Re: Ethnocentrism and Racism

In Response to a Reader’s Comment

Shadows, by lonecellotheory, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)The blogosphere is a wonderful thing – it kicks up opinions both reasoned and unreasoned, considered and trite, and balances them against each other as though their values were equal. That makes for often intriguing conversation if you spend time reading down the comment lists on popular blogs, searching for actions, reactions and overreactions. It all makes for the drama of life, the politics of knowing, knowing not, or knowing too much. So I’m very pleased that a commenter going by that name ‘yourfriend’ has take exception to my post on the limits and possibilities of multiculturalism in China. Let’s have a friendly conversation.

First, the comment:

The fact that you don’t see China, a nation containing many peoples with separate thousands-years-old cultures, as multicultural only hints at ethnocentrism and racism on your part.

So, not a terribly good start, but let’s see what we can make of it. Early in my post I ask how we can define a multiculture, meaning that we shouldn’t presume that the presence of multiple ethnic groups in a definable geo-political space is necessarily evidence of a multicultural country. Purposeful multiculturalism takes a good deal of effort, encouragement and willingness on the part of the ethnic majority, however defined, to rank itself as only one of many.

Discarded Traffic Signs, by The Joy Of The Mundane with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)I do criticise China for being ‘xenophobic’ in its dealings with non-Han people – not racist, but acutely aware of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ division within the country, especially in relation to the way in which minority ethnic groups are given ‘nationality’ status. Now that might have been unbalanced had I not turned to my own country, Australia (as a representative of “the many failures of coexistence in Western societies”, no less) and considered the pretensions to multiculturalism there as well, grouping them under the same ‘xenophobic’ rubric. This might not be an exacting test to determine whether there are ‘hints’ of ethnocentrism and racism in my writing, but it suggests for now that such a conclusion is by no means obvious.

I did make an implicit comparison between China and Australia in the final paragraph, mediated by Hong Kong, where I’ve lived for the past six and a quarter years. I mentioned the former Hong Kong Chinese mayor of Melbourne in Australia (now ex-mayor), and went on to muse:

what we need now is an Australian Hong Konger mayor of Beijing. That’s an intriguing possibility, an important possibility. My youngest daughter has just started school. Perhaps she’ll move north in time . . .

Taken out of context that could well look like a spit in the Chinese eye, but I began the paragraph by pointing to the possibility, what can seem like the enormous possibility, of China leading the world to a new type of purposeful multiculturalism. Here are the exact words:

the contours of Chinese culture, of a future Chinese multiculture, could well cough up an understanding of ethnic interaction that will aid us all in coexisting within tight and trying social spaces.

Earlier I mentioned that “people often forget the significance of the Mongols and the Manchurians to Han Chinese history”. So my insistence that China isn’t multicultural – and by extension that no country is yet multicultural – is historically bounded, looking at the past, considering the present, gazing hopefully towards the future.

This suggests the possibility that ‘yourfriend’ read the opening paragraphs, found something objectionable in a relatively complex argument, and didn’t read through to the end. Or that the objection to my characterization of ethnic relations in China as ‘xenophobic’, regardless of my inclusion of multiculturalism in Australia under the same banner, over-ruled any possible consideration of what else I was trying to say.

Interestingly enough, much of the post actually focused on a very considered examination of the multiple cultures in China by Professor George T. Crane at The Useless Tree – a post that might not impress many people, but nevertheless highlighted the same sort of promise in China that I did. ‘Yourfriend’ failed to mention any of Professor Crane’s positions that I discussed, which is a shame because the professor draws out an intriguing scenario of ethic change within the country.

Portraiture Workshop, by wazari with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)The problem with any conversation is often that those who recognise the possibility of change and are not ready to accept the majority view of the present need to go back and explain that their comments are meant to move the subject on, into uncertain territory, not to attack what eternally ‘is’. Such is the case here, I think. I would welcome any further comments from ‘yourfriend’ on how anything that I’ve written about this subject could be construed as ethnocentric or racist, given my counterargument in this post and remembering that multiple cultures do not necessitate a multiculture anywhere in the world.

Now, that should make for an interesting discussion.

5 Responses to Re: Ethnocentrism and Racism

  1. yourfriend says:

    my post on the other thread:

    The post makes less sense to me each time I read it. China is already multicultural, why the debate on whether “whites or blacks” can be “Chinese”?

    Multiculturalism is a pretty loosely defined ideology, and there is no sense in using China’s current “multiculturalism” to make an argument for expanding it to include “blacks and whites” in China. I came to think that you didn’t have much of an appreciation for the ethnic and regional differences within the PRC, but I might have been wrong. I apologize if I am.

    I question the quote by Crane here:

    If Chinese multiculturalism does not deepen, if whites and blacks and other racial and ethnic groups cannot become Chinese, China will discourage the very people it has invited to understand its language and culture; and in the process it will be limiting the global market for its cultural products and undermining its world-wide political influence.

    This is very speculative. The global market for Chinese cultural products is not very large; and especially not for genuine Chinese cultural products. At least to Americans, they consume Americanized cultural products created by “ethnic people” for the sake of novelty.. very debasing, and all-around an unpleasant trade.

    The second problem I have with the quote is that the CCP’s stance of “exporting Chinese culture” is not necessarily the will of the people. I personally have no interested in “sharing my culture” with insincere novelty-seekers. To what degree “whites and blacks” have been invited to share culture or even nationhood with China is debatable. As for worldwide political influence, I think the costs will be minor if it means eschewing reckless and wasteful ideological social engineering.

    I don’t believe there are any objective benefits provided by multiculturalism. I don’t understand the statement that China needs an Australian mayor of Beijing. I don’t see why a very Northern Han city would not draw upon the ample Northern Chinese talent provided by the locals. They are the most connected to the city, after all.

    response to new post after this

  2. yourfriend says:

    I do criticise China for being ‘xenophobic’ in its dealings with non-Han people – not racist, but acutely aware of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ division within the country, especially in relation to the way in which minority ethnic groups are given ‘nationality’ status.

    I don’t think that criticism is warranted. You’re also putting too much emphasis on semantics- especially since “nationality” is only one meaning of minzu. The use of what is translated as “nationality” does not imply that the Chinese state is tying blood to nation. It would probably be better translated as “ethnicity”.

    and by extension that no country is yet multicultural

    Ah, in that case I can get where you’re coming from.

  3. yourfriend says:

    no interest in sharing*

    second correction

  4. yourfriend says:

    Lastly, it should also be noted that there is great regional difference between people of the “Han” ethnic group. Taking that into consideration, multiculture probably isn’t the right term.

    A lot more needs to be said first, as in what your ideals of “real” or “significant” multiculturalism are, and how the professor defines nationality and culture.

  5. Mike Poole says:

    Thanks for all of your replies! I’ll respond again as soon as I get a chance. Thanks again!

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