Hong Kong must stop clinging to the fiction of racial superiority and treat foreign domestic helpers with respect
Anson Au says Hong Kong people’s racial prejudice against Filipino and Indonesian helpers must give way in the face of evidence that race is essentially a social construct
The case of the Hong Kong employer who was jailed for abusing two domestic helpers, Tutik Lestari Ningsih and Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, was picked up by media outlets around the world and decried as an abuse of human rights.
Here, however, it was an addition to a long, silent history of the mistreatment of foreign domestic workers. Although the inequality that permitted such abuse is apparently economic and certainly political, it is rooted in the social: an age-old lens colours the way Hong Kong people look upon different races. Filipinos and Southeast Asian Muslims, many of whom work in Hong Kong as live-in carers, are stripped of equity.
Their congregations on the steps of Jardine House and neighbouring parks are the butt of many a joke and tolerated at best, but never fully accepted. Their disproportionately lower salaries, far below the poverty line, are justified as commensurate with their intelligence and education. Some of them learn Cantonese till they’re as fluent as natives, and many dedicate years of their lives to serving our households. For this, they may earn our praise, but never our acceptance – never enough to bridge the differences that nature has seemingly inflicted upon them at birth. Their complaints largely go unheard and are reacted to with calls to return home.
By contrast, Western foreigners are lauded as superior. They are descendants of a world praised in our homage to Hong Kong’s colonial origins – a hymn that gains strength in the contemporary calls for the United Kingdom to intervene in favour of Hong Kong independence. Consider also the push for students to obtain an education in Western universities and schools, touted since the 1980s as a superior source of truth and knowledge. A white-skinned instructor or tutor gives the impression of being able to provide a better education.
Marrying a white-skinned partner is traditionally seen as a necessary improvement to one’s social standing and status. West is best.
The core beliefs behind both perspectives are the same: that social differences are inherent to race and that race is immutable, obvious and stamped onto the shade of one’s skin. Behind the colour of our skin lie many assumptions: heritage, attitudes, dispositions, languages, identities. This ideology hides an uncomfortable and not-so-obvious truth: that race itself is a social construct.
Just last month, researchers at the London Natural History Museum recreated the appearance of Cheddar Man, famously Britain’s oldest complete skeleton dating back over 10,000 years. He was what we would today call black, shattering commonly held beliefs that British people have always been, are, and will be white. Tom Booth, an archaeologist who worked on the project, said: “It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions, that really are not applicable to the past at all.”
Racial categories and the differences between them are made up. Research in the social sciences points out how being a racial minority in any society implies disadvantages across the board. Being black in America significantly depresses health and increases the chance of low birthweight among newborns compared to being white, even within the same economic class. However, it is not so much inherent parental race that causes these differences, but worse living and working conditions that are imposed on them.
Likewise, the inadequacies we point out in Hong Kong’s foreign-born domestic workers are not inherently linked to race, but reflections of the social conditions they live in.
Recognising that Filipinos deserve our empathy as migrant workers in a host society that pays them disproportionately less than their local counterparts is a promising start. As is stripping the false shine off Westerners, framed as paragons.
Reshaping the ways we think about the few is essential to the way we develop policies for the many. Doing so is the only way to move towards a more equitable society, where meritocracy trumps bias, where empathy beats prejudice, and where life flourishes without judgment.
Anson Au is a visiting researcher in the Department of Sociology at Hong Kong Baptist University