The best place to have a discussion about Taiwan’s racial tensions, a taxicab does not make. Like disagreeing with a waitress or your scissor-wielding hairdresser, it takes a severe lack of common sense to have an argument with anyone who’s holding your life in his or her hands. Moreover, having discussions in enclosed spaces – like a small moving vehicle – means there’s absolutely no way to escape from the argument.
Try as I might to fend off the usual questions about my racial identity during a cab ride one night, the driver and I eventually got to the big question. He turned around to look at me as we waited at a red light and asked, “Do you think Taiwan is a racist country?”
My initial response was to say yes, of course it is. Not because Taiwan is extraordinarily reprehensible in regards to racism, but because I believe no country is immune from discriminatory policies and traditions. He was ready with his own response though. “Taiwan isn’t racist because it doesn’t compare to the racism in America.”
Sigh. I was in no mood to answer that poorly constructed argument and engage in a subsequently heated discussion that I couldn’t get out of until I reached my at-this-point-still-too-far destination.
But here in the safety and relative tranquility of my apartment, I’ve decided to discuss and perhaps clarify some aspects, although definitely not all, of the dynamics of race relations on the island.
All good explanations include some definitions, so I’ll begin with an important one: what is racism? Discussions revolving around race can often get confusing because we conflate terms like racism, prejudice and discrimination. Unlike the latter two terms that suggest a particular behavior, racism is both prejudice and power. Racism is a system through which certain racial groups maintain power over others. This is why in white-dominated societies such as the United States, minorities are not “racist” since they don’t have the institutional power to make white lives more difficult.
Newcomers may initially believe Taiwan to be a pretty homogeneous country where racist tensions are dialed back because well…Taiwan isn’t exactly populated by that many races.
But interaction between the Taiwanese aborigines—Pacific Islanders who’ve called the island their home for thousands of years—and the Hakka and Han-Chinese who populated the island in several immigration waves, has created an amalgamation of cultures and physical descriptors that has still allowed some semblance of a hierarchy to exist, even if it’s not along as stark racial lines as in the United States.
Despite improved employment rates over the past year, Taiwanese aborigines have for generations been treated as second-class citizens, limiting their social mobility. Chinese expansion made aborigines subject to heavy-handed, sometimes brutal, assimilation practices. In the 1940s, the Chinese Nationalist Party took away centuries-old aboriginal ancestral lands – the aborigine communities’ main source of income. Now, they’re still more likely to be unemployed, more likely to hold lower-paid or riskier jobs, and less likely to graduate from college. According to the Council of Aboriginal Affairs at the Executive Yuan, the average wage of aboriginal workers in 2014 was 75 percent of the average wage earned by a Han-Chinese counterpart. And, in a move that was outright exploitative, the Taiwanese government built a nuclear waste facility on an island off the coast of Taiwan populated by the Tao people without the local people’s explicit approval. This demonstration of the Taiwanese government’s power over the indigenous people is a clear example of racism, whether locals like the taxi driver like it or not.
There’s also a veneer of prejudice, or flagrant lack of concern for anyone not ethnically Han-Chinese, that coats discussions about immigrants from Southeast Asia. This discrimination stems from classism in the region, straight up pure prejudice against people of a different skin tone, or (most likely) both. I say likely both because class and race are tied so closely together. Darker skinned people are generally associated with menial labor and seen as inherently different in intellect, skill or quality, making them worthy of a lower-class status. But no matter the root of the prejudice, the result is still the same. Taiwan’s social and political structure is built in the immigrants’ disfavor. Policymakers in the past have threatened to eliminate the minimum wage for migrant workers and ban foreign workers from residing in certain areas. The issue here is not their legal status —because many of them can legally work in Taiwan—but pure discrimination.
In both cases, the minorities and the outsiders have been effectively silenced. In the case of the Taiwanese aborigines, decades under martial law quashed both their use of their own languages as well as their political voice. With aborigines considered largely assimilated and disenfranchised to the point of near-irrelevance, and their culture mainly used to supplement Taiwan’s tourism industry, it may be easy to forget that minorities in Taiwan don’t have access to the same resources as everyone else.
The crux of all identity issues in Asia is that the discriminated and the discriminators may not belong to obviously different racial groups (or belong to different racial groups at all!). So, yes, the cabbie is right in that the issue we’re seeing here is nothing like racism in the United States (unless we’re talking about America’s prejudice against southern and eastern European immigrants in the late 1800s). It’s just something else that’s also pretty ugly.
In fact, Taiwan’s discrimination issues may be even harder to address, precisely because they’re easy to ignore. The history of Asia – chock full of migration stories – makes any given single Asian identity very difficult to define. The lines delineating which people belong to which groups in Taiwan are less stark than black, white, brown and yellow. It’s safe to say nearly all locals would say they’re not racist and would denounce the racial profiling of Black communities in America by mostly white, undertrained, trigger-happy police officers. But gross discrimination against Pacific Islanders by East Asians, or Asians by Asians within the country, in comparison, isn’t treated as seriously even when they’re based on the same racialized classist ideology that birthed America’s problems.
And the discrimination that goes on island-wide does have huge ramifications. Big ones.
As Taiwan becomes increasingly multicultural, tensions will mount in response to increased immigration from China, Southeast Asia and countries further to the west. And while some Taiwanese politicians look towards Singapore as a model economy, ironically Taiwan isn’t ready to adopt the liberal immigration policies that encouraged foreign workers to migrate to Singapore and create the multinational hub as we know it today. Taiwan has not been as open to the import of talent thus far.
However, Taiwan, as it navigates the extremely volatile position it’s been cornered in today on the international stage, has much to lose from imitating the xenophobic immigration policies of Japan or the affirmative action policies of Malaysia. To avoid this path, the Taiwanese government must begin tackling long-held prejudices. And to do that, the Taiwanese people need to acknowledge that racism and real discrimination do exist inside its own borders, in the hearts and minds of its people.
Published in Ketagalan Media