The Black Lives Matter movement has people across the world questioning their identity and history—asking who wrote their history, and whether they must now participate in creating history’s next iteration.
Unravelling identities involves pain—we all, to a degree, grow comfortable with our power or lack of it. And to succeed we learn to mimic the powerful. In the twenty-first century, to a degree, many people of colour have learned to become white.
It is common for those claiming to break free of their own shackles to become the new oppressors. They take the place of the powerful and leave the system that oppressed them largely untouched. It is as though the desire to be white stubbornly remains. And many revolutions fail for this precise reason—for a lack of imagination. For liberation is not only overthrow of the powerful; it requires a psychological examination and new creation. If the models of success and power that we know are Western, we are required to imagine something other than now arriving at ‘our turn to eat’.
In many Asian and African nations that liberated themselves from colonialism, we have seen Westerneducated local leaders continue legacies of corruption and subservience to Western orders: to embark on great projects to make their nations worthy of the world stage. It is to attempt to win a game whose rules were made by the West. And success can then seem like a form of revenge.
Such a lack of imagination sometimes leads to tragic public failures. Just these past months, as Black Lives Matter was forcing the world to reconsider its prejudices, Spike Lee released Da 5 Bloods, a film that used racial stereotypes and clichés of Asians, of the Vietnamese in particular, to advance the Black American cause. He oppressed another people to attempt a liberation of his own.
Lee is not alone in his failures, however. He and many of us—Asians, and Blacks—have had to become ‘white’ in order to succeed in a white world. Many successful people of colour have feared speaking out in favour of Black Lives Matter because they are acutely aware of the price exacted for their acceptance in a white world in return for success. Whiteness has infiltrated our beings, and liberation is to discover the ways in which it has done so.
What, then, does the Black Lives Matter mean for Asians?
Asia is still defined by the world outside it. The definitive books, news and television about Asia still come to its people from global capitals such as New York and London. Even if Asians produce their own stories, they are forced to acknowledge Western views as the established narrative. Asians are forced to see their own world, and themselves, through this cultural lens.
This is true about the Asian past, present and future. From its empires to colonialism and the Second World War. From its poverty and pollution to its twenty-firstcentury progress. From its ancient literary epics to its new culture.
This reality mirrors colonial processes used by Western powers to define narratives about their colonies—often in order to diminish, divide and rule them. The colonies were disparaged as primitive and exoticised as a mysterious unknown. Mythical Western adventurers brought stories and treasures home from the
Gianluca Costantini world’s peripheries. It is as though Asia’s heritage has less value if it is not acknowledged by the rest of the world.
This has left long-lasting wounds in Asia’s psyche. It is still rare for Asians—writers, journalists, artists, historians and politicians—to tell stories about the rest of the world with the sense of authority that foreigners tell stories about Asia. There is a sense of smallness in the Asian mind, a feeling that Asians don’t have the permission to tell the world’s stories.
Recently I proposed making a television series about the United States to a respected Asian television channel. They asked if I could make a show about Indians in the US. I insisted; they asked if I could make a show about Asian tycoons in the US. They doubted our authority and capacity—when an Asian perspective would in fact illuminate the US’s current transformation.
In doing so, they give the world undue power. There is no reason for this psychological capitulation. Many Asians accommodate the world’s dominance by submitting to it—by defining themselves as the world sees them. Asian intelligentsia and elites dress by Western norms, speak and behave in Western ways and still measure themselves by Western ideas of progress, civilisation and success. Asian nations are obsessed with their GDPs as a measure of their achievements and as compensation for their past humiliations.
But, along with many communities in the world, this continent is finding its voice and challenging the narratives that have defined it. Perhaps economic growth, and the accompanying feeling of independence, have conferred a new confidence.
This has made some people in the rest of the world uncomfortable.
But first, what will Asia become? Will this vast continent be curious about the world and become relevant to it? Asia’s great achievements were arrived at through a process of evolution. Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Tan Malaka, Ho Chi Minh and José Rizal shaped Asian and world history. The continent must now evolve once more—and the past is a useful reference, not immutable law. People do not have to fall reflexively on the ancient ways. The old culture and Asian achievements will need to emerge from museums and textbooks and be transformed, made new.
But it is unclear how Asia will matter to world history other than through its own prosperity and a new domination—a recreation and mirroring of its colonial past. Can Asia prosper without deepening the environmental crisis precipitated by Western industrialisation? Instead of retreating into its past, can Asia inspire?
For this continent rarely seems concerned with
the world. It focuses inwards. Its wisdom—shaped by a history of civilisations and wars, colonialism and independence, communism and capitalism—does not bear on other places. It is as though Asia hesitates to speak. Its economies generate incredible wealth. Yet its curiosity is restricted. It remains relevant, almost by principle, only to itself.
The future may force Asia to forge its own narrative. One already discerns the signs of a new identity.
We are now embroiled in a great polarising debate about who can speak for whom and about whom. The authority to tell stories about others, once taken for granted by many, is questioned, particularly since many still tell stories about people who do not have a voice, or who are now finding a voice. New rules are being defined; old rules are being rewritten.
Some Asian governments twist this opportunity to create a new identity into a reason to perpetrate violence on their people. Democracy and independent institutions are branded as Western and thrown out: power is concentrated in governments and individuals. The argument often made by the powerful is that Asia must be decisive in order to catch up with the West, in order to grow, in order itself to be powerful.
This violence speaks to a lack of trust; it conveys the Asian failure to accept itself, to work with what is present instead of aspiring to targets embodied by other nations. It is a product of Asians forced endlessly to compare themselves with the world and judge themselves poorly.
Such authoritarian moves in Asia must be condemned. There is no shame in admitting that democracy serves Asians. Stories told by outsiders are similarly useful to Asians.
The protests in Hong Kong show us that the existing world order is no longer guaranteed—rising Asian powers increasingly challenge the status quo as the West stands by and watches. To secure their own identities, freedoms and futures, individual Asians demand their rights, fearing that the power vacuum left by the West will simply be occupied by repressive politicians. The new violence may come from within Asia.
Other Asians resist such structural change, having gained a measure of success and power in the world that exists. This continent will have first to perceive its freedom, individuality and power—psychologically—as something worth having. Then whatever freedom that is defended and won will be truly Asian, not granted and guaranteed by someone else. To take on Asian powers and take on the world thus offers the Asian psychology a way out of its self-confinement and its ideas of smallness.
People are helping one another in this age of self-discovery and evolution. Support is unlikely to come from abroad. Asians owe it to themselves to see themselves anew.
This requires confidence: to shake off the outsider’s perceptions and act and speak in spite of the way Asia is perceived. It will take time, perhaps a generation. Slowly, Asians are growing more assertive about how they envision their future.
The next century, economically, may well be the Asian century. It should be so also for a new narrative about itself and the world. ☐ Anjan Sundaram is the author of Bad News and Stringer. He presented the TV shows Coded World and Deciphering India