Is the “Buy Local” Movement Anti-China?

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Are you done with your holiday shopping yet? This year, the “Buy Local” message seems to be more prominent than ever. It’s a message with which I generally agree. My nieces and nephews always get gifts from the awesome independent children’s bookstore, and I like to check out small boutiques for things such as artisan foods and local honey. So when a “Buy Local” email was forwarded to my inbox, I was really disappointed to see the racist undertones in the message.

2011 Holidays -- Birth of a New Tradition

As the holidays approach, the giant Asian factories are kicking into high gear to provide Americans with monstrous piles of cheaply produced goods -- merchandise that has been produced at the expense of American labor. This year will be different. This year Americans will give the gift of genuine concern for other Americans. There is no longer an excuse that, at gift giving time, nothing can be found that is produced by American hands. Yes there is!

It's time to think outside the box, people. Who says a gift needs to fit in a shirt box, wrapped in Chinese produced wrapping paper?

The heading should have given me a clue. Birth of a New Tradition has a certain ring to it... sort of like Birth of a Nation, perhaps? It reminds me of a grumpy old man I overheard at a big-box store muttering, “Everything’s made in China!”

Made in China via Shutterstock

It’s important to support small, locally-owned (read: American) businesses. It’s also important to ensure safe, humanitarian, environmentally-concious manufacturing. Yet what bothers me about this sort of rhetoric is that it takes a worthwhile message and twists it with the implication that The Chinese Are Out To Get Us. As if the average Chinese factory worker is concocting nefarious plots to manufacture cheap, shiny, new objects in an attempt put the hard-working American laborer out of a job. (Cue Bruce Springsteen).

The email message gets worse, with references to the Chinese building “glittering cities” with your hard-earned “Benjamin’s” [sic]. Aren’t many of the corporations contracting out to these Chinese factories so-called “American” companies?

And even worse, I worry that this misplaced backlash against the outsourcing of manufacturing to China and other parts of Asia will be even further misdirected – against Asian Americans. It’s happened before. In the 1980s, when anger against Japanese automakers prompted laid-off Detroit autoworkers to beat to death Chinese American Vincent Chin. He wasn’t even Japanese. Close enough.

Image Credit: Chinese Emigration to America via Wikimedia Commons

What really scares me is the kind of language in this email is really reminiscent of the old Yellow Peril surrounding the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans. Or the legal ban on Asian immigration created by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 in reaction to the numbers of Chinese immigrating to the United States for the gold rush and the construction of the transcontinental railroad and the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924. The latter is the law – which was not lifted until 1965 – that was praised by Michele Bachmann during the Republican debates in September for working “very, very well” to curb immigration.

But it’s not just the ignorant or the blatant racists promoting this anti-China sentiment. It’s easy to join in the hysteria -- even unintentionally. Corey on Multilingual Living writes about how her son started saying he disliked a particular classmate – because the child was Chinese American. How did the boy get that idea? From hearing his parents worry about lead-paint tainted Thomas trains made in China.

These waters are especially difficult to navigate for Asian families. After I showed her the email, Sophie of Hao Mama told me:

A little friend of my son's, whose parents had explained why she couldn't play with certain toys or put them in her mouth, said at the time in our home: "Things that come from China are bad and dangerous and poisonous." Even though he was too little to really understand the implications, my son asked me about her comments later. After all, his dad comes from China too.

Sophie and Corey were able to talk to their children about the differences between being a cautious about products manufactured in China... and the Chinese people.

So by all means, buy local this holiday season. But do it for the right reasons. And remember that local entrepreneurs come in all colors and backgrounds, too.

Race and Ethnicity Section Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs at HapaMama and A Year (Almost) Without Shopping.

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