Do Not Erase Southeast Asia
Of late, I’ve been seeing increasing use of two incredibly problematic semantic practices in social justice discussions on tumblr.
First, there’s the increasingly popular habit of referring to Asia as “South Asia” and “East Asia”. While it is great to see that people are finally catching on to the fact that Asia is not monolithic, there are THREE major geopolitical regions in Asia, not two.
Southeast Asian nations and peoples are quite sharply distinct in history and culture from their South Asian neighbors to the west and their East Asian neighbors to the north. The South Asia / East Asia split tacitly lumps Southeast Asia into East Asia, which is grossly unacceptable in light of the fact that those nations have a long history of colonial aggression against us, both on their own and as the lapdogs of Western powers.
Second, there is the practice of erasing Asians from PoC dialogues by using the phrase “brown and black” as functionally synonymous with PoC. This would generally include South Asians but not Southeast Asians and East Asians, who are typically light-skinned but not white.
I am definitely not brown even when I’m sporting a California summer tan, but no one would ever mistake me for white either — my build, facial features, and skin tone are visibly distinct from those of any person of European ancestry. People like me were historically called “yellow”, and the Western association of that color with cowardice explicitly originates from racism against people like me.
There’s a big difference between pointing out that anti-racism should emphasize the needs of black people, because in Western culture it is absolutely black people who get fucked over the worst. I totally, absolutely support that. But there’s a big difference between not having emphasis, and not being included at all. Especially considering that historically, Asians in the West were Public Enemy Number Two, right behind black people. That’s only changed since the late 1960s when white people started to shift away from the concept of “Yellow Peril” and started focusing more hostility on Latinos/Hispanics instead.
But if we are going to say this, and I think it is worthwhile to a certain extent.
What about central Asia? Is this not a distinct geopolitical region? And one that is even more erased from being part of Asia than SEAsia?
Or did I suddenly forget the arbitrary distinctions draw on a pieces of paper by colonial powers?
What I don’t like about posts like this are the ways that it re-enforces white colonial maps as a means to say, “what about me?”
Also AFAIK a lot of people use brown to include SE Asians, even while recognizing that they may be extremely pale…
And I don’t feel comfortable using “yellow” people because of the uses of the term as insulting.
I’m never sure if I should count myself as brown since I’m super light skinned. I’ve thought about reclaiming yellow… but that seems weird and it would be even more so for a non-Asian to use it (so I agree with you there).
On the other hand… I’ve never actually felt excluded from anything when people say Black and Brown.
I asked a friend once about Russia, and how it identifies into the Europe/Asia divide, and she said “Eurasian” (which confuses me, because to me an Eurasian is an Asian with European ancestry, not geopolitical identity).
I’m technically yellow as well (looks like an East Asian, sounds like an East Asian, must be an East Asian!) so even though I, as a SEAsian, agree that SEAsians are counted as part of Brown discourse, my background means I have privilege brown peoples don’t, so it feels like I’m intruding if I tried to include myself into those conversations.
I also feel leery about reclaiming yellow, because it’s such a whiteness-filled term to use to refer to light-skinned Asians. I’ve never even thought of myself as “yellow” until I came to North America; our racial categorizations are also heavily tied up into culture, not just skin colour.