By Rachel Ka Yin Leung
It is only human nature that we are quick to point fingers, especially on social issues happening oceans away from our little corner of the South China Sea.
Following the recent tip-of-the-iceberg murder of African-American Minneapolis resident George Floyd – which incited reverberating demands for justice – it is time for us as a non-Western, post-colonial Asian society to take a good hard look at ourselves and our own record of racism and anti-blackness both online and in the wider society.
Anti-blackness is not an exclusively American or Eurocentric issue. Though conflated with colonial history, white privilege and supremacy, and the history of slavery and segregation, anti-blackness is alive and kicking in our own backyard.
More memorable events near us that one might bring to mind are instances of blackface in prime-time Chinese laundry detergent advertisements and CCTV variety shows, as well as unreasonable treatment by Chinese authorities of African nationals over Covid-19 fears. It is unfortunate to remark that we as a city are not doing much better.
Taking into account that Hong Kong, though an international, metropolitan city (and certainly branded as such), is in fact fairly ethnically homogenous — according to the 2018 census, 92% of the population identify as ethnic Han Chinese, meaning that ethnic minorities account for around 8% of the population — the way we experience race as a society is certainly very telling of the views and values of the majority.
Telling enough is the long-standing division the Chinese majority wedges between non-East-Asian ethnic minorities — white expats — and non-white migrants, certainly subject to conflation with socioeconomic class.
One must be critical of how this labelling and categorisation of ethnic minorities panders to the remaining colonial sentiments of white supremacy.
Even with other Asian minorities, we are not exempt from our racism: from the general sentiment and treatment of our majority Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers as second-class citizens, to the lack of integration of South and Southeast Asian school-age children into the local education system.
These systematic and personal forms of discrimination run right down into the roots of our society, resulting in us having unreasonable ideas such as not expecting Caucasians (expatriates or not) to learn the majority language of Cantonese, but viewing the learning of Cantonese as crucial to the integration of all other non-white minorities into Hong Kong society.
Recently, a leaked document (alleged to be an employment agency document for Native English Teachers), surfaced online and sparked a discussion on racial preference for NETs, more accurately termed outright racism and discriminatory employment practices.
The document clearly states requirements such as “must white”, “prefer blonde hair”, and shockingly unacceptable statements such as “no black”, “no India/Africa”, “no black/South East Asia”.
Whilst these statements were very much made one-sidedly by employers (worryingly, educational organisations), they nevertheless reflect the implied preference of their patrons and thus the preferences of wider society in arenas traditionally considered privileged.
While discriminatory employment practices like these are seemingly hush-hush business, online forums and discussion forums have given a platform to more vocal and explicit varieties of racism and anti-blackness that exist in our society.
There exist platforms such as the well-known LIHKG, as well as examples such as a Hong Kong-based public Facebook group with over 322,000 members to date — minefields for such instances of racism and anti-blackness.
Having been added into this Facebook group by a friend, I was initially unaware of the nature of the group or its member posts, but increasingly became aware of the worrying racist, misogynist and even incel and neo-fascist undertones of the posts.
It is meant to be a group for mindless entertainment, but one can find, more often than not, blatantly racist content. From multiple posts featuring outright blackface acts (a spin-off of the “dancing pallbearers” meme bearing the effigy of Carrie Lam) and the unsettling obsession of the member posts and comments with exoticising, fetishising and turning blackness into entertainment, the anti-blackness exhibited is at once uncomfortable, worrying and downright problematic.
Given the level of anti-blackness that permeates our society, it is unsurprising that racist tropes and language pops up in conversation and popular culture. The common use of phrases such as “黑人問號“ (Black Person Question Mark) to express confusion even amongst educated circles is testament that racism is individual as well as systematic.
Just as authorities can enact racist and discriminatory policies, individuals too can say and do racist and problematic things, whether knowingly or unknowingly.
This should be a sobering realisation for us as a non-Western, post-colonial Asian society. We can and should do better than this for our black and non-white ethnic minorities.
Firstly we must recognise and admit that this exists in our own city, pushing and campaigning for awareness and tangible policy changes on the societal level as well as making it a personal commitment to educate oneself on racial issues as much as possible in and beyond our city.
To quote Ijemona Oluo on addressing racism: “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And that’s the only way forward.”
Let us make it a hard commitment to make this the only way forward.
Rachel Ka Yin Leung is a poet, writer and editor from Hong Kong. She is the winner of the Sir Roger Newdigate Prize, and her work has also been awarded or recognized in the Proverse Poetry Prize, Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, Acumen, Out-Spoken Poetry Prize; and has been published in ASH, Cherwell, ORB, Cha, Hong Kong Free Press, HK01 and The Mekong Review, among others.