Opinion: Half-baked FIVB response to racist gesture by Serbian women’s team is not enough

For those who don’t follow the world of Thai Volleyball, let me give you a quick update. On June 1, Serbian volleyball player, Sanja Djurdjevic, was caught on camera making a slant-eye gesture during a match against the Thai team at the FIVB Volleyball Women’s Nationals League.

Djurdjevic was reportedly trying to gesture to the Serbian team to play defense.

This slant-eye gesture, pulling one’s eyes back to mimic small Asian eyes, is a racially-charged one that perpetuates racism and discrimination. It insensitively mocks those of Asian origin and descent and profusely ignores the history of racism and the othering of Asians. Rightly so, Djurdjevic’s actions sparked outrage online amongst Thai volleyball fans and the Asian community. 

After the incident, Thai volleyball star Pleumjit Thinkaow took to Instagram to post a video forgiving Djurdjevic, saying Djurdjevic “didn’t mean it” and calling for “no drama”. The Serbian Volleyball Federation also issued an apology on their Facebook page in light of all the criticism. But here’s the thing: the apology is hollow, the Federation does nothing to condemn Djurdjevic’s actions, and even has the audacity to ask the public not to “ blow this out of proportion”.

In the #stopasianhate era, racist actions are getting more attention. But visibility and awareness is not enough; we need to demand accountability and change through tangible actions. We can’t let people off the hook after half-hearted apologies that don’t even acknowledge where they went wrong.

The Federation’s apology is a lackluster one that aims to only save their faces without admitting wrongdoing. Instead of calling the incident what it is – a racist slur – they downplay and euphemize it, deeming it merely an “unfortunate gesture”. As if that’s not enough, they go on to gaslight and invalidate the Asian community’s emotions and feelings, imploring the public not to “blow this out of proportion”.

It’s a cheap trick and I’m not buying it. We need to demand accountability through action. Because if we don’t, it’ll just keep happening again.

You might be surprised (or not) to learn that this is also not the first time the Serbian team has done something like this. In 2017, the entire team posed with the same slant-eye gesture to celebrate them making it to the finals in Japan. [See Cover Picture] That alone should have raised red flags and ensured this never happened again, but alas, here we are.

It’s okay to make mistakes; after all, it’s how we grow, learn, and build a world that’s worthy of our children. But when we make a mistake, we have to keep others and ourselves accountable. The age old saying, “actions speak louder than words” holds true.

The Federation could have benched Djurdjevic for a game, for two, for the rest of the competition – they could have done anything. FIVB could have spoken out and taken a stand now and also back in 2017. But no, we see nothing except a meager apology where the perpetrator doesn’t even admit it was a racist gesture, only that they’re sorry that we’re affected by it. As if we’re being too sensitive. 

This is nothing new and I’m tired. “Asian eyes” are the infamous subject of humiliation and alienation for those with Asian descent. We have been historically mocked for our almond-shaped eyes and more recently, Western beauty influencers have culturally appropriated our eye-shape for a fashion trend. 

But enough is enough. We deserve to be treated with respect and grace. Our eyes (and other features) are not objects for the West to colonize and treat with insensitivity no longer. And that can only happen through accountability. 

Thinkaow and the Thai team might have been forgiving, but I am not. Not yet. I’m calling for the Serbian team and FIVB to do better through actions.

Without it, what kind of world are we living in? It’s 2021 and it’s time to start acting like it. 

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