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The impact of Orientalism

In the fight against Anti-Asian racism, we cannot ignore Western imperialism

By Robbie Kirk

Image courtesy of Winsu Bagus (@winsubagusw) via Unsplash

In the past twelve months, there has been a notable increase of racist incidents against individuals of East Asian descent in Western nations. While it may be simple to view this through the conventional media lens, which claims that racism is propagated by a right-wing fringe and is an abnormality in the way the West operates, this is far from the whole story.

Since WWII, the West (I will refer primarily to the US here) has systematically oppressed East Asians, no matter their particular background. A quick glance at the nations bombed and/or invaded by the US since 1945 provides a clear view of the extent to which East Asian countries have been targeted. Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea and almost every other East Asian country has at one time been a victim of US bombs, troops, or economic sanctions in the last seven decades.

It is true that the Covid-19 pandemic propelled Anti-Asian racism, particularly with the almost daily branding of the disease as the “China Virus” by former US President, Donald Trump.

However, these sentiments did not begin in 2020. They stretch back much further than mainstream narratives will care to detail. Those originating from the Asian continent have always been viewed through the lens of ‘Orientalism’ (see Edward Said), which paints Asians as innately ‘backwards’ and ‘other’ in stark contrast to a more sophisticated, Western civilisation. These views have permeated through academia and the media and have found their place firmly in Western populations. The Covid-19 pandemic did not initiate anti-Asian sentiment, it merely provided fresh ammunition.

The contemporary Asian opponent comes in the form of China. Soon to be the world’s largest economy, China is spreading its wings as a nation state and planting its influence across the globe, much to the frustration of the previously hegemonic United States. Threatening American hegemony has never gone without aggressive opposition and now is no different. The US utilises every available asset — from the media and the military, to NGOs — to push its anti-Chinese messaging. Even ‘progressive’ heroes such as AOC and Ilhan Omar have signed on to the economic sanctioning of China, despite knowing full well the impacts this will have on the Chinese people and their access to food, healthcare, and water. A glance at almost every Western political party shows that they all fall in line with the anti-Chinese narrative and are more than willing to back the US’s imperialist intentions.

The point of this background explanation is to establish the undeniable link between government intentions, actions and attitudes, and the racism East Asians experience daily. There is no distinction between opposing Western imperialism in Asia and supporting your Asian friends, neighbours, and coworkers. I see far too many people citing government backed sinophobia and then sharing an “end racism against Asians” post in the same breath.

There are clear failings from the Chinese government, like most countries, but the never-ending message that China is innately evil and ‘out to get’ the West is the fundamental messaging which facilitates the rise in anti-Asian sentiment Asians are subjected to every single day.

If I can encourage readers to do one thing, it is to read into what you are told, do not believe at face value the narratives propagated by mainstream sources and ensure that you do not view China — or any other East-Asian nation — through the same orientalist lens it has always been examined through.


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