sinophobia was being contested as a valid form of racism itself. Observing a Chinese diasporic friend’s Facebook timeline detailing her own experience of hate crime against East Asians, I watched a (white) woman post a string of tone-deaf interrogations in the aftermath of the shootings: ‘Have u been pulled over? Jailed? Denied a job? Denied housing? Denied loans? Denied access to education?’
To be sure, as the unsympathetic commentator infers, there are different kinds of racisms – all decidedly existing in the plural. Undoubtedly, it is important to acknowledge the differentiated natures of such (often, systemic) oppressions across timelines, geographies, and generational divides. In white dominant societies, where those with bias may cross over to the other side of a road upon seeing a Black man approach, not too long ago the interaction was frequently the reverse when involving East Asians. Relegated to the ignored and invisible in their model minority ‘doormat’ status, Asians were, instead, expected to get out of the way. I speak from personal experience, pre-COVID: in dyeing my otherwise black and classically straight ‘Asian’ hair purple three years ago, I inadvertently bought myself an extra 50cms of proxemic bubble on British public transport. Now, paradoxically, in the height of a lockdown on London’s streets, I enjoy as much radial space as I want, even as stereotypes of East Asians have moved on from the nerdy and emotionally-embarrassed swot to that of a different, ‘new Yellow Peril’. Today, as global power shifts place a technologically-burgeoning China in a prime position with envious economic clout, new racist stereotypes of the Chinese as entitled offspring of rich, single-child families, have emerged.
How does one take apart these unhelpful caricatures, or even begin to understand them within different spectra of racist acts committed against other Japanese, Korean and Southeast Asians/ Pacific Islanders lumped together in xenophobic conflation? And what of the many East Asians who themselves struggle with the anxiety of ‘model minority’ impositions, and refrain from reporting incidents of racial abuse to the police because they ‘don’t want to cause trouble’? Plus – there’s Chinese, and there’s Chinese. At the height of COVID-19, one or two conversations within Asian communities themselves teetered into dangerous divide-and-conquer territory while political tensions around COVID blame arose between different people from Taiwan, Hong Kong and the PRC, amidst swept-aside concerns about racisms (particularly, Islamophobia) within China itself. Watching from the sidelines as the holder of a Singapore passport, I experienced soul-searching aches over how I may or may not have treated Malay and Tamil friends in Chinese-hegemonic Singapore. And… what about my Black friends in the UK itself, whose journeys of trauma and pain have long pre-existed and continue to exist alongside the pains of South/East/Southeast Asian/Indigenous/Latinx communities?
There is a danger, however, of whataboutisms. And this is where they are frequently deployed as strategies for undermining and denying pain, hurt and larger structural oppressions. Often, these equivalents of ad hominems function as a strategic distraction from the larger problem of white supremacy – for it is so much easier to put minorities against each other, no? To quote one of the bad-ass Black women who countered the white inquisitor of my abovementioned East Asian friend on social media: We aren’t your bargaining chips. Too often, white people are entirely comfortable interrogating BIPOC about their experiences, forcing unfair identity politics into play while not considering their own privilege and power.
The same argument goes for those in the UK who claim that the race- and gender-fetishised Atlanta killings were ‘purely US-centric’ affairs spinning off Trump’s ‘Chinese virus’, bearing no relation to race relations with East Asians/ Pacific Islanders in the UK. But I can tell you from at least two decades of personal experience, long predating COVID, that racism against East Asians in the UK is out here and very much alive, if different in varieties from racisms against Black peoples. Over the past 20 years of my UK life, I have been told again and again that ‘my English is very good’ by colleagues and students at professional events. I have been accused of plagiarism by people who did not believe I could write. My female friends and I have been asked for free massage, cleaning and ‘homecooked meals’ alongside sex on Tinder UK. 18 months ago, a white man at my local spa tried to tip me, thinking I was his masseuse. (She had spent an hour oiling his body, and he had not bothered looking at her face – or perhaps… we just all looked alike, eh, never mind that I was not wearing a uniform.
Is all this ‘Asian hurt’ less than Black peoples’ ‘hurt’? Yes – of course. But only Black and South/East Asian communities have the right to ask for such comparisons. And believe me – some of us have been doing just that. In the unfolding of this damned pandemic, one of the many lessons I have learnt is that inter-ethnic solidarity has never been stronger in pockets across the UK. At the height of open anti-Asian racisms in early 2020, many East Asians reached out to Black friends/colleagues to express how they finally had a glimpse of what life had been like for their counterparts of colour. Following the news of the Atlanta shootings, some of the first people to check in on me following news of the Atlanta shootings were my Black, Brown, Latinx, LGBTQ+ and EU friends – every one of them a member of a minority community.
And maybe – the notion of care and finding varieties of ‘self’ in the ‘other’ – is where a hopeful path ahead lies. As recovery from the pandemic kicks into place slowly across the UK, I am watching people who have been hurt in one way or another on account of structural issues in society pick themselves up again, and in doing so learning how to pick others around themselves up too.
Shzr Ee Tan is a Senior Lecturer and ethnomusicologist (with a specialism in Sinophone and Southeast Asian worlds) at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is interested in impact-based issues of music and decolonisation, aspirational cosmopolitanism, and anti-racist activism in music scenes around the world (including HE), with a view towards understanding marginality through the lenses of intersectionality. Her recent research project initiated with Mai Kawabata, ‘Cultural Imperialism and the ‘New Yellow Peril’ in Western Art Music, has gained considerable traction among East Asian music communities around the world and turned her towards more activist-informed scholarship and teaching.