Anti-Asian Racism: History, Theory, Cultural Representations and Antiracist Movements

Anti-Asian Racism: History, Theory, Cultural Representations and Antiracist Movements

Kien Nghi Ha, Asian German Studies am Asien-Orient-Insitut, Universität Tübingen; You Jae Lee, Koreanistik, Universität Tübingen
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
07.07.2023 - 08.07.2023
Sander Diederich, Institut für Soziologie, Universität Tübingen

Soon after the Covid-19 pandemic began, reports of racism against (East) Asians, Chinese in particular, erupted worldwide. The model minority abruptly transformed into the scapegoat for the fearful and angry masses seeking a simple explanation for their newfound reality. It seemed that Asians were experiencing unprecedented racism. They were not only being belittled, glorified, or exoticized, but also threatened and assaulted. For many, this ‘actual racism’ represented a new phenomenon marking the emergence of ‘anti-Asian racism’ in the German mainstream discourse.

Not surprisingly, anti-Asian racism has a deep history and colonial legacy. The conference can be understood as an expression of the necessity and interest of the Asian German community in the subject as well as a contribution to the deconstruction of Whiteness and colonial modernity by destabilizing and reinterpreting the boundaries between Whiteness and Asianness. Perspective is crucial to critically understand what ‘Asian’ and ‘Asianness’ can or should signify in the face of racial imaginaries and anti-Asian violence.

ROTEM KOWNER (Haifa) shed light on European Colonialism, race theories, and racism using examples from early modern and modern continental Asia. Racism was essential for legitimizing colonization, strengthening racial hierarchization in Europe and its colonies. According to Kowner, China, the center of global commerce, had long been more than an equal rival for the ‘most civilized’ society. He argued that the opening of the Suez Canal brought Asia closer, and steamships guaranteed European naval superiority in the Opium Wars. This revealed China's vulnerability and bolstered European self-confidence. Thus, the narrative of China as the ‘country of wonders’ gradually gave way to imaginaries of deceitfulness, dysfunctionality, and ‘the yellow peril’. KIEN NGHI HA (Tübingen) noted that (East) Asians were usually ranked second after Europeans in the racial hierarchy. Kowner suggested this resulted from China being the last obstacle to European world domination, the color choice yellow reflecting the (East) Asians' ‘almost Whiteness’ whereas South Asians were clearly depicted as brown.

LOK SIU (Berkeley) continued the discussion by tracing 240 years of Asian presence in the United States, focusing on contested belonging, exclusion, and recurring waves of anti-Asianism by analyzing different phases of immigration and restriction through economic imperatives and political structures. The Proclamation of Emancipation in 1863 marked the formal end of slavery and the beginning of mass (indentured) labor migration from Asia, notably China and India.

LUCAS POY (Amsterdam) depicted an Era of Mass Migration (1880-1930), highlighting Chinese exclusion from labor organizations and blame for harsh conditions and lowered White working-class standards. Chinese indentured labor migrants were blamed for the effects of the economic imperatives by which they themselves were being subjugated. Their unfree labor status was naturalized and inscribed as racial characteristics of passivity. Poy deemed this an important component for the construction of Whiteness, as Asians were relegated to the second place in the racial taxonomy on the grounds that they posed a threat precisely because they were diligent but lacked the capacities of the White subject to organize.

Siu described how the trinity of imagined cultural, economic, and biopolitical threats posed especially by the Chinese diffused regionally in North America and the Caribbean, fueling scores of anti-Asian riots. This leads to increasingly restrictive Exclusion Laws subsequently encompassing not only Chinese but all Asians, labeling them as ‘perpetual foreigners’ unable to integrate into society. These laws were repealed only in 1960 but by this time had already sparked organized resistance and a sense of collective Asian subjectivity.

Amid the civil rights movement, the narrative of the ‘model minority’ was spawned, splitting and pitting racial minorities against each other. According to Siu, in this context, debates on Whiteness can be better understood as gendered, classed, and racialized negotiations of belonging and citizenship. Today, she argued, the waters seem to be murkier, as there is a resurgence of the ‘deserving model minority’ trope on the one hand, while on the other hand, it is being utilized to strengthen Whiteness by delegitimizing affirmative action.

QINNA SHEN (Bryn Mawr) traced the role of early German film in perpetuating a variety of Asian racist stereotypes and found a clearly gendered notion of Asianness. According to Shen, Asian women were portrayed as helplessly attracted to White men, who were imagined as sexually superior to Asian men. Asian men, in turn, were framed as treacherous, lurking, murderous rapists who used immoral means such as opium to attain their lowly revenge against the White heroes. Shen concluded that while some films did critique British colonial rule, they simultaneously portrayed Asian liberation struggles as underhanded, criminal, and ignoble. Additionally, the films conveyed the message that colonial romance leads to tragedy if not death, and as such, that ‘the other’ will always remain ‘the other’.

A second type of discursive media analysis was undertaken by ANNO DEDERICHS (Tübingen), who focused his research on the images of China portrayed in the German political arena over the course of several decades. He found that the different topoi of threat, rival and partner were repeated over time but were always embedded in their specific historic context. Dominant themes for depictions seemed to be related to colonial (yellow) or communist (red) imagery. Dederichs showed great interest in the ease with which ideological differences were overcome with the prospect of economic prowess, and how the nature of the threat posed by China changed from ideological (communist), to moral (autocratic), to technological, geopolitical, and biopolitical threat (Covid-19). He concluded that the depictions of China tell us more about German needs and fears rather than the actual situation in China.

Another focus of the conference was Asian diasporic communities and their livelihoods, self-organization, and resistance. YOU JAE LEE (Tübingen) emphasized the importance of international exchange on the issue of anti-Asian racism, especially since Asian diasporas in Germany have failed to form a collective sense of Asianness. They remain divided as ethnic or national minorities in their respective struggles instead of combining their efforts or fighting alongside each other. Using families of Korean labor migrants in Germany as an example, he depicted a shift occurring over the course of three generations, in which the explanatory value of meritocracy dwindled, and experiences of discrimination are increasingly understood as consequences of (anti-Asian) racism.

In contrast, the situation in France was regarded as more hopeful by YA-HAN CHUANG (Paris). She depicted three historic phases of Asian community organizing, namely, the struggle for (1) ethnic solidarity, (2) recognition, and (3) acknowledgement. Currently, she sees chances of cross-community solidarity with Arab and African minorities by building coalitions through narratives of decolonization. Chuang comes to a similar conclusion as You Jae Lee concerning the generational differences within the Asian diasporic communities but did not regard differing positionalities as a fundamental hurdle for organizing. Instead, she found potential for synergies by utilizing these generational differences strategically to intervene in the dominant discourse.

By focusing on the institutional dimension of anti-Asian racism in Germany, Kien Nghi Ha explained how a disremembering of anti-Asian racism could occur despite the pogrom in Rostock-Lichtenhagen. Ha argued that German state institutions collectively failed to provide safety for the Vietnamese guest workers due to the ongoing political project of the state to revise laws on political asylum. According to Ha, the pogrom could only unfold due to the failure of the police and the judiciary and gains texture against the backdrop of nationalist revival following German unification, as well as the high unemployment in East Germany at that time.

In opposition to this, CUSO EHRICH (Gießen) follows an abolitionist perspective as it enables thinking about necessary societal transformations in the future. From this perspective, the police would not be attributed failure but instead success according to the racist logic of the nation-state. Finding orientation in self-organized refugee groups or Women in Exile, Ehrich proposes to regard the logic of punishment as neither preventing crime nor reinstating justice, as it does not meet the victims' needs. Additionally positing that incarceration is classed and racialized, thus leading to the perpetuation of structural inequalities. Instead of these destructive practices, they plead for life-affirming perspectives and implementing abolitionism on the ground by bringing people together to find solutions outside of state logics while being aware of attempts of neoliberal takeovers. FENG-MEI HEBERER (New York) added that regarding politics of Asian self-representation through German grassroots organizations in limbo should not necessarily be understood as failed. Instead, disruption and slowness should be comprehended as continuations of self-organization.

SARA DJAHIM (Berlin) and TAE JUN KIM (Berlin) questioned the utility of the terms ‘Asian’ and ‘anti-Asian racism’ altogether. In a similar manner to Rotem Kowner, they posited that racism is the grounds upon which the categories of race, such as ‘Asian’, emerge and become salient, but that ‘Asianness’ itself is not essential to the overarching issue of racism. As the subjectivity of ‘Asianness’ is dependent on the continuity of ‘anti-Asian racism’, they do not deem ‘Asian’ as a useful collective identity category for a long-term anti-racist struggle. Their idea not being that there are no specific consequences for people marked as ‘Asians’, but rather that ‘anti-Asian’ sentiment is not necessary for the manifestation of racist effects against them. If deconstructed consequently, they concluded, there are no ‘Asians’, only people perceived as ‘Asian’.

In regard to this issue Jee-Un Kim stressed the relational utility of political labels such as ‘Asian’ or ‘Asian German’. According to her, it is pivotal to express the societal conditions while deconstructing them at the same time. Depending on who we are pitting ourselves against, certain commonalities have to be underlined, whereas sometimes it is more productive to highlight particular differences. Thus, the usage of terminology such as ‘Asian’, ‘anti-Asian racism’, or ‘diasporic Asians’ must be situational, strategic, and always relational. Kien Nghi Ha added that the term ‘Asian German’ is an offer to the community that may be ignored or contested, as there is also no singular way of understanding it. Instead, it poses an opportunity to deal with specifically German anti-Asian formations in a playful manner.

In summary, the conference encompassed a diverse array of inquiries, spanning from fundamental discourse on terminology to the examination of theoretical underpinnings and historical origins of the phenomenon. The proceedings also encompassed empirical investigations into discourse dynamics and the political orientations of grassroots movements. Moreover, You Jae Lee expressed concern over the absence of a dedicated academic discipline focusing on Asian German Studies, while Lok Siu emphasized the scholarly duty to engender knowledge that confronts societal concerns and fosters utopian perspectives.

Rotem Kowner observed that, contingent upon the chosen metrics, Asians constitute a demographic percentage ranging from eight to ten percent of the total German population, consequently forming the most prominent racial minority. Kowner further asserted that mere sensitization to anti-Asian racism is insufficient; instead, a resolute and comprehensive effort against racism as an overarching construct is imperative.

While marking the inception of the first-ever conference on anti-Asian racism in Germany, the panels effectively addressed fundamental elements, thereby situating the phenomenon within the German academic discourse. Regrettably, the extensiveness of coverage was constrained by practical limitations, which led to the omission of deliberation on the Asianness of Arabs, and specifically Turks and Kurds in Germany. Nonetheless, the significance of this subject to the Asian community was made visible through the diversity of attendees, including young non-academics from various regions of Germany. This confluence facilitated synergistic discussions between scholars and cultural producers, both during and subsequent to the conference, paving the way for further exchange and dialogue. Notably extending from the previous year's conference, centered on the feasibility of a discipline in Asian German Studies, the incorporation of an international deliberation added nuance and contrast to the discourse. Ultimately, the implications and consequences of anti-Asian racism persist as a contentious topic both within academic spheres and on the ground.

Conference overview:


Kien Nghi Ha (Tübingen) / You Jae Lee (Tübingen)

Keynote History
Chair: Bernd-Stefan Grewe (Tübingen)

Lok Siu (Berkeley): Making Asians Foreign: Methods of Exclusion and Contingent Belonging

Panel History
Chair: Jee-Un Kim (Berlin)

You Jae Lee (Tübingen): Discrimination, Resistance, and Meritocracy. Korean Guest Workers in Germany

Kien Nghi Ha (Tübingen): The Pogrom in Rostock-Lichtenhagen as Institutional Racism

Keynote Theory
Chair: Antony Pattathu (Tübingen)

Rotem Kowner (Haifa): The Intersections between European Racial Constructions and Modern Colonialism: Theoretical Issues and the Place of Asia

Panel Theory
Chair: Bani Gill (Tübingen)

Lucas Poy (Amsterdam): Socialists and Anti-Asian Sentiment in the Era of Mass Migration (1880-1930)

Cuso Ehrich (Gießen): Abolitionist Perspectives on Demands of Asian-German Formations

Keynote Cultural Representations
Chair: Fei Huang (Tübingen)

Qinna Shen (Bryn Mawr): Racialized Screen in Early German Cinema: What Asian German Studies Can Address

Panel Cultural Representations
Chair: Zach Ramon Fitzpatrick (Madison)

Feng-Mei Heberer (New York): Anti-Asian Racism and the Politics of Asian Self-Representation in Germany: the Asian Film Festival Berlin

Anno Dederichs (Tübingen): Opportunity and Threat: Ambivalent Reporting on China in Der Spiegel, 1947-2023

Panel Antiracist Movements
Chair: Yewon Lee (Tübingen)

Sara Djahim (Berlin) / Tae Jun Kim (Berlin): “Take Off Your Masks“: The Invisibility and Visibility of Anti-Asian Racism in Germany

Ya-Han Chuang (Paris): Yellow is the new Black? Emergence and Development of Asian Antiracist Activism in France

Round Table: Challenging Anti-Asian Racism in Society and Academia
Chair: Kien Nghi Ha

Panelists: Qinna Shen, Lok Siu, Rotem Kowner, You Jae Lee