Brief thoughts on racism in Hong Kong - Anish MISHRA
Brief thoughts on racism in Hong Kong - Anish MISHRA
Anish MISHRA writes about his experiences with racism living in Hong Kong
02 Jun 2023 (Fri)
This short piece is based on the idea that all oppression is not equal, something I learned from bell hooks in her essay ‘Feminism: A movement to end sexist oppression,’ an excerpt from her 1984 book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. It highlighted the differences in the lived experiences of Black Women, from the positions of privileged white women who were shaping Feminist Theory at that time. I attempt at the outset to acknowledge the position of privileges that I occupy as I write this – of gender, of caste, of social and economic privilege. I am closer to the ‘Center’ than many might ever be, and capable of dismissing various factors that might be involved in oppression, as she writes below:
Implicit in this simplistic definition of women’s liberation is a dismissal of race and class as factors that, in conjunction with sexism, determine the event to which an individual will be discriminated against, exploited, or oppressed.
(Hooks 1984: 19)
I thus explore, publicly, what my experiences imply for my belonging to a space that I have begun to cherish. This extended disclaimer is to convey that I don’t intend to generalize my experiences and thoughts to others who face much much worse than me. My account should not be assumed to inherently encompass theirs.
Racism in Hong Kong is something that most people recognise exists, at least tacitly. It's an issue and a non-issue at the same time. For most of those for whom it is a real and tangible obstruction to accessing opportunities, they seem to live with it, overlook it, and somehow think beyond it, and to what Hong Kong can offer them. For those for whom it is not an everyday hindrance, and I count myself among that number, they can problematise it, theorise it, call it out in their circles, and maybe sometimes take a stab at using the spaces that their privilege allows them access to, to discuss it in a public forum.
My own experiences, though recurrent, are what I would on a good day call a mild hindrance, and on days when I'm down in the dumps would make me question why Hong Kong is sometimes the way it is. There are everyday things: you notice on the minibus that the seat next to you is the one that is filled last, difficult not to notice if you get onto the bus at its source. The first midnight taxi won't stop for you despite you being sober, while you try to look as non-threatening as you possibly can. You do this by trying to as if you won’t puke in the car, and by sending the vibe that the stereotypes associated with South Asian, brown, bearded men do not apply to you. With the luxury of hindsight, though, comes the space to rage privately. The question of ‘how can I look as non-threatening as I can’ becomes ‘why should I look non-threatening?’ Is there something inherent, intrinsic to my nature that gives of this vibe? The answer I'd like to stick to, is no.
I've attempted to perfect the pronunciation of my regular destination in Cantonese – fo1 daai6 m4 goi1 (HKUST please) – yet I still have to resort to tricks at times, just to hail a cab. The first thing to try is to put forward someone more ‘Chinese’ looking, if you're not alone when taking a taxi. I find that the success rate of the cab stopping is higher. Another ploy: when I was with a friend from Korea, we tried to take a taxi from Sai Kung to Clear Water Bay, and the first three empty ones refused to take us. Slightly annoyed, but sad too for not knowing why they refused (perhaps ours was an unwanted destination?), I stepped away from the line, letting my friend try again. Unsurprisingly, the next taxi said yes … and my friend beckoned me to come and explain the directions properly. I did not know how to say the name of our destination in Cantonese, but even so the irony was not lost on me. Of course, most taxi drivers have a completely usable understanding of English. Further, it is not on them to know the coloniser’s lingua franca. But mumbling my Cantonese phrase always seems to help. One might argue that I could always use an app, but it’s the same question: is there something intrinsic about me that makes me ineligible to enjoy what many in Hong Kong might avail themselves of without second thoughts?
This is not to say I have had no pleasant interactions with taxi drivers. Some have been kind, making conversation, happy to know what I do and where I am from. And every time that’s happened recently, I would re-think writing this post. The most recent one was when a friend who is local, of Indian heritage, took a cab with me and was able to converse in Cantonese with the driver. As we got off, the driver switched on the light to say (and I paraphrase), ‘I must see who is it talking to me in Cantonese like that,’ and asked my friend where he is from. As my friend replied, ‘I am from Hong Kong,’ the driver, an older gentleman, said warmly, ‘Yes sir, of course you are!’ While this too can be problematised, through questions of who owns the narrative of where we belong, it was an interaction of acknowledgment of identity, questioningly or rather inquisitively accepted, and certainly not grudgingly.
Yet the inevitable experiences repeat themselves and make me wonder, then, where the onus lies, for a successful interaction with a taxi driver. Or if I may wonder more broadly, where the onus lies in an interaction with anyone who might have conscious or unconscious biases at play based on my appearance alone. Is it on me to make myself somehow more appealing? I often wear a beard, for non-religious reasons. A brown man with a beard (be it unruly, groomed, or of varying length) carries with it all sorts of associations: of identity, of education level, and of indicating to others what kind of person you might be. In keeping one, I hope to challenge some of those assumptions. Yet I do wonder: why am I honoring these biases with a challenge? Am I ascribing legitimacy to racism or unconscious biases? At times, I think, when talking to acquaintances, ‘oh, they are not being racist towards me, they just have these ideas that they might apply to interacting with other people,’ and that this somehow makes these biases okay; instead of clearly saying, ‘these ideas are racist, they are to be ignored.’ I realise gradually though, that perhaps the privileged challenging I indulge in can aid the conclusion I move towards.
It reminds me of the heavy burden that we seem to place on minoritized people, one where any 'mistake' we might make is all the graver because we are minoritized. For by some perverse logic, when a community faces oppression, they ought not to be oppressive themselves, forgetting that they have been shaped, and have to subsist in, the exact same racist institutions. The majority and the privileged perhaps forget that it might be a response to the space the minority have to co-exist in, or struggle to belong to. I believe that the minority are as much a product of racist institutions as the ones with the power to shape them. Over generations, such biases get engrained in us too as rationale, and might reflect in some of our own actions, clouding our judgement instead of allowing it to dawn on us that we too might have racist tendencies. Just because I encounter racism does not mean that I might never act in a racist way, nor that I shouldn't get called out for it if I am. The problem though is the expectation ascribed to me that I ought not to be racist, and that if I display any such tendency, it might delegitimize any oppression I might suffer. Oppression is not homogenous, and its theorizing, as bell hooks recognized, can often have a Centering bias. This piece has been an attempt to offer a perspective that occupies margins: the margins of this society, and the margins of my thoughts.