Benevolent Prejudice and Positive Stereotypes: Asian Raisins and their work to dismantle them
In February last year, the Dutch Radio DJ Lex Gaarthuis played a carnival song - Voorkomen is beter dan Chinezen, translating to “prevention is better than the Chinese”. With lyrics referring to the “stinky Chinese” and “we don’t want you in our country”, one starts to wonder: How can these lyrics, back in a time when violence against and harassment of Asian people was increasing, be seen as satirical? Even more so, these lyrics have since then become a part of the harassment; Deniz, part of the legal team of the Dutch activist collective Asian Raisins, tells me “people get the song lyrics yelled at them”. But yet, satire is what the prosecutor of the case against Radio 10 and its DJ recently decided. “Het is maar een grapje”, maar #Iklachniet (“It’s just a joke”, but #imnotlaughing) seems applicable – it’s also the current campaign of Asian Raisins in collaboration with Pan Asian Collective.
Originally a Facebook group, on March 22, 2020, Asian Raisins became an anti-racism organization and media platform, and officially registered itself as a foundation on January 2021. Rui Jun Luong founded the group in a time of rising anti-Asian racism in the Netherlands: As Coronavirus cases increased, so did the reports of Asian people being spat on or beaten up. The aim of the collective is “to make social problems more visible through proactive campaigns. In addition to our anti-Asian racism movement, we created a safe online space for our community, on different platforms (…) a safe space for people from different backgrounds to talk about subjects concerning racism and the East-Asian community. They talk about the diversification of the Asian community. Refuting the stereotypes portrayed upon all.” Organizing against racism and forging connections. The collective’s name, Asian Raisins, reminds one of ‘Asian Racism’, or ‘Asian Rising’. But the idea for the name actually originated with the stereotypical phrase “Asian don’t raisin”, the indication that Asians age well due to a lack of wrinkles – yet, as Asian Raisins’ name suggests, Asians do get wrinkles, just like raisins, “because of all the racism we have to deal with”.
According to Asian Raisin, this racism often comes in the form of ‘benevolent prejudice’. Benevolence – the quality of being well-meaning, kindness. Prejudice - preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. Can prejudice ever be an act of kindness, of well-meaning? ‘Positive’ stereotypes like Asians being good at mathematics, being hardworking, or being doctors are prevalent. But their ‘positive’ nature is illusive, as “these stereotypes enable the normalization of racism on a more severe scale later on”. And they are essentializing, “merely reducing people to the traits that are put on their social group”, instead of viewing them as individuals. These stereotypes, which normalize a racist status quo, start as early as elementary school:
“You will notice different treatment from others; it starts with people noticing that you look different and eat different food and with songs like Hanky Panky Shanghai where people are taught to ridicule these differences. Your classmates start to listen to adults talking about stereotypes and will ask you if you really eat dogs and cats.” Making a child feel different, as if its culture and heritage are something ridiculous - benevolent prejudice is still prejudice, and it still harms people. But Asian people experience other forms of racism as well, not all verbal. People are looked at weirdly on the street or even yelled at by a random person, have racial slurs directed at them, or experience physical violence. Especially with the pandemic, these cases have increased.
“I really feel like a lot of people, especially during the beginning of the pandemic, tried to find a scapegoat for everything that went wrong and that China and the Chinese became that scapegoat. A lot of people do not recognize the fact that not all Asians are Chinese, so all Asians automatically became scapegoats. I remember that many videos, in which Asians were severely discriminated against or even abused, circled around on social media. A lot of my friends were also sharing them. All of us were just shocked at everything that was happening and we could not believe our eyes. There was a time this year, where I, after having watched several of these videos, didn’t feel at ease on public transport. Some of my friends also said they felt uncomfortable or experienced more discrimination. Fortunately, nothing happened to me, but the fact that I didn’t feel safe that time on public transport and all the disconcerting news reports show that something is very wrong with our society”, a member of Asian Raisins tells me, their story reminding me of Tina*’s experiences (see PanDam article). But as these incidents have become more visible, so has awareness for anti-Asian racism. As Rui Jun and Deniz from the collective tell me, it wasn’t only Asian people objecting to Lex Gaarthuis’ song, but also Dutch white people.
Through their work, Asian Raisins aims to be a voice that stands up for the Asian community. Therefore, making Asian people living in the Netherlands be seen, their realities visible and a part of the larger societal narrative. As an activist collective and media platform, “Asian Raisins has the ambition to contribute to the media and film industry through a multidisciplinary creative collective, to improve the representation of Asians and their stories”. Something that is sorely needed: Brainstorming with well-known Dutch Asians they could approach for help with the #iklachniet campaign, their list turned out pretty short in the end. But even so, the campaign is impressive. Launching back in the spring of 2020 as an illustration campaign, the first part consisted of participants freely using their creativity to express themselves and their worries and agitations surrounding racism in the Netherlands, the core message being “enough!” As Asian Raisins describes it, “we want to get the message across that even if you write off racist comments as a joke, those “jokes” are still going to be racist and hurtful at the end of the day. Subsequently, we want to be the catalyst that enables people in the Netherlands to freely speak without prejudices.” The second part of the campaign is a photo campaign, where participants share a picture of themselves – not smiling – and share a personal experience with racism, racism that was justified as “just a joke”. In addition, a new campaign is also in the making, focusing on Hankie Pan Shanghai. Normalizing anti-Asian racism by ridiculing Asian people, the song is one example of the small “jokes”, of benevolent prejudice.
As Dutch society grapples with the institutional racism present in the child benefits scandal and discussions regarding the tradition of Zwarte Piet, anti-discrimination discussions have caught new steams since this summer. With huge Black Lives Matter protests happening in Amsterdam and multiple other cities, I wondered what Asian Raisins’ role was in this, as a fairly new organization. Working together with other anti-racism initiatives, they emphasize how despite everybody having their own struggle and message, at the end, they are all fighting against racism. “Working together and supporting each other as a collective is the most effective way to achieve that. We have been mentioned by organizations like Kick Out Zwarte Piet, featured on various national media outlets and worked together with several activists who have their own (online) platform and network (…) The reason that we are able to stand up for our community, was thanks to people that stood up against racism long before we were even founded. That’s why movements like BLM are so important, because they create a space for people to speak up about all kinds of inequality. Not only do we think that it’s important to speak up against anti-Asian sentiments, but we also think that it’s important to speak up about issues within our own community to create awareness.”
In this idea of awareness also lies the importance of the ongoing Article 12 procedure to prosecute the case against Lex Gaarthuis. For Asian Raisins, it is about more than one DJ: With the court case, they would be able to shine a light on the racism and discrimination faced by Asians and condemn this discriminatory behavior, these “jokes”, the songs, but also the public harassment, that has been normalized by society.
When it comes to microaggressions and racist humor, the dilemma always involves freedom of expression – is such a small thing as a joke really discriminatory? Whether it is or not is a complex decision, so can a decision really be substantive without taking into account the effects of that discrimination?
Because this case is also part of a bigger problem: all the people who make the decisions are white. All the judges and prosecutors in this were white, so despite their qualifications, “it [their whiteness] makes it a bit harder for them to understand why this song was discriminatory.” Not consulting with any members of the Asian community or anti-racism experts does not make them unbiased, but rather not knowledgeable. How can you judge on racial discrimination if you do not experience it?
Hanky Panky illustration: 'Hankie Pankie Shanghai' by Ming Ong
photo of Board of Asian Raisins by Rui Jun Luong