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Waking from the Media Coma— Eyes on Black Screens

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‘Black Lives Matter!’… Why didn’t I post something about it right at the start? Whenever there’s a big movement, social media turns important matters into hashtags. I am always cautious and ask myself, ‘is there something that the media is intentionally leaving out?’ or, ‘is this social media distracting me from other issues?’ 

Still, it is disheartening to be reminded that we must continue to struggle for a basic sense of decency along so many social levels. The brutal injustices against African Americans are our current example of extreme racism, however, this event also gives us all who experience racism on any level an opportunity to become vocal. To support the resistance in America, we can begin our own conversations about racism. It is a good time to reflect on the not-so-obvious ways in which it affects our lives. When taking the time to reflect on how racism affects us, the struggle no longer belongs to any specific race but is experienced in many different ways and throughout many different cultures. 

Learning my own history, of Taiwan, has revealed to me that racism has existed alongside me even when I was unaware of it. Taiwan’s history is the story of a series of rulers from other countries. Before the 16th century, the island of Taiwan was inhabited by Indigenous peoples. Since then, Taiwan has been subjected to continuous colonial rule from the Dutch, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese. All of these foreign influences have left their own interpretation of racial prejudice upon Taiwan. Given this circumstance, you would expect Taiwan to be very sympathetic to anti-racism, yet I would say that racism still exists. Some examples of this in Taiwan are prejudicial attitudes towards Indigenous communities, as well as South Pacific Asians.

In terms of identity, what is it to be Taiwanese? The answer will depend on family origin. Looking at my known family history, both of my grandfathers came to Taiwan from China in 1949. After the Nationalists had lost to the Communists in the Chinese Civil War, many fled to Taiwan. Those newly arrived Chinese have considered ‘Mainlanders.’ The locals referred to themselves as ‘Islanders,’ which was generally anyone who had been living in Taiwan before Japan surrendered it after 1945. Both of my grandmothers were ‘Islanders.’  When my father’s mother attended elementary and middle school during Japanese rule, she was forced to read, write and speak in Japanese. With the arrival of the ‘Mainlanders,’ in 1949, there was a great shift in power in Taiwan. Those who had arrived assumed control and settled. This is evident in my family history as well, as both of my grand-fathers became police officers, and married women who were ‘Islanders.’

From 1949 until the late 80’s, this dichotomy between ‘Mainlanders’ and ‘Islanders’ was emphasized by racial tension. My parents’ generation was deeply influenced by this tension. Those who went to school during this time were not allowed to speak their family dialects (Taiwanese, Hakka, or other Indigenous languages), and instead had to study and speak Mandarin. Those who disobeyed were humiliated in front of their peers. In addition, the descendants of ‘Mainlanders,’ such as my family, were not officially recognized as Taiwanese. Instead, our identification cards would show where our grandfather’s originated instead of where we were born. So, according to authorities at the time, my origin is Fujian, a coastal province in Mainland China. It wasn’t until 20 years ago in the year 2000 when this practice finally ended. 

The division between ‘Mainlander’ and ‘Islander’ has fallen out of fashion since the 1980’s; however, when I look at the political parties in Taiwan, there is a sense that this division is very much alive. The two main parties in Taiwanese politics are the Kuomintang (KMT), a nationalist conservative party, and the Democratic Progressive Party, DPP. As you can imagine, the KMT is sympathetic to China, whereas DPP represents the modern struggle for Taiwanese identity. What it means to be Taiwanese has fluctuated throughout history, but there has always been a shadow cast upon it. Unfortunately, this story is a familiar one. It seems to me that wherever one can be traded like an object, from foreign power to foreign power, there will always be an existential question about one’s identity.

Also in the 80’s, Western pop culture began to influence Taiwan. Local movie production was relatively new in Taiwan, and despite being supported by the government it could not compete with the imagery and power of international media. So, as Hollywood movies became popular, they also popularized the social values of those movies; as well as, their internalized perceptions about race. Growing up back in the 80’s and 90’s, I can remember how in movies, all other cultures outside of the West seemed inferior—even my own. Now I realize that in Taiwan we have come to fetishize Western Culture, and have internalized the inferiority they project onto us. These fetishes are not my own, but are something that I have learned from a lifetime of media. 

I began to understand how complex racism actually is after moving to Canada. In Taiwan, we perceive Canada as a rather progressive country, which is true in many ways. However, just like Taiwan, there are many ways in which racism persists. Canada has introduced me to the first-person experience of being a racial minority, and now I know what it means to experience an event where my race was an influence on the outcome. When my collaborator, Alisha, and I first founded Chieh x Chieh in 2015, we created a two-volume photographic series called ‘Yellow Fever.’ In it, we reflected ironically on our experiences being sexualized because of our race. Even though the depictions were satirical, we wanted to express how belittling it feels to be stereotyped and fetishized. One picture, in particular, caught the interest of an academic in Toronto, and our picture was published in a book of essays titled, “Women’s Realities, Women’s Choices: An Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies” by Joan Simalchik and the Hunter College Women’s Studies Collective, in 2017.  I hadn’t realized that my experiences and feelings were a topic in discussion, and being published felt like they had become validated. 

Looking back at these two experiences—my upbringing in Taiwan and my Canadian life—I feel each has helped me better understand the racism of the other. In Taiwan, I have benefitted from the privilege as a ‘Mainlander’ without truly being one. In Canada, I have experienced racial prejudices without ever being truly oppressed. In both places, though, I am me. I am someone who does not think of herself as either perpetrator or victim. So these opposite experiences have helped me focus my interest away from asking ‘who is the good, or bad person?’ and ask, ‘what is the system that creates these subjective positions? How does it work?’ I think, in both Taiwan and Canada, I understand its origins comes from generations-old dynamics of colonialism and imperialism. How has it managed to stay alive, and keep us complacent is a far more difficult question to answer.  

It is a challenge to see with clarity what is to be done, especially when so much of our conversation takes place over social media. With so many people eagerly asking “What can I do?” on the internet, and with very few opportunities to act meaningfully, it is no wonder that a new profile picture is in order to perform solidarity. 

I think it is curious that we eagerly search for truth and justice on social media, because it is such a disingenuous environment. I think people have great skepticism for traditional media platforms, and politicians, but we do not have enough skepticism for social media. It’s a strange paradox. Maybe we forget that these platforms aren’t free exchanges of ideas. Conversations, tone and facts are all monitored. As such, they are in complete control over what is acceptable and unacceptable. 

This has political and social implications. Our stories become property of business, and with that personal information, we are aggressively targeted by advertisers, politicians, and advocacy groups. Further, these platforms are at the service to the highest bidder, meaning what information is acceptable is simply the information that paid the highest to be there. This dissolves trust among people because now anything could be true. This also means that personal opinions become radicalized, and these opinions are often provided by social media. So, knowing that the platform is not in our service, we should be deeply critical of the stories it tells, and actively resist its face value narratives. It is easy for a serious topic like violence and racism to become banal when it is turned into a hashtag. We must consider this is not an effect from overusing hashtags, but instead, this is inherently what happens when you take a complex issue, like racism, and reduce it for media consumption. 

We must fight racism on our own terms. We have to be fully aware of racism’s dimensions in our own lives—in Canada and in Taiwan no less than in America or elsewhere—and consider that everyone is changing together! It is not one type of people that cause, or benefit, from racism, as tempting as it might be to say. It’s something every culture must challenge. Everybody must leave something behind if we are going to truly address racism. Of course, what is left behind will depend on what we gained as individuals and societies who depend on colonial conquest and racial oppression. Before turning to social media, the masters, consider asking how racism shapes the world around your life, and how you can personally identify it within yourself and others.

– Chieh 

Photo + Art by Chieh Huang

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