Bigotry Is Not Unique To America

Yes, other countries have problems with racism. But that’s all the more reason to show how exceptional American can be by tackling ours.
Detainees listening to speeches in a camp in Lop County, Xinjiang, April 2017.

Detainees listening to speeches in a camp in Lop County, Xinjiang, April 2017.

Back in what seems like an almost forgotten era of 2017, social media was aflame over the casting of the Ghost In The Shell movie. For those of you not into science fiction for whatever horrible reason, the film is an adaptation of an animated classic from Japan in which humans are routinely upgrading themselves into cyborgs and minds are no longer merely organic. The original was so beloved and profound that for many, it and Akira were gateways into anime as art rather than a way for Japanese companies to sell toys and games to kids. So, as you may imagine, passions about the live-action version were running high in the nerd community.

During one discussion, I asked whether the same people who’d object to casting Scarlett Johanson to play the role of a Japanese policewoman would also be at arms that a Japanese adaptation of Sherlock Holmes had an all Japanese cast. After all, doesn’t cultural appropriation go both ways? Just as Americans have obsessive otakus, the Japanese have diehard 24 and Bones fans, and a thriving Rockabilly culture. I was stunned when I was told that it would be “refreshing” to see a non-white culture “adapt and transform an imperialistic society’s cultural mores” and highly suggested some research into Japanese history.

For all it’s outward politeness and competitive spirit, Japan is a deeply xenophobic, nationalistic, and traditional country, even knowing that sticking to traditional mores is hurting it economically and socially. The war crimes it committed over the first half of the 20th century earned it the ire of an entire region, and its far-right movements are busy trying to downplay them in constant and systematic feats of historical revisionism. By any definition, it’s a racist country with a dark, imperialistic past, making any notion that cultural appropriation in its mass media is somehow transgressive and subversive compared to similar experiments by “Western colonizers,” abject nonsense.

But this isn’t to harp on Japan as some sort of avatar of Eastern racism. China, one of its former victims, is far, far worse. It has the lowest immigration rate in the world and migrants, especially those from Africa, are placed under unflinching surveillance. Meanwhile, its efforts to ethnically cleanse the Xinjiang province of its Uighur population is basically an open secret by now, with terrifying footage of detained Uighurs being loaded onto trains posted all over the web, rightfully drawing parallels to the Holocaust. The country also restricts its ethnic minorities from certain jobs and educational opportunities for the benefit of Han Chinese supremacy.

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Things aren’t much better in neighboring India, where anti-African sentiment runs high, the government is filled with Hindu supremacists who ascribe to and glorify fascist ideologies, and are given free rein to violently lash out at their critics. A quick jump to Malaysia will show you a country filled with tension between Malays and the Chinese. Venture a little north to Myanmar and you’ll find the Rohingya people left stateless and being forced into refugee camps across Southeast and Central Asia thanks to Facebook-abusing religious extremists. Further afield in North Africa, you’ll see thriving modern-day slave auctions in Libya.

Meanwhile, ostensibly reformed and woke former British colonies of Canada and Australia are guilty of giving indigenous people deadly “starlight tours” and running concentration camps for would-be refugees and asylum seekers, respectively. And we have to note the sharp spike in bigotry and far-right activism in European nations in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis.

In short, the world was, and is still filled with various systems of oppression, exclusion, and discrimination based on race or ethnicity, and by simply not being from a certain ethnic group known to be in the wrong doesn’t absolve one from having your own version of such systems and antagonistic beliefs about others. It’s a historical fact that the Japanese and Chinese were mistreated for decades in America. But that doesn’t mean we should praise the same actions taken by Japanese and Chinese cultures we’d ridicule in the West, or close our eyes to their racist or xenophobic attitudes.

As Audre Lorde noted, there is no hierarchy of oppression. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and neither does lamenting your wrongs while ignoring others’. For example, growing up as a Jew in Eastern Europe, I’ve had strangers make numerous anti-Semitic comments at me as a kid, and I was once accosted for being a little spawn of the Illuminati by a random stranger frothing at the mouth so badly, other adults felt the need to rush to my aid. Many in the community around me endured brutal horrors at the hand of Nazi soldiers in World War 2 and like my family, lost their friends, relatives, and loved ones to fascist death camps. Those of us who tried to get ahead in our homeland were excluded from some top tier education and jobs for being Jews.

At the same time, I’ve also seen plenty of Jews expand their historical grudge against Nazis to an outright hatred of all Germans, and by extension, anything German, even if the majority of the targets of their ire weren’t even born during the war. Let’s remember that German society paid reparations, acknowledged its past, and showed genuine contrition. It’s one thing to hate the fascists who tried to ethnically cleanse the world and lament that not all of them met the fate they deserved. But targeting people whose only fault was to be born in Germany always struck me as terribly wrong, as did right-wing Jewish supremacism which spawned as a wrongheaded answer to anti-Semitism.

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This is, of course, very different than the conversation about American slavery and the history of racism and discrimination. No one alive today was around when slavery was still legal, and the public considers it a dark stain on the nation’s past. But there’s also no denying that after the end of slavery, white supremacists deployed countless schemes to deny African-Americans land, jobs, opportunity, and, especially, political say and power. Between racist massacres, poll taxes, segregation, redlining, and a president sued for racial discrimination using diversity in suburban America as a threat to motivate his base to vote for him, any notion that the U.S. atoned for its history of mistreating its minorities is a transparent farce.

With this in mind, it’s little wonder that these days, there are a lot of conversations about racism and systems of oppression and discrimination that seem to be hyperfocused on defining racism to best assign guilt, parsing the exact privilege and power differentials of the parties involved. This is music to racists’ and bigots’ ears. They can point to these debates to accuse anti-racists of hypocrisy and playing “privilege poker,” cite the same examples of racism and oppression in foreign nations we covered up to this point, and go on to claim that whatever racism exists in America isn’t a big deal because look at all these other racist countries and all those “woke snowflakes” refusing to acknowledge that racism isn’t exclusive to Western whites.

In the all-or-nothing world of online debates, it’s tempting not to give your ideological opponent an inch, but nuance matters in debates around complex issues, and — as the aforementioned Audre Lorde also warned — all systems of oppression must be recognized and fought against simultaneously. And if America really wants to demonstrate how exceptional it is, why not show all those other nations how it’s done and start dismantling its own racist institutions? Isn’t that the thing that makes us unique? That we’re able to quickly pivot thanks to our ingenuity and wealth, and take on challenges no other country has the stomach to tackle while facing honest, strong criticism of our society unlike thin-skinned weaklings in authoritarian states?

With so many countries lacking the will to have such tough conversations and make major, meaningful changes, not just engage in performative wokeness to make it seem like we’ve addressed real systems of oppression and exclusion without doing any of the actual work, America could lead the way with major police, education, healthcare, and housing reforms. Its reward wouldn’t just be international prestige either. It would be a healthier population, a much stronger economy, and a roaring innovation engine powered by unconventional ideas from a more diverse base of researchers, scholars, inventors, and engineers.

If you like to walk around, pounding your chest about how America is the greatest country in the world, considered this challenge and how much acclaim and economic benefit it would bring, then decided that it’s enough that we’re not as bad as China or Libya, then you should really be asking yourself about your priorities and what you think makes America so great. Exactly how much do you love your country that you’re loath to improve it, especially because some of its residents may benefit from those efforts? And if you really think this country is so amazing, why do you insist on lowering the bar when comparing it to others?

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Opinion // China / Japan / Racism / World