Orientalism Is the Root of Anti-Asian Violence

Protestor holding sign that says “I am not your model minority”. Photo by author

Violence against people who are racialized as Asian is anything but new. It has been taking place ever since the first Chinese indentured servants landed in the United States in the early 1800’s and experienced forced residence in Chinese ghettos which evolved into modern-day Chinatowns, police and mob violence, lynchings, and other forms of heinous violence and murders. Given how long anti-Asian violence has been occurring, it seems unbelievable that so little is known about any civil rights and social justice activism that Asian communities might have organized to combat anti-Asian racism. Maybe that is why the current spate of physical attacks on Asian people in broad daylight feels different. Different not because the violence is new, but because for the first time, Asians are visibly organizing, loudly speaking up and successfully getting the American public to recognize our plight. Many people have theorized about the possible causes of this increased visibility. One theory is that the younger generation of Asian Americans is simply fed up, no longer willing to stay silent, and instead sees the wisdom in speaking up. The second theory is that public recognition of the rise in anti-Asian violence is coming right on the heels of public recognition of anti-Black violence, so the Black Lives Matter movement is not only lending its visibility but also the language to describe what Asian communities are experiencing. I suspect that both theories are true.

The increased visibility, however, has not been accompanied with increased understanding. On the contrary, it has raised many questions about what exactly Asian Americans are experiencing. We are certainly experiencing violence. But there are questions about whether the violence can be considered a hate crime. Can Asian Americans even experience racism? Are Asian Americans even people of color? These questions are certainly not new and the answer to all of these questions is, of course, a resounding yes.

There are many historical factors for these questions. Asians did not experience slavery nor genocide like Black people and Native Americans respectively did. A significant portion of the Asian population is affluent, a fact which is often used to argue that Asians could not possibly experience racism. Asians on the whole have opted for vigorous assimilation as a matter of survival and historically stayed silent about the racial violence that they do experience. Couple assimilation with the pernicious model minority myth, which while allowing some Asians to conditionally access social privilege and wealth by virtue of their proximity to whiteness, by and large functioned to invisibilize the racial violence that Asians had been experiencing all along by flattening the immense diversity of the Asian American experience into a simplistic narrative that Asians are doing well in this country. Yes, Asians are some of the wealthiest people in the country, but they are also many of the poorest in the country. All of this history contributes not only to a scarce but also skewed public understanding of anti-Asian racism.

Like all forms of racism, we know that anti-Asian racism stems from white supremacy, but this statement is not exactly edifying. In fact, the statement is particularly mystifying to a lot of people at this moment when we have observed that Asian people are being attacked not just by white people, but also Black, Latino, and Middle Eastern people. A lot of folks, mostly white folks, are questioning how white supremacy is still to blame when the assailants are nonwhite. To understand how this is true, we need a better understanding of white supremacy.

White supremacy historically was only used to describe white nationalist groups like the KKK. This reserved use of the term implies that the rest of American society was not white supremacist. It is important to know that it is the white-dominant U.S. government and mainstream public that have defined white supremacy this way and subsequently set the standard for what is and is not white supremacy. This is intentional, of course, because in creating a narrow definition of white supremacy, white people have been able to distance themselves from the extremist acts of violence committed by white nationalist groups, and normalize the structural and institutional racism that the American government, corporations, workplaces, and schools have been inflicting on people of color for centuries as not being racist.

It has been the tireless work of Black and other melanated scholars and activists who expanded society’s critical understanding of the true nature and scope of white supremacy.

White supremacy is a logic (i.e., a belief system that justifies one’s actions) as well as an economic, political, and cultural power structure built on that logic. White supremacy was ahistorically constructed to justify and carry out European imperialist and colonialist ambitions. The common misconception is that white supremacy is the motivation itself, as in white people engage in white supremacy because they believe themselves to be superior or they wish to be superior. This is historically inaccurate. The motivation is imperialism and colonialism and white supremacy is simply the logic and power structure that was constructed to legitimize and execute such motivation. The United States is born out of that logic and power structure, so white supremacy, rather than being a fringe element, is a defining feature of American government, capitalist economy, and culture. White nationalist groups like the KKK and the more recent Proud Boys represent merely the extremist manifestation of the pervasive logic and power structure.

The logic of white supremacy is predicated on four other logics, or sub-logics if you will: anti-Blackness, anti-indigeneity, antisemitism, and orientalism. I will briefly discuss the first three and then go into depth on orientalism as it is the driving force behind the current anti-Asian violence. The order in which I discuss the four logics does not connote their importance.

While the concept of anti-Blackness has been around for decades, it took the latest uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd for the concept to reach mainstream consciousness. The logic of anti-Blackness racializes the diverse indigenous peoples of Africa as an undifferentiated Black race and then assigns a number of characterizations to the Black race. The most consequential characterizations include the ideas that Black people have no civilization or culture, that Black people are inherently criminal, and that Black people are a subhuman “slave race”. These characterizations ultimately helped justify European enslavement of Black people and colonization of the African continent and to this day continue to reinforce the over-policing of Black communities, violence inflicted on Black bodies, and mass incarceration of Black people. Anti-Blackness also shows up as a broader prejudice in popular culture in the form of pervasive contempt for Black people, dark skin, and things associated with being Black.

The second logic that props up white supremacy is anti-indigeneity, which speaks to the racism that Native Americans, Aboriginal peoples in Australia, and other indigenous peoples around the world experience. The logic of anti-indigeneity depicts indigenous people as primitive savages and subsequently justifies the violence that “civilized” Europeans inflict on them in the name of civilizing them. The Catholic Church plays an important role in empowering anti-indigeneity. The Catholic Church passed a series of papal bulls, i.e. legal decrees issued by the Pope, over the course of the 15th and 16th centuries, collectively called the Doctrine of Discovery. The doctrine gave European nations legal permission to colonize foreign, non-Christian lands. The doctrine mandated European nations to try to convert indigenous people to Christianity, which is why Christian missionaries were an inseparable element of European colonialism, and if the indigenous people refused to convert, European nations had the legal empowerment of the Catholic Church to commit genocide and colonize indigenous land for “productive” use by European nations. Anti-indigeneity continues to contribute to the genocide, colonization, and erasure of indigenous peoples around the world to this day.

The third logic is antisemitism, which actually predates white supremacy by thousands of years but in that stretch of time slowly contributed to the conceptualization of a racialized white identity that is predicated on identification with Christianity. In other words, you have to be Christian in order to be white, and more specifically, you cannot be Jewish. The fact that many Jewish people today are white or perceived to be white creates a tenuous relationship to whiteness for such Jews. On one hand, white Jews enjoy many, if not all, of the white privileges that non-Jewish white people enjoy. On the other hand, Jews are continuously throughout history the target of attempted genocide and antisemitic violence by white nationalist groups, with the Holocaust being the most prominent example to date. It is most ironic that some Jews associate themselves with white nationalism movements.

Finally, we get to the fourth logic that props up white supremacy — orientalism. Of the four logics, orientalism is perhaps the least understood even though it is as ancient as antisemitism. This is perhaps because orientalism was only recognized in recent times — Palestinian scholar Edward Said was the first person to identify, coin, and discuss orientalism in his 1978 eponymous book. Like antisemitism, orientalism predates white supremacy by thousands of years but in that stretch of time slowly contributed to the conceptualization of the West as the Occident and Asia as the Orient. Said explained in his book that notions of the Occident and Orient are far from benign geographic distinctions. They serve to assert the West’s notion of itself as the moral center of the world. Under orientalism, Western civilization is deemed civilized, normal, and morally righteous whereas Asian civilizations are deemed the other, foreign, and deviant. This is why it’s highly offensive to refer to Asians as Oriental.

The West maintains an imagination of Asia that is invested in seeing Asia as a deviation from the West’s conception of its own desirable features. This is most evident in terms of gender and sexuality. Western men are seen as virile and physically powerful without being too brutish, i.e. the perfect level of masculinity. In contrast, Asian men are seen as meek and effeminate. This directly contributes to the contemporary emasculation of Asian men in Western popular culture. Western women are seen as pure and chaste whereas Asian women are seen as hypersexual creatures. This hypersexualized portrayal of Asian women directly reinforces White men’s fantasies of sexual conquest of Asian women. The most recent shooting in Atlanta on March 16, 2021 in which a white gunman entered three different Asian-owned massage parlors and killed eight women, six of whom were Asian women who worked at the parlors, simply because he felt sexually frustrated by Asian women is a direct consequence of such orientalist fantasies.

Because Asia serves as a moral counterpoint to Western civilization, the West maintains a cultural, political and military relationship with Asia rooted in seeing the Asian continent and its peoples as a perpetual foreign threat. Asians have represented all kinds of threats in the imagination of Westerners and were perceived as the “Yellow Peril”. Asians are stereotyped as harbingers of disease. Donald Trump’s conflation of the coronavirus with Chinese identity is just the latest example of this association. Asians are thought to bring barbaric and strange cultural practices, especially around food. Many Asian Americans grow up with internalized shame around foods from their cultures as a result. China and Korea are seen as particularly threatening forces to the safety and security of Western nations. As a result, the United States has invested billions of dollars in building up a military presence in the Asia-Pacific. George W. Bush’s War on Terror, Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban, and every modern U.S. president’s antagonistic relationships with China, North Korea, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are examples of American foreign policy and military imperialism driven by orientalist fear of the Asian threat.

Orientalism has had a damaging impact on the psyche of Asian Americans. We are never encouraged to feel fully American no matter how long we have been generationally in this country. A white, European immigrant can come to the United States and within one or two generations their descendants can feel fully American. But not so with Asians. We are perpetually made to feel foreign as if we don’t belong here. During World War II, the U.S. government forcibly relocated Japanese Americans to internment camps. Most of these individuals were U.S. citizens that had been in the country for generations, owned land and businesses, and yet were seen as a foreign threat to the United States during a time of war. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882–1943) is still the only law ever passed in American history that prevented the immigration of a specific ethnic group.

Donald Trump knew what he was doing when he promulgated xenophobic catchphrases like the “Wuhan virus”, “China virus”, and “kung flu”. In order to deflect criticism of his own failure to contain the pandemic, Trump stoked white Americans’ longstanding orientalist fears. The resulting anti-Asian attacks were entirely predictable and hardly surprising, although no less painful.

Returning to the question how white supremacy is still to blame in cases where the assailants are nonwhite, I hope it is clear by now that regardless of the race of the attackers, their actions at the end of the day are motivated by anti-Asian bigotry. Contempt for Asian people is rooted in orientalism, one of the logics that prop up white supremacy. While white supremacy as a power structure is only accessible to white people, which is why we say that only white people can be racist, all people can internalize a logic and act on them, which is what we are seeing in all these attacks on Asian people. If it were not for a white supremacist state propagating orientalism, anti-Asian violence would not be happening.

Anti-Asian violence taking place concurrently to the national uprising against anti-Black violence poses an interesting challenge to understanding the former. The Black Lives Matter movement has enabled Black scholars and activists to introduce the concept of anti-Blackness to the public lexicon as well as a theory of white supremacy that positions anti-Blackness as the singular root of white supremacy. But if white supremacy is singularly predicated on anti-Blackness, then we are by logical extension making the claim that anti-Blackness is at the root of anti-Asian violence. In fact, some of the discourses on anti-Blackness argue exactly that — that all forms of racism derive fundamentally from anti-Black racism. The discourses posit that it is the deep contempt for Black people that gives rise to contempt for all other people of color. The discourses make a determination about racial liberation that logically follows that premise — that Black liberation will lead to the liberation of all other peoples.

Here is where things get a bit complicated for Asian people’s experience of racism. If anti-Asian racism is truly a derivative or an extension of anti-Black racism, then can Asians rightfully claim that what they are experiencing is anti-Blackness? The answer is obviously no. It would be offensive to make such a claim. I have no doubt that the liberation of the most oppressed group in American society will lead to the liberation of all other groups, but this does not automatically suggest that anti-Black racism is the root of all other forms of racism. The lens of anti-Blackness is transformative for understanding the racism that Black people experience, but it is not as effective in understanding the racism that Asians experience. If Asians cannot claim that what they’re experiencing is anti-Blackness, then I argue that anti-Asian racism does not derive from nor is an extension of anti-Blackness. Anti-Asian racism derives from a different source.

In order to properly understand the crisis of anti-Asian racism, we need a fuller understanding of white supremacy as a logic and power structure that is not only predicated on anti-Blackness, but also orientalism, anti-indigeneity, and antisemitism. These different belief systems with their different origins contribute to different experiences of racism to their respective racialized groups. This does not mean, however, that each racialized group should be acting separately to end racism. The multiple logics are intertwined after all in the ways they hold up white supremacy. It will subsequently take all of us, including white people, acting in solidarity to dismantle the logic and power structure of white supremacy, and advance indigenous sovereignty and land rematriation and collective liberation for Black and all people of color.

Regenerative Leadership & Social Justice Facilitator | Writer | Artist | Based in NYC

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