The BBC and other mainstream news outlets have reported the accompanied rise in racial violence towards Chinese (or anyone who looks remotely Chinese) in the UK. Just like the Spanish flu, the association of disease with a particular ethnic group or nationality becomes fertile ground for racism. As the association of Covid-19 with China renders Chinese bodies as embodiments of the virus, fears of the virus and the halting of everyday life lead to aggression and violence directed at ‘Chinese’ individuals (1). This builds on “yellow peril”, a racist ideology that constructed China as a danger to the Western world at the end of the 19th century (see Tchen and Yeats 2014). Many posit that Covid-19 has brought to light and exacerbated existing class and gender inequalities, but the virus has also revealed the precarious position that British Chinese occupy in the British body politic.
In ‘Body Politic, Bodies Impolitic’, critical race theorist Charles Mills (2011) argues that the body politic in the nation-state should not be thought of as one that is universal and applicable to all within the nation. The body politic is not one that is without race or ethnicity, inclusive of all individuals upon whom equal rights are conferred. Speaking from the context of the U.S., Mills approaches the body-politic as one that is ‘white’, where only white individuals are recognised as full human subjects and granted personhood. Thus, there is an underlying caveat to the achievement of personhood. One must be white.
Non-white individuals, “treated as permanent aliens or outsiders” (Fredrickson 1981: xii, quoted in Mills 2011: 594), are perceived and interacted with as strangers and as threats that need to be controlled or expelled. Non-white citizens, or ethnic minorities, find themselves straddling this fine line, between ‘beings-at-home’ and ‘beings-of-danger’. The dangers that one is seen to pose to the national politic differs along spatial lines, where geopolitical locations are conflated with racial identities (Mills 2011: 599).
The linking of Covid-19 with ‘Chinese’ bodies in the UK enables a re-framing of these bodies from ‘beings-at-home’ to ‘beings-of-danger’. The British Chinese community turns very quickly from those who belong to ‘Chinese infections’ that threaten the safety and health of local (white) communities (2). Of course, one would argue that British Chinese membership within the national imaginary was never a fact that could be taken-for-granted. Regardless, in this climate of fear, it highlights the shift in how British Chinese are seen.
Prior to this pandemic, British Chinese were an invisible presence in mainstream media and public discourse (Yeh 2018). Yet, in present times, they become hypervisible because of what they embody – Coronavirus. Their foreign-ness is highlighted precisely because they are now so visible in public spaces as possible carriers of the virus. It follows that if all ‘Chinese’ people in the UK are seen by others as possible carriers of the virus, they must have arrived from China. This re-affirms the notion of a white British imaginary where the category ‘British Chinese’ is unimaginable.
This process of becoming ‘beings-of-danger’ is necessarily a rejection, from another, of the legitimacy of these bodies in occupying social space. Alluding to feminist scholar Sara Ahmed, an encounter with these bodies relies on a recognition from others, of their strangeness and hence, an acknowledgement that they do not belong. Ahmed proposes that this rejection or recognition entails the “reopen[ing of] prior histories of encounter that violate and fix others in regimes of difference” (Ahmed 2000: 7). For the British Chinese community, their Chinese-ness is a marker of their perpetual difference in the British polity. I propose that this difference, in relation to the white Briton, is a sustained consequence of the British imperial project.
Any form of racism cannot, and should not, be divorced from the historical specificity of imperialism and colonialism and the global capitalistic system. The flow of migrants to Britain is not a random occurrence but needs to be contextualised in history. Many immigrants came from Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore (previously known as British Malaya), which were all British colonies. Yet, little attention has been given to the historical and socio-political structures that contextualises the British Chinese.
In a recent article published by the Guardian, the results of the YouGov poll reveals Britons’ attitudes towards colonialism and imperialism. Their nostalgia for empire shows the dissonance between actual, material effects of colonialism from the perspective of the colonised, and what is being taught in schools about colonialism and the days of empire. This effacement underlies the exclusion of British Chinese from common understandings of what it means to be and look British. In times of Covid-19, the British imaginary is being re-constructed and the boundaries of this imaginary are shifting. Who gets to be included? Who are the outsiders amidst us? The racial violence enacted on any Chinese-looking person on the streets is a material effect of this dearth of discussion regarding Britain’s racial politics and its deep-seated connections to its imperial past.
Another enduring effect of colonialism in contemporary UK is the persistence of colonial speak in public discourse. For example, media reports and commentaries about Covid-19 juxtapose the West and East as fundamentally different. The BBC’s recent commentary titled “what the West could learn from Asia” is just one from the plethora of news articles that uses terms such as Asia or East (3). The un-differentiated treatment of Asia also leads to the impossibility of seeing Asians as coming from different countries. For British Chinese, the notion that “all Chinese are from China and hence, are all carriers of Covid-19”, compounds their marginality and the violence faced in their everyday lives.
The current pandemic reveals, in its grotesque glory, the structural inequalities and racial fissures that have long taken root in society. With overt racism becoming more rampant, it sheds light on British racial politics and how it frames the everyday lives of ethnic minorities in the UK. What does it mean to be British? The rhetoric of multiculturalism and diversity acts as a veneer that hides the tensions and conflicts that are very much part of non-white Britons or immigrants’ lived realities. Covid-19 is to British Chinese what 9/11 was (and continues to be) for British Muslims. One way or another, without addressing the consequences of colonialism through the eyes of the colonised, dialogues surrounding race in the UK cannot progress.
References and Notes
1. I use inverted commas here to include anyone who has been mistaken to be Chinese.
2. The Windrush scandal is a good example of how quickly the discourse around ethnic minorities can change. The first chapter in Reni Eddo-Lodge’s (2017) Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race illustrates how the Windrush generation were seen as British citizens due to the shortage of labour after the Second World War, but quickly became ‘immigrants’ that needed to be expelled during the Windrush scandal in 2018.
3. See En-Chieh Chao (2020)’s post in Discover Society on a further discussion of this issue.
Ahmed, Sara. 2000. Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-coloniality. UK: Routledge.
Mills, Charles W. 2011. “Body Politic, Bodies Impolitic.” Social Research 78(2): 583-606.
Tchen, John Kuo Wei and Yeats, Dylan. 2014. Yellow Peril! An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear. NY: Verso.
Aerin Lai is a PhD Sociology student from the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on postcolonialism, embodiment and masculinity. Currently, her PhD project looks at intersectional masculinity in postcolonial Singapore. You can find her on twitter @dyspen