Wednesday, October 01, 2008

We are Racists. Or are We?

Note: This is modified from a post in ReCom.

Racism is the national conversation topic in Malaysia. Everyday we talk about racism, and some of us (hopefully not all) let out racist rants to the like-minded audience. In fact, "Do you think everyone is a racist" is often a good conversation starter when we run out of a topic in a gathering. And as you might expect, most people would answer "yes" to this question. However, I beg to differ. In my opinion, before we decide who's racist and who's not, it's important for us to have a good discussion about what constitutes "racism".

After all these years discussing about racism in ReCom and in real life, I have come to make the observation that the whole issue is muddied by the fact that almost everyone has drastically different yardsticks on the boundaries of racism. What is considered racism by me may sound perfectly innocuous to you; and vice versa.

For example, consider these examples:

  • "Indians are among the poorest in Malaysia"
  • "In general, Chinese do the best academically in Malaysia"
  • "Malays are becoming lazier due to NEP"
So, tell me, which line is racist and which line is not? What happens if it was a Malay who said the last line? What if it's Lim Kit Siang? Or a foreign journalist? Does your perceived racist-ness change whether the second line is said by a Malay, a Chinese, or an academic report produced by the Ministry of Education? I believe that most people do change the perception, and that highlights the point that the definition of racism differs not only between people, but also within a person depending on the context. This is an important reason why people feel unsure whether they are a racist themselves - they are entrapped by their own inconsistency in judging racism.

If you ask me, I would say all three lines above ARE NOT racist. Yes they categorise according to races and make a sweeping generalisation about it, but these lines per se do not cast any prejudice and are NOT discriminatory. In fact, if you ask any rational person on the street, all three lines are as factual as "Obese people die earlier than the rest of us". Therefore these lines are as much racist as saying obese people die earlier makes me a weight-ist.

At this point you might wonder that given the lenient boundary I draw for racism, nothing much can be considered racism anymore and the whole discussion would be moot. However, that would be inaccurate. Off my mind, I can think of a few outright racist examples:
  • "HAHAHA, look at those Indian kids, they are so dark I don't think we can even see them at night!!"
  • "Chinese robbed the land and opportunity from us, and they should either be satisfied with what they have or go back to Tongsan"
  • "Malays are annoying"
I guess I don't have to explain why each one constitutes as being racist. In fact, the first one tends more towards delinquency and immaturity than towards racism. The second and the third line are what we often hear from our friends, and true enough, they are racist - they are discriminatory and based on the belief that a race is inherently superior or inferior than the others.

I would just end my little spiel here with one addition - ascribing a character to someone based on race without ascertaining the person itself, IS racist and foolish. For example, "You are Malay so you are lazy" is racist. That might sound obvious, but if you take a good look around, you would see just how many people do that on a regular basis. In this case, you would then have a good reason to think you are a racist.