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Will Obama Help Change Asia's Racism?

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For the
nations that were a part of President Obama’s recent Asian tour, surely this
was a new experience for them. For the first time, they greeted and hosted the
most powerful person in the world, one of the most brilliant people they’ve
ever met.  And for the first time, that
person is a man of African descent.  It
has been a long journey since the 1955 Bandung Conference, that historic
meeting of African and Asian states striving for self-determination and against
colonialism. Meanwhile, black people today are often stereotyped in Asian
countries as dirty, violent, mentally deficient and otherwise inferior—not
unlike the ways in which the West has portrayed people of color for years.

Although
symbolism has its limits, surely, it means a lot for international relations to
have a fresh face on the scene in the form of Obama, a leader of the world who
has lived in the world.  Obama was born
in Hawaii and lived in Indonesia.  His
half sister is Asian American, and one of his half brothers is an African American
living in China. No other president has had such an international background,
or such potential to make a difference on the world stage.

But for
Asian nations, white skin was the traditional standard of beauty and
prosperity. In the old days, the poorer folks were darker because they had to
work in the fields, where they were exposed to the sun.

As China
welcomes Obama, the nation is forced to deal with its long-standing
prejudices
toward black people. But the discrimination is
internal as well.  The Chinese government
has been heavy-handed in its treatment of the country’s aggrieved Uighur Muslim
minority, and has waged cultural genocide against the people of Tibet.  

In India,
the caste system, although officially banned, still lives on.  Brown and black faces predominate in this
nation of over 1 billion people. 
However, white skin is desirable, and skin
whitening creams
are popular.

And Japan
has had a longstanding problem with racism and xenophobia.  Even today, one can find signs that say “No
Foreigners Allowed” and “Japanese Only”, or a recent TV commercial depicting
President Obama as a monkey
.  In 2005, Doudou
Diene, special rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights, found that
discrimination in Japan is “deep and
profound.”
   He added
that “This xenophobic drive is expressed by associating minorities, certain
minorities, to crime, to violence, to dirt.”

These
Japanese sentiments do not apply solely to foreigners and foreign workers.  Despite its self-portrayal as a homogeneous
society, Japan has its own minority groups that historically have been regarded
as inferior. For example, the Ainu, an
indigenous ethnic group, has suffered from displacement and cultural
assimilation, higher levels of poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of
health and education.  Over 1 million Japanese
of Korean descent— products of Japanese wartime colonization and forced
labor—are treated as foreigners in the country of their birth.  They face a “hidden apartheid”, in which they
face discrimination in housing and employment, and feel pressure to change
their Korean names and blend in society. 
Further, the Burakumin are an
outcaste group similar to the untouchable caste in India.  They face discrimination because their feudal
ancestors held occupations such as butchers, tanners and gravediggers—
death-related jobs that were considered tainted and unclean under Buddhist and
Shinto practices.

The topic
of racial attitudes in Asia has fascinated me for a long time.    In
high school, I traveled to Japan as an exchange student and lived with a family
in Tokyo.  I majored in East Asian
Studies in college, and wrote my thesis on Japanese perceptions of foreigners. After
college, I worked as one of a handful of gaijin
(foreigners) in a Japanese bank, and later for the Tokyo office of a major U.S.
advertising agency.  Living in Japan was
a life-altering experience for me, and in a good way.  Being a true foreigner in another culture
provided me with a broader world perspective, and helped me deal with
adversity.   

Overall,
my Japan experience was positive. It took some time to get used to the stares,
or the occasional child who wanted to touch my skin or hair. Then there were
the people who assumed I was a hip-hop entertainer, or a baseball player, or
some other racial stereotype of a black man in Japan. Clearly, there was an
embrace of black culture in Japan. The music and swagger of black people
permeate international popular culture. 
And as I went to work in my business suit on the Tokyo subway, I
couldn’t help but laugh to myself as I passed by Japanese teenagers sporting
their dreads, hip-hop gear and Afrocentric t-shirts. But at the same time, I
had to endure my fellow employees at the company dormitory.  Some employees at the bank had the idea to
throw a party, in which everyone would come dressed in blackface.  After I protested, they cancelled their
plans, but only after lecturing me about the need for foreigners to understand
Japanese culture.

I believe
that as time passes and the world shrinks, it becomes more difficult for
discrimination to find a safe harbor. 
Modern technology serves to eliminate borders and expose our activities
before the light of day.  The nations of
Asia, like the U.S., have a long way to go before they eradicate racism.  And yet, despite its legacy of slavery and
institutionalized racism, America elected a man by the name of Barack Obama as
president.  The leaders of Asia now must
deal with a man of African descent as the leader of the American empire.  And he isn’t a racial stereotype, for
whatever that is worth.  Certainly, that
alone must give them pause. 

David A. Love is an Editorial Board member of BlackCommentator.com, and a contributor to the Progressive Media Project and theGrio. He is a writer and human rights advocate based in Philadelphia, and a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. His blog is davidalove.com