Ever since I’ve returned from China, I have been itching to leave again and go to any of the big three countries in East-Asia, be it Korea, Japan or China. It has also made me think about the views I hold and the way I perceive the world.
You see, I come from a small village of four-thousand souls in a part of the Frisian countryside. Our province basically consists only of small villages such as that and of the occasional town. In my village I could count the number of non-white families on one hand and because part of my family originally comes from a different province forty-five minutes away, even I already stood out a little bit.
Coming from such an undiverse background—my family can be traced back to the same areas in the North of the Netherlands for centuries—and from such an undiverse village, I feel that I have to be mindful of possible prejudices I might have. Of course it would be generalising (discrimination!) to say that countryside folk are all more inclined to bias and prejudice, but I do think that we are more prone to unconscious prejudice and even racism, because we are simply not used to dealing with people outside our own ethnic grouping. Also, whenever you as a westerner have enthusiasm for a certain non-western area, the danger of orientalism creeps in.
You can only improve yourself by learning and in that spirit I would like to write this blog post about an example that illustrates the mechanisms at play very well. I only heard about it in a YouTube video, but a quick Google search did not return much, so it must be somewhat lesser-known or very original. Anyway, I am talking about the so-called ‘white people slap’.
Basically, it consists of a white person asking a compatriot or someone like that with a non-white background too detailed questions about that non-white background. An example could be someone asking a person of Chinese descent about his or her opinion about the influence of western missionaries in laying the foundations for the Taiping rebellion. It would be ridiculous to assume that every person of Chinese descent is also a China scholar versed in all eras.
Although questions like the one above might be a demonstration of well-intended enthusiasm or be intended as such, if you do not find yourself in a discussion that in this case would concern 19th century Chinese history, you did do something wrong. There are several problems here, besides the fact that you look a bit like a show-off.
First of all, when you ask someone a question, it’s usually because you consider the addressee to be someone knowledgable enough to help you out. If the person you are talking to is just a random member of the identity group you are asking a question about, you imply by asking the question anyway, that you assume that all people of background X are all the same in the sense that they know everything related to their background X. Simply being of background X means they know everything about it.
Secondly, by asking this question and taking the above implicit assumption, you demonstrate that you equate the person with his background X. However, you don’t know where the allegiances of the persons you are talking to lie. They might be immigrants or children of immigrants who relate much stronger to their current country. Even if they aren’t, you still oversimplify their relationship with their heritage.
The ‘white people slap’ is not overt racism. However, it is a tool for subtly making the receivers of the slap feel that they do not fully belong. It is a way of marking the in-group and the out-group, with the added bonus of someone from the in-group graciously expressing interest in the out-group. In a sense you rob the addressees of their individuality and force them to be part of a collective, without knowing if they are or if they even want to be part of the collective you are assigning them. It contains parts of the mechanisms that fed the Yellow Peril and other racist ideologies that target a certain group. Even if they consider themselves fully part of the collective, of background X, they still deserve to be addressed as individuals.
Therefore, no matter how enthusiastic you are about a certain country or how much you want to know the answer to your burning question, always ask yourself if you are asking it to the right person.
I know that writing about discrimination and racism is not easy and that you easily risk being hypocritical and contradiction your own claims. I have tried to avoid this. If you don’t agree, please assume good faith on my side and please let me know why you think I am wrong.