Thursday, 8 May 2008

of race and colour

since deborah wrote her post entitled "where did i learn my racism", i've been thinking that i should write a corresponding piece along the lines of "where did i learn about racism". wherein, i would document my experiences of racism toward me, particularly growing up in new zealand. however, thinking about it, i didn't like the construction of the two titles in that way. it puts me in the position of victim, while putting deborah in the position of aggressor; neither of which roles are attractive or accurate. also, it's not really what her post is about.

so let me reframe the question for myself: when did i become conscious of being a coloured person; conscious of having an ethnicity that was different from the norm?

surprisingly, or maybe not, i can't pinpoint an exact occasion or an age when i became aware of this. i left india when i was less than 2 years old, so have no conscious memory of living there as a baby. ever since i can remember, i've been a racial minority. and because it was always so, it never occured to me for quite a long time, that things could be otherwise. being different was normality for me.

i remember being the only indian, in fact the only asian (i'm using the dept of statistics definition of asian here) at both primary schools i attended. i remember isolation. i remember being asked "what does is feel like being indian?". weird question, and around 7 years old, i had no answer. i remember my mum coming home from some charity event she'd been helping with at school, absolutely fuming because someone had asked her if her daughter (ie me) was going to have an arranged marriage. i couldn't see the problem, as practically every person i ever came across (brown or white) would ask me if i was going to have an arranged marriage. i thought that's just what people did. she snapped at me "i don't ask them how their daughters are going to get married". this must be the first time i became aware of a double standard.

i think it wasn't really until i reached my teenage years that i became really conscious of colour and race. i visited india when i was twelve, after a ten-year gap. one thing i remember distinctly was the very odd feeling of no longer standing out in a crowd. i was just another brown face in a sea of brown faces, and that was a good and bad thing. good because i felt a strong sense of belonging, that was comforting and comfortable. bad because i was no longer someone special, someone distinct and different and therefore automatically noticed.

one memory that i do have to share is of my brother coming home from kindy one day. there's quite an age difference between us, so i was in my teens. at 4 years old, he pinched the skin on his arm and said "why do i have to be this colour? why can't i be like everyone else?" all i can remember is feeling a deep sadness that a child his age was aware of such a thing. it didn't help that he was the only, yes only, coloured child at the kindy of about 60 kids. there weren't even any maori kids.

of course religion was always a part of the equation as well. being muslim meant i dressed differently, i didn't eat the same things as everyone else; in fact there were so few points of commonality with the world around me that it's hardly surprising that i felt so isolated from it. i don't feel that so much anymore. partly because i've matured, partly because the demographics of the country have changed, partly because the world has become much more globalised so that foreign countries and cultures are no longer so far away, and partly because racism has been exposed for the ugly thing that it is.

it would be wrong of me to not to mention that my experience of racism includes brown people being racist towards white people. it goes like this: these white people are shameless with few morals, they lived like animals, and we must never become like them. they have no family values, are addicted to drugs and alcohols, etc etc etc. the diatribe is no different, the hatred and anger and distrust follow exactly the same pattern as white racism towards coloured people. the only difference is that the brown people, being a minority in this country, are rarely in a position of power, at least not in sufficient numbers, to do any significant damage.

and it's even more complicated than that. if you go to the middle east, the level of racism against south asians is high, and against blacks is higher still. within india, you have the caste system as well as religious tensions. i'm sure you could pick absolutely any country in the world, and there is a minority group or a section of society that bears the brunt of bigotry. i guess racism by white people is so much more prominent because it has, worldwide, caused the most damage; at least in recent history (i'm talking the last three to four hundred years).

the crux of the matter then comes down to this. why does one group of people need to feel superior to another group of people? what is it in the human psyche that makes us want to look down on others? it's something that manifests itself in so many ways; racism is just the most obvious and ugly of them. academics will often feel superior to the uneducated; the rich will look down on the poor; the thin will look down on the overweight (funny that it was the other way around 100 years ago!). i'm sure you can think of many more examples.

my own analysis is that the cause is insecurity; a lack of inner confidence and a confusion about our own place in the world. from my experience of interfaith activities, i've found that it's the people who are the most grounded in their own faith and spirituality, most confident in their relationship with their creator, who work best in an interfaith environment. they are the ones who are most able to respect and work with difference, because they respect and are sure of themselves.

so is that the answer? in order to reduce racism, we need first to inculcate a love of one's self and one's own culture, race, ethnicity. i'm ok, you're ok. in that order. it's a good place to start.


Shadia Rahman said...

I enjoyed your post.

As well as insecurity about one's own cultural background, I think that a fear of "the other" also lies at the heart of racism. Australians in particular seem to have a kind of "schizophrenic racism" - as in "Those bloody Italians blah blah blah. Oh, but Joe Linguini down the road, he's a great guy." Once they know somebody, generally, the stereotypes fall away in respect of that person.

Also, I think sometimes that it's a fear of change. For example, in a sense, we're used to Chinese and Indians being poor and struggling, and so the idea that they should come to our lands and live well - or even that they should use more of the world's resources in their now booming economies - somehow doesn't sit right. It doesn't fit with how we have always known things to be - which is that "Anglo" and European people are well off, and the rest of the world isn't (not that we believe that's fair - it's just the way the world is.) This could be why younger generations seem to be - in general - much more accepting of diversity in origin, culture and religion, because it's something they've grown up with.

Obviously, though, there will always be idiots of the Cronulla variety, who really do seem to be insecure.

Keep up the good work.

Deborah said...

I know there's some research around about the in-group out-group thing that human beings do, but the best I could do on a google search was this article on The Exclusion Principle, and a New York Times piece on research about how, but not why, the brain distinguishes race. NB - just because we all do it, doesn't make it morally right (that would be the naturalistic fallacy), and as you point out Anjum, it's when the in-group out-group thing gets tied up in power structures that some real problems start.

What your post highlights for me is something I talked about in my post, that I just don't get racism from the inside, the way I get sexism from the inside. It's not that I don't realise that it's real, or that it's pernicious, and a moral evil. It's that my understanding of it is a academic / learned-from-books understanding, not one learned from experience. One of the consequences of that is that while instances of gross and blatant racism leap out at me (for example, those illustrations in Amanda Marcotte's book, and Senator Clinton's latest remarks about the white vote, and the way that police carried out the raids in Ruatoki, I don't perceive more subtle racism, in the way that I nearly always pick up sexism. (This is intended to be a descriptive statement about me; not a self-flagellation.) What it suggests to me is that when a woman, or man, of colour says that something is racist, then in the first instance my response must be to trust her on it. I suppose I might change my mind on reflection, but I would have to have some very good reasons indeed for not accepting the lived experience of being the subject of racism.

Fantastic post!

stargazer said...

hi sis, thanx for the comments! i'd have to agree.

deborah, some years ago i remember steve maharey - going back to his sociologist roots - using the word "propinquity" (see to explain this effect, especially in terms of exclusion. he was using it to describe why migrants (well, coloured migrants) have more difficulty in getting a job when they have equivalent qualifications. i don't think he meant the word as an excuse but more as an explanation, in terms of understanding the problem and how to deal with it.

looking at this
the solution then depends on creating opportunities for people to get to know each other better (except if you have "ulterior motives"!. it's always the best way to overcome racism, and explains why there's much less racism in auckland than in other parts of the country ie more ethnic diversity, more opportunities to get to know people so less room for racism.

Anonymous said...

About educated people feeling superior- the uneducated often feel superior to academics, too. Talk about ivory towers, being out of touch, things being "just theory" and so on occurs a lot. I'm not sure what to call it exactly without being offensive to someone- is it elitism versus tall-poppy syndrome? *shrug*

I think the only way to live without this sort of thing is to just view everyone as human beings, all with their own different qualities that are both good and bad. While we're obviously all going to engage in some sort of bias at one point or another, the important thing is that we avoid acting on it where we notice it, and be ready to listen to other people's concerns when we don't. :)

Julie said...

Anjum this is an absolutely fantastic post, very thought provoking, thanks so much for contributing it.

Like Deborah I falter when it comes to having that innate understanding of racism. What I do get though is the fear of difference that the majority (not necessarily in terms of numbers but in terms of power) sometimes seem to exhibit, as individuals or as a group.

I can distinctly remember feeling uncomfortable in settings when I was the only woman, or the only white person, or the only one under 50, or whatever. And I can remember the discomfort of others in those situations if I broke The Rules, eg spoke, argued, whatever.

I'm not sure I could have imagined what it was truly like to be Other, in an ethnic/racial/cultural sense, until I travelled to Dubai, where as a white woman I was often the only female on a bustling city street. Even then, as a white skin and a tourist, I was privileged and thus afforded some protection from the full glare of being Other (plus I got to go first in the long queue at the post office).

I find Sheri S Tepper's series that includes Grass a very interesting examination of prejudice, in particular racism. She looks at whether racism is soft- or hard-wired and seems to conclude that in most it is only soft-wired and can be changed by exposure to difference and by isolating those who are soft from those who are hard-wired. Has anyone else read these books and maybe has the same or a different interpretation from me?