Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Racism Within

John Malott,
former US Ambassador
to Malaysia
Recently, John Malott's article in the Wall Street Journal concerning racism in Malaysia sparked a furore of protests, praises and controversy. Many bloggers have spoken out for and against Malott's views, with a sort of cyber war going on.

This blogger is not going to join that war. In fact, this blogger is not going to deny or support any of the issues discussed in the aforementioned article. I will simply tell you of something that is often ignored.

While the non-Malays are complaining of pro-Malay racism; and Malays are accusing non-Malays of sacrilege and religious desecration, we forget that we are all guilty of racism. We forget that while we have one index finger pointing at one another, we have the other fingers pointing at ourselves. 

Now before I am labelled as unpatriotic by the zealots, blasphemous by religious figures, and a fool by others, I implore you to reflect upon the validity of my statement. Let's imagine you are in the car. You are driving peacefully when you see a driver not of your race nearly cause an accident by overtaking you without signalling, at breakneck speed. What do you think of then? Cina babi? Stupid Malay? Bloody Indian? Perhaps you might say that those thoughts were out of impulse. Very well then. Consider another situation. You are sitting on the train. You see this man, and he walks into the train. When you look at him, is not his race one of the first things that pop up in your mind? There is bound to be some form of racism, where we judge and evaluate a person first and foremost by race.

Where does this racism start? From our upbringing. From a very young age, our parents tell us what Malaysia is. They tell us their views of the world, and being young and malleable, we follow and listen and take it all in. We are told that the Chinese are mata duit, greedy, cheating liars; that the Malays are lazy and use the government as a tongkat; that the Indians are keling, pariah, and dirty- and being so believing of our parents, we accept these views unquestioningly. And when we have children of our own, we unwittingly create this culture of racism, a vicious cycle going on and on and on.

As a child, I had a fear of the dark. I feared the darkness because I could not see what monsters were lurking in the shadows, because I did not know what horrors awaited me. I feared, and thus hated, because I did not understand. And this is what is happening today.  We are kept in the dark about each other. As our society moves to segregate, categorize, label, and divide people according to race, we are interacting with each other less, talking with each other less, eating together less. We are understanding each other less, and therefore since we cannot comprehend each other, we fear and hate each other. We are falling under the ease of stereotyping and generalizing.

And that is the sin we are all guilty of. Just as a ping pong ball must be returned to the hitter for the game to continue, the game of racism can only continue if both sides return volleys and hits. Some may argue that we have no choice because racism is used against us, therefore we must respond in kind. Nation A fires on  Nation B, therefore Nation B must fire on Nation A. The result? More fire, more lives lost. Being racist to the those who practice racism is not going to make them less racist. In fact, it will only give them more reason to be racist, and we will be stooping down to their level. Racism only leads to more racism. As Mohandas K. Gandhi once said, 'An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.'

Instead of outright complaining against each other, we should all reflect upon ourselves and ask if we are guilty of racist thoughts as well. Parents should stop this culture of race generalisation, and all races should interact with each other sincerely and thoughtfully, so that we can understand one another. Separating young students according to race in schools, as one educator wanted to after racial fights sprung up in schools, is just going to fuel misunderstanding of one another. We should not be separated- laundry is the only thing that should be separated by color. So the next time you look at someone, try not to think of their race first. And when we can reach that stage of looking at each other, and we recognize each other as members of the nation, and then, and only then, as members of our race, it is then that our nation can truly be 1Malaysia.

Let me begin this process of inflection by admitting that I have been guilty of racism.

Years ago, I embarked on my first bus journey home.  It was an alien environment for me; I had always had the privilege of having my parents fetch me home, and the run-down, dusty bus made me feel like Alice in Wonderland, lost and lonely. The other students spoke in rough tones, their speech littered with Cantonese expletives from time to time. They were of all ages, and all of them were Chinese, with the exception of one boy. This Indian boy was the subject of constant ridicule, bullying, and mockery, but he just took it all in, always a blank stare boring into the greasy metal floor. Words like ‘keling’ flew around, carelessly and callously. Being from a family that always taught me all humans were equal, and having friends of other races myself, I was shocked and shamed by their conduct. But I did nothing, being afraid and alone. And by doing nothing, I had effectively condoned and allowed such a blatant act of racism continue, I had become an accomplice. By my silence, I had contributed to the chaos that ensued. 

I often think back to that moment and wish I had done something. But I cannot change the past, and so I am now trying to change the present, for a better future. Racism may be institutionalized in Malaysia, but racism is also internalized in all of us. Fight racism inside yourself, then carry that fight to the world.

"Be the change you want to see in the world."
- Mahatma Gandhi

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