“People mountain, people sea” is a popular Chinese idiom used to describe large mobs or gatherings and often the overcrowdedness of China itself.
But what China makes up for in sheer population, it lacks in diversity. Just one face out of hundreds you encounter on the streets of even a purportedly cosmopolitan city like Shanghai might be that of a foreigner – white, black, brown – and the difference (and, depending on that foreigner’s race, deference) in the manner with which they are treated is immediately obvious to all – and totally unacceptable by American standards.
Yet such racialized disparities are widely tolerated by the Chinese. It is common knowledge that while being white wins you favors in China, being black makes you little more than a spectacle and a photo opportunity. Racial and social hierarchies are not only set in stone, concrete, but left totally unchallenged as if they were some sort of immutable truth, inherently woven into the fabric of life. Meanwhile, racial discrimination in the US, at least in rhetoric, is condemned across all fifty states. In many regions of the world, however, widespread acceptance of racial bigotry is a fact of life.
I hesitate to call myself patriotic. I believe that the US, despite its diversity, is, as a whole, a racist nation. One needs to look no further than the recent events in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas, or to our Republican presidential nominee, to find ample evidence to corroborate this claim.
But I also don’t believe that our racism makes us unique. In this regard, sadly, the US is like every other nation in the world.
While racism may be omnipresent in the US, it is undoubtedly even more so in Europe, even in countries we think of as being highly developed and progressive. I spent just three hours in France with my high school orchestra, but even in that short time I was greeted by a kid of maybe seven or eight years with an exaggerated Orient-inspired caricature of an elaborate martial arts routine. He asked me if I were Jackie Chan, to which I responded theatrically with a painful, crotch-splitting attempt at a high kick. His parents, without so much as a glance in my direction, let alone any visible attempt at an apology, beckoned lazily to their hyperactive child and ultimately let him follow me all the way back to my bus. Funny for a bit, harmless, possibly – but annoying nonetheless, and clearly from a 21st-century French parenting perspective, a complete non-issue.
And in China, for instance, there is no law forbidding employment discrimination and only a handful of anti-discrimination provisions of any kind, which are virtually never enforced. As a result, de facto segregation runs rampant. Employers routinely hire on whatever discriminatory grounds they see fit. In Guangdong province, a factory relocated all its Uyghur workers after a rumor broke out that an Uyghur worker had raped a Han worker.
Even more egregiously, China has denied all civil servants and government employees in Xinjiang province, which has a majority Muslim population, the right to fast during Ramadan. A quick Google search reveals innumerable other discriminatory human rights violations, all of which would have undoubtedly sparked public outrage and flurries of lawsuits in the US. In China, however, they barely register as a blip on the cultural radar. Litigation is futile and thus rarely attempted, and so people have little hope for change.
Without an audience to listen, marginalized populations in China and elsewhere grow silent, complacent, desensitized. They console themselves by choosing to believe that they at least face less discrimination than their counterparts in more prejudiced countries, or that their quality of life might at least be better than what they could expect in their country of origin. But in the US we do exactly the opposite. Rather than use other countries as a comparative baseline, we fixate on what we think ought to be. The relative bigotry of other nations is irrelevant. It is because the US was founded on principles of equality and justice that we, its people, are collectively imbued with a sense of righteousness and the strength to demand change. In the spirit of American equality and justice, these demands will not cease until this country’s ambitious foundational rhetoric manifests itself fully in practice and fulfills the prophecy proclaimed centuries ago by our founding fathers in 1776. I bring the miracle of our nation’s diversity to light during what may seem like one of its darkest hours not to distract from the work that still needs to be done toward that end, but to celebrate the progress that has already been achieved. Diversity is our greatest challenge, but also our greatest strength. It is because we have all been spoon-fed since infancy the national language of freedom, regardless of color or creed, that we have the luxury, which others in the world do not, of understanding equality to be a basic human right and not a privilege. It is because we are able to recognize when these rights are respected and when they are violated that we cannot help but feel cheated when the rhetoric we grew up with reveals itself in places to be illusory.
While the rest of the world sees our violence, turbulence, and political instability, they also see that we at least still hold on to the integrity of our anger and our desire to listen and be heard worldwide. Perhaps it is ironic that during this time, amidst all the confusion, turmoil and grief, I somehow feel more American than ever. Along with many others in the US, I mourn the officers and civilians whose lives were recently claimed by senseless violence. But we are a nation of fighters, demanders and leaders. I am confident that the US can, and will, right itself.
Racism is as ugly as it is pervasive; we need not be in denial of the fact that it exists. But with its indomitable spirit, our nation distinguishes itself from everyplace else, and there is beauty in the never-ending battle we choose to fight.
BENJAMIN ZOU is a rising College junior from New York, New York studying economics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Zou It All” appears every other Thursday.
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