Photo by Tim Foster
How do you talk about racism when the perpetrator isn’t white? On 28 April, the Wall Street Journal published an article describing the racist treatment that black people endured in China as a result of Covid-19. African nationals in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou were “subjected to forced coronavirus testing, barred from hotels and restaurants, and must observe arbitrary self-quarantines, regardless of symptoms or travel history.” Social justice advocates rushed forth to condemn this on social media, but found themselves unable to draw on the standard arsenal of critiques about whiteness. Because racist acts committed by people of color do not conform to the mainstream narratives of social justice, it is difficult to talk about these acts using the standard language of critical race theory.
The terminology that we use to discuss race relations in the United States centers on the dynamic between Caucasians and people of color, and often excludes the latter group from being potential perpetrators of racism themselves. As Carlos Hoyt Jr., assistant professor of social work at Wheelock College, puts it, the common dispute among people today is “whether the original definition of racism, the belief in the superiority/inferiority of people based on racial identity, should be revised to exclusively and strictly mean the use of power to preserve and perpetuate the advantages of the dominant social identity group—that is, white people in American society.” Most social activists and critical race theorists have adopted the latter definition, sometimes called prejudice plus power, arguing that racism against white people cannot exist because you can’t be racist against a group that has all the economic, social and cultural power.
However, the definition of racism as a tool to uphold the power of the dominant group, makes it far more difficult to talk about racial prejudice between non-white individuals, as illustrated by the example of anti-blackness in China. The Han Chinese, who comprise 92% of the Chinese population, are the dominant social identity group. Chairman Mao himself acknowledged this by coining the term Han chauvinism 70 years ago to describe local Han ethnocentrism. However, critical race theory’s conception of anti-blackness as stemming from the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the continuing subjugation that followed does not adequately describe anti-blackness in China. For most of its history, China was relatively closed off to foreigners. When black people visit China today, they are treated as spectacles, often photographed without their consent and pointed at as if they were animals in a zoo. In the United States, while black people are also treated differently on the basis of their skin color, you’d be hard pressed to find an American who has never seen a black person before, or would take an unsolicited picture of him or her. The exoticization and otherization of black people in China, while similarly immoral, cannot be attributed to the same reasons as America’s historical oppression of black communities.
It is important to acknowledge this difference so that progressives like myself do not adhere too closely to a predetermined framework of race relations for cases in which it does not apply, such as anti-blackness in China. While critical race theory is helpful for understanding many of the causes and manifestations of racism in the west, the common narratives espoused by critical race theorists do not comprehensively explain all acts of racial prejudice in the world—nor even in our own societies. We must not allow a limited definition of racism to pressure us into brushing aside racism by non-white perpetrators and imposing a western notion of race relations on situations to which it is not relevant. When we define racism in a way that is mostly designed to admonish one particular group, we will inevitably underplay racism committed by other groups. As an Asian-American woman, I want to be able to criticize racism from my own community. Similarly, I want to be able to criticize racism that I experience from other non-white communities. A definition of racism that exclusively incriminates white perpetrators makes it much harder to do this.
Critical race theory falls short when analyzing the racial tensions between non-white individuals because one can no longer attribute prejudicial behaviors to white supremacy. If racism continues to be defined as power plus prejudice, it will be difficult to label many instances of racial tension as racism, especially when they involve people of color themselves: one particularly salient example was the racially-motivated hate crime committed in Texas by a Latino man, who stabbed an Asian-American family of three because he “thought the family was Chinese, and infecting people with the coronavirus.” The perpetrator wasn’t white—so the act was not an instance of racism in the sense of “preserv[ing] and perpetuat[ing] the advantages of the dominant social identity group.” But it’s difficult not to see this as a blatant act of anti-Asian racism. If we don’t call it racism, what do we call it? Perhaps we will have to invent a new term that can encompass instances of bias from one group to another when neither group is the most powerful in society. But racial prejudice among people of color seems close enough to racism that even social justice advocates on the left, who might also argue that reverse racism doesn’t exist, would use the term racism to describe anti-blackness in China or a Sinophobic hate crime committed by a Latino man, even though they do not fit the precise definition of racism that requires the structural component of racial dominance.
A definition of racism that suggests that people of color and white people can be equally guilty of racism would resolve this issue. However, it would open the door to Rawlsian, colorblind judgments of racial issues, which do not reflect the historical realities of our society today. Absent acknowledgement that there exists a dominant group in society, events like Black History Month would be deemed racist because they show favoritism of one racial group over another. But context matters—during my K–12 public school education in the United States, the vast majority of historical figures I learned about were white men. It makes sense that we need to balance the scales a little. The question is whether a race-blind definition would leave enough room for historical and cultural nuance in race politics. Most people who accept a colorblind definition probably still see the necessity of Black History Month and other celebrations of African-American culture. A more difficult line to draw for many would be whether stereotypes and exclusion of white people, such as the recent social media trend of referring to white women as Karens, or the silencing of white people in conversations about race, should be deemed racist or not. Under a colorblind definition of racism, it would be harder to argue that they aren’t.
Ultimately, the question is: how do you address racism in a manner that recognizes the complicity of all people, regardless of race, while also acknowledging the importance of historical and social contexts? As an Asian-American woman, it’s a question that I have grappled with all my life. While I have witnessed members of my community both act as perpetrators of racism and be the targets of racism from other people of color, these examples rarely receive the same media attention as incidences that better conform to the mainstream narrative of who the perpetrators and victims of racism are. Although white supremacy is a useful epistemological framework for analyzing racism that is perpetuated by white people, it is by no means a comprehensive explanation of all instances of racial prejudice. We should not be so tied to the dominant academic discourse on racism that we cannot criticize instances of racial prejudice that are morally repulsive, but do not draw the attention of ethnic studies scholars. What is most important is that our disagreements about the definitions of racism do not preclude us from denouncing racially-motivated acts of violence and hostility when we see them. Regardless of what you want to call the discriminatory treatment of African nationals in China, and regardless of whether you believe that all individuals can be perpetrators and victims of racism, we can at least agree that the inhumane treatment of black people in China on the basis of their race is morally reprehensible.