Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

On the Concept of Race

Written by johnleemk on 9:52:52 am May 3, 2005.

Race is one of the most common collective groupings of people. Although some would argue otherwise, generally, people of similar colour and culture are grouped together into one race. Examples of these include the all-encompassing designation of Caucasian or White, the grouping of all Chinese together (in spite of different languages, and minor matters of culture) and Hispanics.

Now, people would argue that race (like the nation state) is a valuable concept. Racial pride and racial identity are often looked upon as values that any upright person should have, particularly in Malaysia. Although the "melting pot" idea (basically, the folding in of all peoples into one race) was popular in the US during the 1960s, lately the concept of preserving one's ethnicity's culture has come into vogue.

But how justified are the values of racial pride and racial identity? How can they coincide with the much-espoused idea of "Bangsa Malaysia", or the Malaysian race? To put it frankly, it's just not possible.

The idea that you should be proud of your racial identity, is to me, extremely abhorrent. To me, race, nationality and gender are labels; they exist only to simplify the process of discrimination, conscious and subconscious. Some people may look at this as extreme, but to me, it's just an accident of birth. I could easily have been born as a squatter child in Colombia, the next Dalai Lama or into the British royalty. In my opinion, one of the most wrong actions a person can commit is discrimination based on a direct accident of birth, positive (i.e. affirmative action) or negative (what we commonly call racism).

To me, being proud that you were born Chinese or American is the same as declaring your pride to have been born a male, or having the honour of sharing the name "John" with John F. Kennedy, the Apostle John, etc. Some may see a hole in this line of reasoning: after all, what is financial status but an accident of birth? Wouldn't this make government-funded financial assistance to poor families stupid? I beg to differ. That is not a direct accident of birth. Somewhere along the line, your family had a position on the financial ladder much higher or lower than you. The same can not possibly be said of race, nationality (sure, an ancestor or two might have been citizen of another country, but wouldn't that represent a reason to avoid jingoism?) or gender (if you discriminate based on gender, accept this pat on the back from me for alienating half your family).

Racial pride, in particular, is extremely bad, because it implies a collective group as a whole is different from other collective groups when it comes to a particular system (culture, etc.). This breeds stereotyping, and other such things. Racial chauvinism can only set you on a slippery slope to Nazism. Sure, you or your children may not be overtly discriminatory (and your discrimination is likely to be more positive than negative). But multiplied over generations, racial pride becomes extremely detrimental.

Case in point: Nazi Germany. Hitler not only espoused pride in being Aryan, but also emphasised how Jews, Asians, and other non-Aryans were a scourge on the face of the Earth. Let's just face it; positive discrimination in favour of one collective group is nothing more than negative discrimination against all other collective groups.

Unfortunately, as long as we are of different cultures and skin colours, we can never fully eliminate discrimination based on race. It's just subconscious: Malaysian Chinese, when you see an Indonesian in a hard hat, do you see a menial labourer or someone just like you in different financial circumstances? White Americans, when you see a teenaged Black, do you think of a gangsta' rapper or just another teenager?

Of course, naturally, this can be applied to other direct accidents of birth, like gender or nationality. However, unlike gender, the issue of race can be resolved more thoroughly: through interracial breeding. Why? Because when your parents are from two different races, it's helluva lot harder to be biased in favour of any one race (you could be biased in favour of both, but from what I've found, most people simple-minded enough to become racial chauvinists can't handle elevating two instead of just one race above all others).

Filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad (she directed Sepet, a film on interracial love, if I'm not mistaken, and also directed an advertisement about rudeness on the Light Rail Transit, or LRT, that led to criticism in Parliament for supposedly portraying Malays in bad light) recently argued in the New Straits Times that "Bangsa Malaysia" would lead to homogenity. I don't believe that's true. Look at the US, for example. I know one fellow that can point to his Native American, Black, and Caucasian ancestry. America is a pastiche of all sorts of cultures, not just Anglo-Saxon (although they do dominate). The point is, though, that they can see beyond their differences because of this acceptance that comes largely from free mixing between races that often leads to interracial marriage (or to be more precise, interethnic marriage, since a Swede marrying a Dutch doesn't really seem to be "interracial"). They don't lose their traditions; this is not a zero-sum game. Instead, they create new ones, melding their old traditions and cultures together. There is still no American race or American culture, per se, but you can't deny that while remaining keenly aware of their heritage, Americans have forged their own traditions.

Of course, the naysayers have an excellent point about how this would work in Malaysia — strict religious differences make this difficult. I agree, but difficult does not mean impossible. Looking over the long term, I believe it is possible that a "Bangsa Malaysia" will emerge. Time will, hopefully, slowly wear down the barriers facing integration. Okay, fine, this is hopelessly optimistic, but we can dream, right?

Some chauvinists take a different route of opposition to interracial mixing; they would have you believe that it is better for Whites to preserve the White genes, and Blacks to preserve the Black genes, because each is innately superior in certain ways to the other (for example, Blacks are less likely to get sunburned). I disagree, however. Are we not taught in science that mixed breeding often produces superior results than a limited pool of genes? This is why in humans, siblings don't engage in intercourse; not only is it gross and disgusting, but the children will be retarded. The same, in my opinion, applies to race. If Hitler's race of Supermen ever appear, it will not be because of racial purity which preserves a particular race's weaknesses as well as strengths, but because of a succesful mixture of races.

Naturally, there will be those who object. However, again, I ask, what is race, but ancestry? It's just an easy way out to avoid thinking of that Malay beggar or Pakistani construction worker as someone on an equal status as you, as a human being. It's so much simpler to stereotype, and race makes it a very easy process.

After all, why aren't there different Chinese sub-races? There is little to no sense of racial pride in being Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, etc. Likewise with Indians; rarely are they classed as Hindis and Tamils but judged as Indians as a whole. And don't get me started on the Caucasians.

If there is one accident of birth collective unit that should be continued, I believe it is the family. Why? Again, I ask, what is race, but ancestry? Your family are your ancestors, no? I would rather be proud of my family, simply because the concept of a family is so muddy and unclear, and families so small, that no effective, clear-cut discrimination can come out of them. My family has a set of unique traditions, languages and culture. Not my race. How can I say that, when the way my family celebrates the Chinese New Year varies so largely from how most other Chinese families do so? How can I say I take pride in Chinese culture when the only Chinese festival we pay any attention to is the Chinese New Year? It's simple: I can't. And neither can anyone else.

Of course, there will be those vehemently criticising me for fomenting hatred and criticism of one's own race. Well, I don't really care if you insult all Chinese or Filipinos, since I don't attach any importance to those labels. I do care if you insult my family. Let's ask a larger question or two, though: Am I advocating a contempt for the race you were born into? Am I trying to foster a hatred for your native traditions, way of life and language? If that is all you can read into this essay, I would suggest a broadening of your intellect. I am preaching tolerance and acceptance, not hatred and belligerence.

I accept who I am. I was born into a family whose roots are in China and the Philippines, and as a result, has an odd mixture of Western, Filipino and Chinese culture and traditions. I don't detest this or wish I had been born as someone of another race. I accept it. I don't use it as an excuse to claim bragging rights, though. I couldn't care less that Chinese made some of the world's greatest inventions, because they're only human, too. Who closed China to the outside world? Who decided that producing steel was a better idea than growing rice, at the expense of millions of lives? I care more that my father has a doctorate from a respected university, or that my uncles are high-ranking officers in the Philippines' Army.

I don't use this as an excuse to discriminate, though. Why? Because it's stupid. Just like how racial discrimination is stupid. Just like how racial pride is stupid.

Of course, we still have to face up to the fact that we are all uniquely different. The problem is, race hides the fact that we are all individuals. Yes, Blacks may make great athletes or rappers, but so do Whites (Eminem, anyone?). Sure, statistically, there are more Black runners or rappers than Whites, but race is no ticket guaranteeing success if you sign a recording contract with a random Black off the street.

There are still cases where it may be that a Black would be a better candidate for a job, for example, because the requirements involve resistance to sunburn. But I don't believe this can be used as an example of where racial discrimination is justified. I believe in judging people as individuals, not as collective groups, unless they directly stick their neck out (i.e., like it or not, the President of the US and the US ambassadors to other nations are its face to the outside world). After all, let's keep in mind that a naturally dark-skinned Caucasian might be just as suited to the job as a Black.

Concluding this drawn-out monologue, I reiterate my earlier statements in point form:

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