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Defining racism

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An egalitarian society might never be truly achieved, but we will never be there if we don’t start believing in equality, says Nicholas Chan.

Photo courtesy of parenbonjour.com
Photo courtesy of parenbonjour.com

A recent spat in the Penang State Assembly between Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and opposition leader Jahara Hamid spawned the catchphrase “racist grandmother” to which CM Lim has apologised for its sexist connotations, but refused to retract the “racist” allegations, claiming he is only telling the truth.

This has caused a furore within the state opposition, leading them to demand the assembly define the all-too-often used term of racist. The request was turned down by Speaker Law Choo Kiang, who added that assembly members should by right knew what constitutes racism and what does not.

But is that so? Do Malaysians by general know how to differentiate between a statement that reeks of racism and a statement that merely uses ethnic lines for categorisation purposes? Is there a difference between generalisations and stereotyping? And most importantly, what is racism actually?

The public needs to be educated on this. There are too many instances I have come across of people who are confounded when they are accused of being racists, and people who are either too clever or too confused in moving the yardstick for defining racism all the time. It is another case of misused/abused common sense and a golden rule I believed, is needed to set things right.

Paying homage to simplicity, I shall quote the easiest of definitionx for racism, sourced from the Oxford dictionary. Racism is “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races”.

Typically, Malaysians have no difficulty in understanding racism in terms of referring to races other than their own. That means they know at heart that to derogate or worship someone else solely based on the criterion of race is wrong, although whether they do it is another matter.

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But most would not realise that to assume one’s own race is superior or even inferior is also an act of racism. Basically anything that breaches the doctrine of “all men are created equal” through identification by race is tantamount to racism. Any differential treatment, based on the assumption that one is weak or strong because of his/her race, is a racist act.

Unfortunately in Malaysia, this happens a lot. Right wing ultra-nationalistic groups often ask for quotas and preferential treatments because they think their race is weak. Chauvinists, or to coin a similarly catchy adjective, racist chauvinists always in one way or another practise some sort of segregation or exclusion principles bound by a firm belief in racial stereotypes. Any judgment made by assumptions of inferiority or superiority or even specificity by race is racist in nature.

The explanation above would no doubt make a lot of us racists, but it also provides a clear line for distinction, exonerating a lot of commonly known “racist” statements in the process. For example, to say that African Americans dominate the American prison is not racist. It is a fact, albeit a sad one, backed by statistics. However, to say African Americans have criminal tendencies is racist.

Coming back to Malaysia, to say that the Chinese are on average richer than the Bumiputeras is not racist. It is merely stating a fact backed by data. However, to make blanket statements like the Chinese are money greedy or the Bumis are inept businessmen is racist.

But if someone were to point out that the Chinese by general do have better mercantile predisposition as compared to the Malays, that would be a theory. And like all theories, it will need the solid backing of empirical evidence and rational explanation, e.g. citing socio-cultural factors.

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In a globalised world, the boundaries of race are becoming vaguer, and it has become more of a social construct rather than genetic predisposition. It matters more where and how one is raised rather than how one is born. A born and bred Indian Londoner, if severed of all of his cultural and nostalgic ties to India, would act like a perfect Brit. More so if he is not made aware of his outward differences from the Caucasians. Suffice to say, it is harder to define one race group than to define racism by itself.

To escape from the shackles of racism, Malaysians would need to have a stronger grasp of class conscience. The current resurgence of the emphasis on social inclusion indicates the world has taken note of it. Men and women are mostly created equal but not raised equal. Sociocultural, political and economic conditions become the defining factors for one’s life chances, effectively acting as leverages or risks to one’s chance of success.

That is why needs-based policies and merit-based rewards can co-exist with each other but never with race-based policies. It is as insult to assume there is no one within a race group that deserves social aid as it is to assume one needs help just because one is of a particular race.

So going back to Jahara’s accusations, does her statement border on racism? I would say yes, as her basis of query about why certain alleged illegal Malay traders were taken action of while Chinese traders of the same zone were let off insinuated that just because someone is of a particular race, they should be above the law. Whether anyone else of a different race is being punished for their crimes does not exonerate anyone else if they have broken the law.

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Nevertheless, the incident also drives home the importance for any government, be it state or federal, to not practiise any double standards in terms of law enforcement. Such double standards would only invoke perceptions of stratified citizenship, causing a rage of siege mentality and result in many becoming blindly obsessed with the defence of their own race. Such defence mechanisms are mostly empowered by assumptions that are racist in nature, which is further complicated by our legislations and policies that defines race but not racism.

Anyway, at the time of writing, the writer did not come across any solid evidence that the Penang state government is demonstrating any preferential treatment of the traders by race.

That gets us back to what I would call the Mahathir’s dilemma, as the Tun was ever so eager to point out – that the Chinese are strong and the Malays are weak, as if there’s no middle ground and both races are made out of entirely different ingredients, despite our DNA being 99.9 per cent similar.

Our world has moved past the age of apartheid. We shall not reverse whatever Nelson Mendela and Martin Luther King Jr had tenaciously fought for. An egalitarian society might never be truly achieved, but we will never be there if we don’t start believing in equality – be it equality in race, gender, religion or any other predispositions.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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8 Jan 2014 11.13am

The government could respond better I think, instead of pointing out they did take action on Chinese traders too, that sounds a bit tit-for-tat and mildly racist in my opinion. Why not just address everyone as Traders?

But Jahara is still racist because she is asking why the government is taking actions on Malay traders only and attempt to play it like if no non-Malay are taken action off, the Malay traders, despite doing wrong, should be exonerated. That is an assumption of racial superiority.

The state should welcome all allegations of double standards and deal with them, but Jahara should just raise the issue about the non-compliance that is not taken action of, but not fighting for the non-compliance that is taken off, just under the basis of race.

6 Jan 2014 11.54am

Hi, I agree with ur definition of racism. I would like to share my understanding to see whether we are on the same train. From what I understand,based solely on your explanation, is that a statement may be divided into 3 and only one falls under racism, that is: 1)a statement of fact = “Chinese are on average richer than the Bumiputeras” 2)a statement of theory = “Chinese by general do have better mercantile predisposition as compared to the Malays” 3)a statement of generalisation = “Chinese are money greedy or the Bumis are inept businessmen” No 1 and 2 are not racist, and I agree, though No 2 needs further elaboration to be a “not-racist” statement. While No 3 is obviously racist. Having said that, it brings me to my question why do you think ‘Jahara’s accusations’ can be considered racist? I see it as a mere question which can falls under the same category as No 1. Don’t you think the whole incident could had been put to rest if the governing party just explain to her the real situation and affirm that they are… Read more »

2 Jan 2014 1.17pm

Cindy, the superiority and inferiority you referred to are mostly sociocultural products. With the exception of some physical traits which lies heavily on genetic markers. If an Indian is raised like a African for example, those stereotypes you mentioned would be long gone. An easy example would be to see how London Indians speak. Not a tint of the Indian accent could be detected.

Although a lot of tendencies and advantages could be individually dictated, a lot more others are due to our inherited biases and dispositions. For example, a Malay in Malaysia would 99% be raised as a Muslim, and according to current trends, a rather pious ones. Hence it would only be natural for him/her to exhibit certain properties more known to Muslims as compared to a Chinese. But if he/she is raised in a non-Muslim family, the life experiences would be dramatically different.

We are creatures of the environment most of the time, and more often the creatures of the environment we created. Race is one of them.

1 Jan 2014 5.38am

I think each race has their superiority, and inferiority features. For example, most Africans are very good marathorn runners. Or many of the jazz or blues singers are historically blacks from the US. Or the Latinos are excellent dancers etc. And then of course many Indians are doctors or pharmacists, or Jews are business negotiators, Chinese are self-centered etc.

But I think being racist is when we ‘assumed’ a certain race is inferior, and another is superior. I think too we should accept the different ‘unbalanced’ qualities of races. What I mean is, we have to accept some people are just good in certain things, and not good at some others, but then when everything put together is just one good human being. No different from me — I have some good qualities, but I have plenty of bad qualities.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x