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Palm Oil Free and Asian Hate

March 6, 2021

If I pretend for a moment that I’m someone else (hard to do but hey, let’s try), someone who has formed their opinions around what’s good and bad in the world of cosmetics by scrolling through Instagram or Pinterest, I quickly realise that palm oil is bad.

Palm oil has become synonymous with Orang U Tans and more specifically, their loss of habitat and potential for a future. This link has been pushed by bloggers, brands, NGO’s and even Zoo’s for a good while now. For those new to the blog or for whom reading archived material is not a thing, palm oil was one of the first issues I blogged about. Palm plantations are something I have personal experience of as are the jungles and people of Malaysia and Indonesia- the countries most targeted by the palm free lobby.

But I have never been able to fall in step behind the logic of this cause – that if we boycott, ban and avoid palm oil the world will suddenly be OK again. Just as when I first started writing about this issue, I still can’t grasp how such a complex issue can be distilled into peoples minds into such a simple and incomplete solution. In my mind this cause has always been what I call ‘busy work’. Busy work describes the tasks you undertake to make you feel less hopeless, lazy or undisciplined but that ultimately should not actually serve as a substitute for what you really could or should be doing be that properly resting or saving the world.

If you are not angry about what I’ve said so far and don’t want to come and torch my house and accuse me of being a forest killer then I’m glad and wish to thank you deeply. Going against the grain is not a comfortable thing and nor should it be. There are many things about the way Palm Oil is produced that are clearly damaging to the environment. There is also much about our human habits, tastes and attitudes that need more attention. So I’m not saying the palm oil activists have no truth to their argument, I’m just saying it is logically incomplete and ineffective to my mind. I’ve also, for a long while, held the view that it’s politically and environmentally dangerous to be this blinkered and blind.

How we see each other.

I’m saddened to have become aware of a phenomenon called ‘Asian Hate’ and further saddened to realise this is on the rise, especially in the USA. In educating myself about this sorry state of affairs I’ve found myself stopping to consider whether the palm oil issue doesn’t play into the same bucket of hidden fear, hatred or othering that has fuelled this escalation in violence and othering. Indulge me for a moment while I explain.

The ”Other’ people are bursting my bubble’ phenomenon.

It’s easier to hate people who aren’t you and I’m guessing that most of you don’t own, manage or live on, in or near a palm plantation, farm, forest, woodland, rainforest or national park. I do live in one of those areas and maybe that’s why I find it so hard to neatly see myself in another, entirely different box or maybe it’s something else that makes me feel this way…

While I know that Instagram and Pinterest aren’t the only social media providers in the world, these two do feature significantly in the ‘live-your-best-life’ and ‘care about this’ space. We scroll to feel hopeful, connected and inspired by the world and we also scroll, click, sign virtual petitions and shop consciously to help us feel informed about the injustices in life that we want to do something about but only if the effort : reward ratio suits us.

We sit at home, wherever that may be, dreaming of photo-ready-forests filled with beautiful, happy and healthy animals; of pure waterfalls and rock pools that open up to the most amazing no-people-for-miles sunrises and sunsets; of people living simpler, more natural lives than us, thriving on their natural medicine and family ties, unencumbered by the 9-5 workday, the squashy commute or the stench from the city’s over-worked drainage system. With one click into the cart, we buy a piece of it before moving onto the next thing.

This voyuers perspective, this reduction of our involvement with the world to only that which we can see and act on instantly and superficially, changes our brain wiring unless we challenge ourselves. Problems and solutions are just one click away, click enough times on the right content and you start to believe you really are a powerful force for change in the world. Meanwhile we subconsciously push the problems of the world further and further away – we can’t be part of the problem, we buy organic vegetables and fair trade T-Shirts for god’s sake!

Romantic Othering, Palm Oil and Asian Hate.

The scenario I’ve tried to describe above isn’t just relevant to the palm oil issue but as it’s that I’m focusing on I’ll continue on that track.

What I’m trying to capture above is how we, those of us away from THE problem, romanticise both what we see as the problem and what we feel is the solution. In doing that we reduce the agency of people close to the action.

When we conclude that Palm Oil is bad and we must boycott it, how much time do any of us spend thinking about the agency of the people in the countries involved? What do they want? What did they vote for? How are they responding? What balance are they seeking? How does Palm Oil impact their life’s now, what about how they see themselves in the future? Who even are they?

This ‘I know you better than you know yourself’ or ‘I can see your problems and I want to fix them for you’ mentality is how most wars and gross injustices start out.

I’m not saying that nobody BUT those living in Malaysia or Indonesia (in this example) is qualified to talk about or hold opinions on this matter. We are all free to do that but our freedom of thought, when turned into conscious life choices and action must surely be accompanied by a responsibility to evaluate all sides of a situation. To see things as they are rather than as we want them to be.

If our actions undermine the agency of other, fair and just minded people, we are not being helpful, we are being colonial.

There is no doubt in my mind that the world is heading towards a disaster if we all don’t change our ways. Being colonial – othering, romanticising, fetishising, distancing, homogenising – is not the change I’m talking about.

To me the palm oil issue has always been as much about me and what I do on my land as it is about the citizens of Malaysia and Indonesia and what they do on theirs. How can I hold ‘them’ to a standard I can’t attain myself? How can I deny ‘them’ opportunities that I, myself have benefited from? How can I criticise ‘them’ for not making huge changes in their lives when the only change I can muster is that which is necessary to buy a palm-oil free shampoo bar and vegan muffin?

It is not your ‘bubble’, they are not bursting it.

I was distraught and felt all hope was slipping away when the forests around me burned to ashes in the 2019-2020 bush fires and I am disgusted by the fact I live in a country that could easily take the gold medal in species extinction and land clearing. Meanwhile our politicians, the people we democratically voted in, sit swinging between outright denial and active avoidance on environmental and sustainability matters. If it’s not immediately good for the economy it’s not sparking our joy..

It’s highly likely, the people of Indonesia and Malaysia are equally but differently concerned about the state of the world and their part of the world but like me and no doubt you, these concerns are taking a while to unpick and turn into joined-up action.

The bubble we live in isn’t Instagram or Pinterest, our street, our city or even our country. We share our bubble with everyone and everything and if we don’t believe in the equality and right to self-determination of everyone, we are the ones bursting it.

The future is real.

I don’t have an answer to sum up this piece but I do feel the road towards a better, more sustainable and holistic future is to start focusing on what’s real.

People are real.

Asian people are real.

Asian real people have agency.

Asian real people with agency make educated choices and decisions about what’s right for them, their lives and their environment.

Asian real people with agency looking to make new or different educated choices may be more likely to pay attention to those outside-looking-in if they saw this better future and these other choices modelled and lived, rather than talked about and projected but unrealised.

Maybe Asian real people with agency are already making the best, most educated choices, are realising their potential and making the world a better place. Maybe it’s just that us non-Asians can’t see that yet.

The palm oil issue is not an obvious ‘Asian Hate’ pairing and I doubt many people have every thought of it (or themselves) in that way. But I hope by stopping to think about the issue in this way you can see how easy it is for us ‘outsiders’ to forget that underneath it all are people who are just like us.

Amanda x

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2021 6:39 pm

    Thank you for this – a thoughtful and thought provoking article. I struggle with the simplistic reduction of the palm oil issue into ‘it’s bad, full stop’.And I can’t cut through the noise surrounding it. Your article helps to bring angles and facets I hadn’t considered- brilliant. Thank you

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      March 6, 2021 6:43 pm

      Appreciate the feedback. Thank you and glad you got something out of it

  2. March 6, 2021 8:28 pm

    Thanks for the blog Amanda. The palm issue is indeed very complicated. I am asian and I also have a palm oil free skincare brand called Queenie Organics based in London UK. I hadn’t actually thought about the relationship though I guess it is related. I also write a blog on the website and recently wrote about the connection re palm oil and the pandemic (also asian hate related). Should you and one else want to read it- I have also many other links that relate to palm oil argriculture/trade/sustainable futures:

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      March 6, 2021 8:30 pm

      Thank you, I’ll definitely have a look and all the best with your brand

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      March 8, 2021 1:08 pm

      Hi JC and thanks for sending the link – beautifully written article and Arundhati Roy is one of my favourite authors too so nice to see her quoted. We sure are living in complex and multi-faceted times and I agree, we need to all work together and make our intentions count. Best of luck again.

  3. Mary permalink
    March 10, 2021 12:20 am

    Thank you for your insightful post, Amanda. I always appreciate and look forward to your commentary. Keep on digging deep–we need more thinkers like you.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      March 10, 2021 10:25 am

      Thanks Mary, it’s always good to write these ideas out. I found it interesting and worth delving into more.

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