A Conjecture on the Ontological Soil of Anti-Asian Racism

Renxiang Liu,
March 22, 2021

This might not be the best occasion to circulate my thoughts about anti-Asian racism. Events that recently occurred to the Asian community have left me speechless. These belong in the socio-political sphere; they are both about long-lasting structural problems and about the concrete experience of this and that human person, and I can never expect to cover them up with a philosophical account. Sober reflection sidetracks anger, which itself is legitimate and should be made visible. What I say below is not an attempt at a decisive analysis of, not to mention a ‘solution’ to, the ongoing and unfolding problem. Rather, it is the product of a self-healing practice. In this practice, I refuse to dismiss as contingent the anti-Asian situations I have witnessed or undergone; rather, I take this as an opportunity to push my observations to as far as my reason admits, even if I do not have ‘positive’ evidence for most of them. Below is therefore a conjecture.

I speak of the “ontological” soil of anti-Asian racism. This notion is borrowed from Frantz Fanon, who spoke of the lack of “ontological resistance” on the part of black people educated in a white-dominant context. As I understand it, “ontology” means a view of the world—not only of nature but, more importantly, of human life and relations. The emphasis is not on a list of things found within this world, but on how this world is pre-organized, pre-figured, and pre-viewed, so that any individual thing or person may arise within it at all. The technical term, “ontology”, points to the fact that every being [onta], in order to be articulated as a being, must have already fit in an order, a hierarchy—in short, a logos. My inquiry is therefore about what in the occidental (European / North American) pre-ordering of the world fuels suspicion, fear, hostility, and even hatred associated with what is deemed “Asian”.

I begin with the following observation. “Asian” in the racial taxonomy of white-dominant societies is not a neutral geological concept. To give two examples, the continent of Asia contains most of Russia’s territory as well as many Arabic countries. However, a Russian scholar, when applying for a job in North America, would not identify themselves as “Asian” but as “white” or “Caucasian”, even if they grew up in the Siberia area. An Iranian scholar, on the other hand, would self-identify as “Arabic”, which is a category next to “Asian”.

On the other hand, there is a great diversity within the category of “Asian”. It includes, among others, East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, etc.), South Asians (Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, etc.), Southeast Asians (Indonesian, Vietnamese, Philippine, Malaysian, etc.), and sometimes (though not typically) Central Asians (Kazakhstani, Kyrgyzstani, Tajikistani, etc.). Recent political movements do a justice by listing Pacific Islanders alongside Asians, for reasons I will come to shortly. If one examines the cultures, languages, beliefs, rituals, social structures, or food, of these peoples, it turns out that there is no universal characteristic applying across all of them.

Of course, some may argue that this is the case for every continent. Nevertheless, the Europeans, however diverse they are, share in their historical memory the same religious narrative, and their current social institutions were shaped, in a way more profound than our imagination, by Christianity (Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant). The Latin Americans share their Latinate languages (Spanish and Portuguese), vestiges of Catholicism, and a colonial past including both the colonizers and the colonized. The Africans are united by a sorrower and more violent colonial past, and, in the global context, their image and voice are closely associated with African Americans and African Europeans, whose ancestors were victims of this diaspora.

None of these, however, applies to so-called “Asians”. We cannot even speak of a “family resemblance” among them, since, for instance, the difference between a Japanese and an Indian is as great as that between either of them and a French. (Of course, we are talking about ‘typical’ persons, which itself is not a rigorous concept but still plays a significant part in racial imagination nowadays.) There seems to be only one possibility left: the “Asians” are defined, not with respect to who they are, but with respect to who they are not. It is a privative concept, and its very existence indicates a failure on the part of European-American comprehension to ‘absorb’ people of certain descent into its racial ‘grid’. To be Asian in an occidental society is to be an unknown Other—an Other, moreover, which the occidental identity must posit in order to remain an identity.

This dialectics between the Self and the Other is of course not my finding; I mention it only as a tool for the current analysis. Similarly, I would like to mention Alia Al-Saji’s thesis that racism, especially racializing perception, is based on a “laziness”: it is quite convenient to pigeonhole unknown Others into stereotypical images and to view a racialized person only according to the corresponding image, thereby dehumanizing them. On top of these powerful theories, I would like to question the mechanism underlying specifically the other-ing and stereotyping of Asians.

I have shown that “Asian” is the name for the intellectually indigestible for the European-Americans. This has been the case since Ancient Greek: however great we think of the Greek civilization, its greatness always had a counterpart, and that is the denigration of the “Asiatic”: for example, the stillness of Egypt, or the cruelty of Persia. Greatness is defined as not being Asiatic, and I suspect this is the xenophobic core of what Husserl once called “European humanity”: however civilized, developed and just it claims itself to be, this is always based on an ongoing practice of exclusion, of defining oneself as Good because the Other is Evil (Nietzsche’s definition of “slave morality”), and this has been kept, if not strengthened, upon the Christianization of the Occident. Christianity, too, relies on all sorts of enemies to corroborate its own imagined identity—except that it had enemies it can comprehend and those it cannot. The fact that people from Egypt or the Persian area (mostly Iran) nowadays are no longer classified as “Asians” attests to the fact that “Asian” remains the name for unknown enemy.

In a sense, anti-Asian racism is similar to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: all are about imagined enemies. In another sense, anti-Asian racism is unlike the latter two, because Judaism and Islam, being Abrahamic religions like Christianity, are at least known. The “Asians”, by contrast, are God-less people. They do not even worship a God of their own: the most they do is have some small deities in their temples.

Some might think this is an insignificant issue: it is a matter of theology (monotheism versus polytheism, animalism, or agnosticism), while the majority of the contemporary world is considered “secular”, that is, no longer governed by religious matters. I agree that most contemporary societies are no longer governed by strictly religious matters. However, I think the expanse and profoundness of what we casually call “theology” here cannot be exaggerated. Historically (and with the only exception of contemporary, purportedly “secular” societies), the thinking of God or gods is never just about some ‘big’ and powerful being(s), but more importantly about the order, unity, coherence, and justifiability of the entirety of beings and the fact that they are precisely the way they are. In other words, theology has always had an ontological significance. While religion as a belief in certain doctrines recedes since the age of Enlightenment and the rise of positive sciences, the ontology, deeply indebted to theology, survives in the way states are governed, laws are developed, institutions are formulated, social issues are treated.

To name the most significant and relevant aspect of the theological-ontological basis of occidental societies: up to this day, they are unexceptionally ‘monotheist’ in the sense that people always look for an all-inclusive social and political order, in which every person, even every socially and politically meaningful act, has their own assigned places. In such a society, a predominant part of life, especially of institutional life, is to “justify” what one does. To justify means to align one’s own act with that all-inclusive, ‘monotheist’ order, showing that what one does ‘fits’ the role assigned to them within this order. At a turbulent time like this, people look for and fight for justice and equality, but they usually end up proposing and pursuing agendas, which means they project, anticipate, and seek to bring about a new all-inclusive order better than the current one, albeit no less all-inclusive. Ethicists in this age look like theologians: each wants to claim the voice of a long-departed God so as to prescribe a “just system” in which things are better sorted out.

This may all seem impeccable. How else, one may ask, can we imagine a society? Moreover, it seems that the account applies not just to occidental societies but to contemporary “Asian” societies as well; some may even argue that certain Asian societies exhibit the greatest extent of totalization. I won’t dispute this; I only want to point out two things. First, the configuration of the contemporary world following the rise of nation states is a consequence of the spread of occidental ontology, starting from colonization and persisting through so-called movements of ‘independence’. Second, and this is more important for my current thesis, monotheist ontology has serious limits and problems, and anti-Asian racism is in fact a good, if not the best, occasion for us to make these limits and problems evident, so that we may see a way out.

To disclose such limits, let us ask: what does an all-inclusive ontology mistrust the most? Well, things that cannot be included. The indigestible. The unknown enemies. This is something that even benevolent gestures of “inclusion” cannot cope with. This is the first layer of anti-Asian racism: the Asians do not want to cooperate; they have their own impenetrable worlds; their very existence casts a shadow on the social territory that is otherwise illuminated by political discourse and rationality. The Asians are mysterious, in the sense that they have an interior that cannot be crushed, homogenized, or absorbed. This is some gods’ “ontological resistance” to a God who wants to be the only God. The most racism can do is arrange this into stereotypes and consume its fanciness, but this is a desperate move that only shows its impotence. To make the matter even more evident: you are reading this from an Asian author. He speaks one of your languages and offers to communicate what he wants to communicate to you. At bottom, however, you do not know what is going on with him, because you have not lived his own language—not to mention his ontology.

The Asians are exceptions, and they constantly want to make exceptions. The rise of China is feared, above all because people cannot predict what it will do. Of course, in a social movement, Asians may seek to collaborate with monotheist ontology for their own survival. But this is not the whole story. What is an ontology like if it seeks to preclude all exceptions, to fix all things in advance, however just the plan is? The mistrust underlying anti-Asian racism, at a deeper level, is a mistrust of improvisation, of the local emergence of orders, of the accomplishment of the just in making exceptions. This flexibility, to be sure, is never denied to anyone; but a monotheist ontology will always marginalize it or make it irrelevant with a systematic substitute.

Think of the 75-year-old Chinese lady who beat the racist attacker with her cane. At that moment, she thought nothing about seeking justice in the systems of the United States. Justice was in her own hands; at that moment, she was a deity herself. She exercised her power and became a threat to the attacker.

What is this mindset; what, specifically, is a local emergence of orders? Hegel, in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (1827), made an attempt to come to grips with the Chinese ‘religion’. This attempt was a failure, both because of the unreliability of his sources, and because deep-seated prejudices consummated in the last great Western philosopher who still had an intellectual connection to the entirety of the occidental theological-ontological tradition. In fact, Hegel was the last philosopher for whom theology just is metaphysics and vice versa. Because of this, his failure is quite telling.

Like in all of Hegel’s “historical” systems (Philosophy of Art, Philosophy of History, History of Philosophy), the oriental (Chinese, Indian, Persian, Egyptian) is deemed ahistorical and placed before real history begins to unfold. In Philosophy of Religion, Hegel classifies the Chinese religion under “the religion of magic”. “Magic” is characterized by an inability to distinguish between the natural and the supernatural. The magical worldview considers all endeavors, such as praying for rain, as involving supernatural forces issuing from singular human beings like sorcerers. In Hegel’s view, the Chinese ‘religion’ is a religion of magic, because in it he fails to find anything like an overarching power—and, by implication, anything like an all-inclusive order. Each person is like a little deity with more or less power of legislating order; so are non-individual agencies ranging from clans to committees. To accomplish things, one does not turn to an absolute power and seek to fit into the order this power dictates; rather, one exercises one’s own legislating power and, if insufficient, plead to borrow power from bigger ‘deities.’

Hegel concludes from this that all sorts of things can affect the Chinese person in an intimate way—things which, within a worldview inspired by Western religions, would be deemed external and kept at bay, because, in the all-inclusive order the absolute God prescribes, they are distant from the person, hence not their business. In other words, in a monotheist ontology two finite beings can only be related through the mediation of God (the absolute order)—therefore nature is disenchanted and other people are made indifferent by default—whereas in the “magical” ontology of the Chinese there are only finite beings, finite powers, and finite orders, and so most relations are immediate. Since Hegel has a low opinion of immediate relations and deems the journey through the infinite (absolute) necessary for a genuine humanity, he remarks:

“The Chinese are the most superstitious people of the world; they have a ceaseless fear and anxiety of everything, because everything external has a significance for them, is a power over them, is something that exerts authority over them, something that can affect them.”

Hegel, G. W. F. Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. Translated by R. Brown, P. Hodgson, and J. Stewart. University of California Press, 1988: p. 249

Despite loaded words like “magic” and “superstition”, is it possible that Hegel, or the monotheist mindset in general, feels sorry for the Chinese only because the occidental spirit is not strong enough for this level of sensitivity and affectivity—for this need and urge to consider countless emerging orders, to author one’s acts without pre-established protocols, to be one’s own (albeit fragile) justification, and, above all, to encounter, respect, and sometimes aid another human being as an awe-some local power with its own range and rhythm?

Of course, with this discussion of Hegel I do not mean that every Asian person nowadays exhibits the characteristics above. I am also aware that certain “Western” traditions, too, embrace and valorize these characteristics; thanks to these traditions, I can put said characteristics into the English language. As I made it clear from the beginning, my task is to analyze the ontological soil of anti-Asian racism. This soil, it now turns out, is a fundamental inability on the part of the monotheist, all-inclusive ontology of the occidental world to comprehend ontologies that value locality and improvisation over global orders and pre-determination. Since the inception of all-inclusiveness is always based on exclusion and, more precisely, on denying existence to what cannot be included, anti-Asian racism is continually fueled by the ignorance, frustration, and fear associated therewith.

All these, it should be noted, do not legitimize a reversal. In fact, it is paradoxical to make a local, finite ontology into a universal norm. Moreover, this ontology has its own limits. A society based exclusively on it usually ends up with autocracy (with a biggest sorcerer, so to speak), and it can be xenophobic in the most unabashed manner. This dialogue of tolerance can happen only on the basis of the legacies of cosmopolitan religions like Christianity, and I, for one, am infinitely grateful to it and see great potentials in it. If one still wants to learn something from this reflection, I suggest the following:

First, our appeal cannot be restricted to raising instrumental concerns with appeasing the anger of an otherwise docile community and letting Asians remain workhorses. An Asian person does not need to be an American citizen, nor contribute to American capitalism, in order to be free from assault and treated with respect.

Second, for the sake of peaceful and mutually nourishing social coexistence, we might need to imagine a new model of tolerance. The current model originated from the religious wars between the Catholic and the Protestant. While it allowed different interpretations of the universal order to coexist, no one doubted that there should be a universal order. The dialogue between ontologies will of course be more difficult but perhaps also more fruitful.

Third, we can view, under the category of the tragic, the occidental attempt to comprehend (literally, to grasp and bring along with oneself) all other cultures. It is a noble attempt without doubt. The tragedy consists in this. If the attempt fails, there will be frustration, and down the slope we see xenophobia like anti-Asian racism. If it succeeds, then this comprehension will let the occidental absorb other cultures into itself and hence fit them into compartments of its own all-inclusive order. Stereotypes, commodification, and indigestion despite absorption would ensue. To address this complex issue, perhaps we should first acknowledge the existence of the paradox, affirm the gesture of comprehension but know about the distorting power of its consequences—and, on top of all these, look for a more flexible ontology.

Published by Renxiang Liu

Philosopher, Phenomenologist, Humanist.

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