November 19, 2010

Racism, racialism or brownwashing?

IS the language used by Malaysians to reflect their aspirations being diluted in recent years? Words like unity and inclusiveness are now used like never before, but seem to mean even less. These aspirations can be diluted by co-opting the language used, or in some cases re-defining it.

A possible example is a recent article that highlighted the different forms of racism; the "systematic oppression supported by an ideology on the inferiority of the victims based solely on race" (eg those experienced by Jews and African slaves) – in which is exclusively termed "racism", and that which is "mere racial prejudice, racial chauvinism, etc to be called "racialism". It was argued that it was politically and morally incorrect to use "racism" in our Malaysian context, but that what we have is "racialism".

It was suggested that by appreciating our problem to be not as bad, then we would be able to address the issue better. But in our Malaysian context, redefining terms this way doesn’t help and may even be damaging. We do not need to reduce a problem before addressing it. Are Malaysians supposed to be less concerned because our Asian experience of racial prejudice isn’t as bad as those oppressed by the Nazis?

If the aim is to reduce divisiveness and demoralisation among people; mature dialogue, and having those in power able to manage the situation aptly and justly would help, not by diluting the message and telling people to appreciate their problems to be less than the Holocaust.

It was also suggested that by using the term racism in our Malaysian context, we belittle the terrible sufferings of those it defined as "real racism", whitewash past atrocities, and insult the historic struggles of great leaders such as Martin Luther King.

I believe Malaysians have no interest in "whitewashing" or belittling the terrible sufferings of holocaust victims or African slaves, nor to my knowledge have oppressed groups raised this concern. But by attempting to redefine racism as used by Malaysians to be "racialism" and "not so bad", isn’t that akin to "whitewashing" (or since we are Asians, shall we say "brownwashing") the racial problem in Malaysia?

If King were alive today, I’m guessing he will not be so hung up on the term, but would rather empower us to recognise the prejudice that, if encouraged and allowed its space in society, can manifest into its worst forms.

Most definitions today define "racism" and "racialism" to be the same, and some even define "racialism" to be a neutral term as an "emphasis on race or racial considerations, as in determining policy or interpreting events." Why further dilute and confuse what we mean to say? Perhaps a quote from a historian and friend sums it up well: "You do not need to gas a whole community before calling it racism."

Re-defining terms the public have been using (and that which is widely used) but authoritatively stating it as fact, is a tad insidious in diluting the message when people are speaking out against an injustice.

We can collectively and proactively address the issue, but not by immature reactionary measures, PR campaigns that gloss over issues, or by redefining terms that dilute public discussions. It would, however, help if we can acknowledge and deal with whatever prejudices there are in our society, and we can do so responsibly without making things worse when we ourselves are mindful of our own prejudices.

Published in The Sun, Wed, 29 Sep 2010

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