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Time to reflect more deeply on race and who we are

Very often, racial discrimination covers over social class discrimination


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Recently, we have had many posts about Malaysia’s impending general election.

Others like political scientists, historians and economists are much more qualified than I am to look into the politics and policies which the country should have.

Aliran has had many recent posts on the need to rejuvenate and rebuild the nation under the pithy slogan “Reclaim the nation: People first, democracy now“. Readers may want to refer to these informative posts.

My reflections in this essay will focus on less tangible but no less important questions: Who are we when we think of our race? How do we view others outside our race? Are we alert to the differences within our own race? Do we see the differences within any one race outside our own racial group? Or have we been fed so many stereotypes we cannot see the complex human beings we live among?

Giving time to these issues may arguably be as crucial as pondering on public policies, statistics and edicts.

Some politicians have claimed on webinars and other public spotlight avenues that they want to do away with discriminatory practices, whether in policies or government programmes.

With the general election on the horizon, other politicians will promise the moon to multi-racial citizens if they are standing in multi-racial constituencies. With political wins in mind, they will spew out the rhetoric of equity, fairness and democracy for all. As the words of a popular song tell us, “promises, promises” are dirt cheap.

Yet all may not be lost because I believe, after reading the thinker Franz Fanon, the people, whom we often patronisingly conclude are like sheep, have the ability, says Fanon, to “exceed” our theories about them or our stereotypes about their ignorance.

The citizenry (the rakyat) may not be as easily fooled as we pessimistically and prematurely conclude. In fact, they may see more than people in think tanks.

Stereotypes are dangerous simplifiers; they flatten out the many life-enhancing dimensions of a person, whatever her race, social class or intellectual background.

I firmly refuse to let my students get ‘high’ on stereotypes in their oral or written work. Stereotypes are born out of anger and fear – never calm, mature, balanced thinking. Or they can be birthed by arrogance.

I do so pray we will all take time to encourage our children and our friends, both young and old, to inoculate themselves against stereotypes like they vaccinate against a virus and encourage them to meditate on what it means to live in a multi-racial and multicultural nation.

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In the political arena, many do use stereotypes to divert attention from larger-than-life villains in their own political groups, shifting blame to other races who are repeatedly seen as “disloyal”, “greedy”, “communal”.

Villains are always others, never their own ‘comrades’, whom they must protect for numerous unmentionable reasons. The baddies are inevitably out there, never in our own space.

How long will people allow such seductive fantasising to blind them and wreck their moral compass? How long will we turn villains into ‘heroes’ who can boss us about just because they are from our own race?

My thoughts in this essay are enriched by reading two African-American thinkers: Henry Louis Gates Jr, a professor of African-American studies at Harvard, and Zora Neale Hurston, a renowned African-American anthropologist, folklorist and dramatist.

Rereading their work refreshes me and their honesty and humour dispel gloom. We have too long been mired in gloom these days, what with Covid restrictions, economic inequity and political shenanigans.

Proud as he is of his African-American heritage, Gates Jr yet critiqued the narrow confines, the walls engendered by race pride: in his own words: “I rebel at the notion that I can’t be part of other groups, that I can’t construct identities though elective affinity, that race must be the most important thing about me.”

We too may have felt this way. We want to be able to choose other groups we can enjoy “elective affinity” with, knowing that our identity can only be enriched by such associations if we have confidence in our own roots. We jump out of that coconut shell where, like the proverbial frog, we have long been hiding.

Only the insecure hide beneath coconut shells. Or perhaps some prefer to do so because there are monetary rewards and so will only jump when there are personal gains? We must each answer to our own conscience for our life choices.

But a word of warning culled from Gates Jr is timely. He asks: “Is that what I want on my gravestone: Here lies an African American?”

Is race our only legacy and our one big identity marker after we are gone? Should our humanity be reduced to race and race only?

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The anguish of wanting a racial belonging and yet wanting other enriching affinities is best expressed by Gates Jr himself: “So I am divided. I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling black at any particular time.”

But what is even more important to us are the sentences which follow this anguished cry (which I highlight in italics). Gates Jr tells us he affirms what it means to be black “in order to come out the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colourless nor reducible to colour”.  

What does he mean? Quite simply, he advocates a racial identity that is flexible enough to extend a brotherly hand to all because we recognise and value all humanity whatever the skin colour.

Our own national laureates, Usman Awang and Muhammad Haji Salleh, of whom I have written in Aliran, similarly exhibit a confident celebrating of multi-racial Malaysia because they see the humanity of each person regardless of race. And they can feel this because they are confident about their own racial tradition and heritage.

We must try to teach and practise this kind of confident humanism. Rhetoric is mere hot air unless we act on our beliefs in daily life. This is the legacy we should endeavour to leave behind us.

Turning now to Zora Neale Hurston, I admire the way she can stand within her community and yet outside it and so be an astute, insightful, honest observer who sees all the faults, small and large, of her own community.

As one critic of her autobiography, Francoise McCumber, perceptively explains, as anthropologist and folklorist, Hurston is “simultaneously appealing to, and debunking the cultural traditions” her autobiography “helps to define”.

Shahnon Ahmad, another national laureate of ours, similarly but arguably with less layering, shows the negatives in rural life in his autobiographical text titled Detik-detik Dari Daerah Daif (Moments From A Weak Place), which I have analysed elsewhere.

Brave, critical re-looking at the past of any group is crucial if we do not want to be mired in a romantic fantasy of an Edenic past.

Examine carefully the historical past of our own group. Avoid unthinking, near-hysterical pride in our racial past. Human beings, of whatever race, have always had greed, envy, lust for power. And yet, many have also revealed compassion, fairness and justice.

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We need to see our own community not through rose-coloured lenses but with a fine microscope in order to calibrate a just balance. The faults are not inevitably committed by other races. We have enough villains in our own group.

The well-known Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, whose classic novel Things Fall Apart is taught worldwide, reminds us that his own Ibo tribal past was not a glorious “technicolour idyll”. It was never a paradise; it saw power struggles between warriors and discrimination between rich and poor.

Indeed, very often, racial discrimination covers over social class discrimination. Do we not have a huge divide between the very rich and the very poor in any one racial group in this country? Are the homeless, living under bridges in cities only of one race and all drug addicts and lazy blokes?

Certainly not. As Dr Mustafa K Anuar writes, poverty is not the preserve of any one ethnic group. Dire economic constraints, the high costs of living, can drive people of all races to homelessness. With the rising costs of essential foodstuffs, people of all races may be on the road to sharp hunger, even to near starvation.


And it is here in the nooks and corners of poverty and of human suffering that we must exercise the compassion that all great religions teach. It is here we must see the complex human being and rise above our fruitless stereotypes about a person. Race should no longer stand like an unmovable mountain between us and our humanism.

I am an admirer of those religious and non-governmental organisations that will unhesitatingly rush to help people regardless of race. Can and will we instil this love of people in our children if we do not feel this love for others ourselves?  

It is not only in our relationship with the needy or during disasters that we should show compassion. At all times, kindness should guide our every action in this multi-racial land we love.

I invite us all to reflect on Hurston’s words about identity, about who we can be. She tells us: “I do not want to close the frontiers of life upon my own self. I do not wish to deny myself the expansion of seeking into individual capabilities and depths by living in a space whose boundaries are race and nation.”

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.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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Dr Wong Soak Koon is a longtime member and former executive committee member of Aliran. She gained a first-class honours BA degree and a masters in English literature from the University of Malaya and a doctorate in English Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied under a Harvard-Yenching fellowship
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Paul Lim
Paul Lim
5 Jun 2022 3.18pm

This a an important article when we are in a time where ethnic identity politics and ethno-nationalism is on the rise.

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