I’ll confess at the start that this post doesn’t have an answer to the question in it’s title. Also the title could have been “How to talk about China?” or Israel or the USA. I’ve granted myself permission to talk about Britain and Australia in any damn way I like 🙂 but they aren’t examples of the problem at hand.
I’ll skip to Australia and China first of all, because for many people this will be a more neutral example. During the recent Australian Federal election, one of the nuttier right wing parties was Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party. Palmer is a Trump-like figure, an erratic businessman with political ambitions and like Trump, he is prone to wild speculation.
Part of his shtick was conspiracy theories about China. An airfield in Western Australia was supposed to be a secret bridgehead to a literal Chinese invasion. Anti-China sentiment and specifically anti-Chinese racism has a long history in Australia. In more recent times the xenophobic One Nation Party, these days more infamous for its anti-Mulsim stance, began as an anti-Asian immigration group. Without a doubt, Palmer was trying to manipulate deep seated anti-Asian prejudices in Australia to gain votes.
But. The current Chinese government is an authoritarian regime which really does seek to influence Australian politics. Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, described the issue in this way:
‘Let me make one thing clear. I am not in any way downplaying the seriousness of concerns that have been raised, both from inside and outside government, about foreign interference. They must be taken seriously. In our liberal democracy, there should – and there must – be debate about matters affecting the integrity of our democracy and the sovereignty of our nation-state. But there must be responsibility exercised in public debate. It is a dangerous thing to invite hysteria. It is doubly dangerous to invite anxiety about the Chinese party-state that may shift into animosity towards people with Chinese heritage. It is concerning to see sensationalism now creeping into mainstream commentary. Consider, for example, the references in Professor Hamilton’s book to “panda huggers”, to “dyeing Australia red”, to “China’s fifth column in Australia”, or to Australia being turned into a “tribute state” by a Chinese “silent invasion”.’https://www.humanrights.gov.au/about/news/opinions/chinese-influence-debate-must-avoid-racism
The issue is not just intended racism but the way a genuine story or issue can then feed into racist/xenophobic narratives. Take for example this story from New Zealand in 2017:
A China-born MP for New Zealand’s ruling party has denied being a spy
after it emerged that he had spent years studying and teaching in
universities with links to Chinese intelligence services.
“I am not a spy,” Yang Jian, the National party’s first MP born in mainland China, told reporters on Wednesday after a joint investigation by the Financial Times and New Zealand’s Newsroom revealed what they described as his hidden past.https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/13/china-born-new-zealand-mp-yang-jian-denies-being-a-spy
I’ll take the guy’s word for it but whether the accusation is true or not, the story itself feeds into a classic racist trope that dual or foreign-born citizens or citizens of a given ethnicity or religion have divided loyalties. That idea has been used in many anglophone countries to attack Catholics in the past and is still used against Jews in public life.
In the US currently there is the issue of Russian attempts to influence the US election. I think the evidence that Russia was trying to get Trump elected is pretty strong, the evidence that Trump was actively cooperating with that effort is also strong but the evidence that it had a significant impact is less strong.
The discussion around Russian influence though, often plays on historical fears and rivalries between the USA and Russia/the USSR. Old racist tropes about Russia are all mixed up with genuine issues along with more hysterical conspiracy theories.
The core of these issues is there are different aspect of communication at play.
- Intent of the person communicating
- The factual content of what they are communicating
- The framing of the communication
- How that communication fits in aesthetically with entrenched prejudices
With somebody like Clive Palmer, it is easy to see how 1,2,3 & 4 are all informed by racism and the desire to manipulate racism. However, even if we do our utmost to expunge racism from 1, 2 & 3 when discussing world affairs, we personally have very little control over 4.
You can be very careful with your language and have the purest intent and frame what you are saying very carefully and still be switching on xenophobic lightbulbs on in people’s heads. The more deeply entrenched those racist tropes are within a culture, the harder it is not to play into the racism aspects of an issue. The anti-Asian racism within Australian culture (which is about as old as European culture in Australia) is an obvious example but so is anti-Semitism.
As I said at the start of this, I don’t have answer. People acting in bad faith will exploit silence just as much as they will exploit words to spread disharmony and hate. Nationalistic governments will often play into racism directed against their dominant ethnic group precisely to bolster their own support.
Over the years, I’ve tried to change how I talk about the USA, for example, from a broad brush anti-Americanism to less metonymic language that helps separate the actions of a government from a nation and a nation from a people and a people as a homogeneous group from the reality of a diverse collection of people. It’s easy to fall into language that helps bolster a nationalistic perspective which in turn enables the kind of deep cultural prejudices I’m discussing. It’s not enough though and the depth of the communication trap seems unresolvable.