On Race and Racism
Racism. Migration. Immigration. BREXIT. Fundamentalism. Extremism. Border control. Birthright. Words we hear in the news every single day. People around the world are being persecuted for the colour of their skin, the God that they pray to, the ancestral tribe to which they belong and the politics that they follow. None of which makes any logical, rational sense. Yet, here we are still discussing, debating, and deciphering what to do. Life is not meant to be like this. We were meant to get better, be better. So why does it feel like all the lessons we were supposed to have learned from mistakes made in generations past were actually emotions that weren't resolved but merely simmering under the surface and now boiling over?
I never defined myself by my race. For me, my race and religion were things that were a part of me. Like the colour of my skin, they were things I didn't question, have any control over, or feel the need to address. They just were/are. It wasn't a question of pride (or lack of) nor was it something I felt I needed to compensate for or defend. Even when people would stare at me when I would be riding a bus with my mother when I was a kid living in Hong Kong, I couldn't understand why they would be pointedly looking at me. I never felt like I was different because that sense of being "different" was just foreign to me. I was fortunate to feel that way. Naive and fortunate. It was a luxury bestowed upon me through the challenges and difficulties my parents endured so that I would never have to. Growing up I was fully aware of where my family was from, what religion we believed in, but apart from eating Indian food at times or going to the temple on a Sunday morning our life wasn't any different from anyone else's. So why would I feel different?
Perhaps that sense of being different begins with a very innocuous question: where are you from? For me, that question doesn't have a simple answer. But I guess when you live in a country that you're not indigenous to it is a question that would seem inevitable. But imagine being born and growing up somewhere not realising that that's not actually where you're "from." So many of us are asked that question. The American playwright David Henry Hwang told me in 2013 when I interviewed him in Hong Kong, "I thought of myself as a regular American, when I was a kid, whatever that means...People go 'they're Asian Americans, oh where are you from?' And you go, 'oh I'm from Los Angeles' and they go 'no, where are you really from?' So you know this whole notion that as an Asian American you must be from someplace else, you're not actually from America. But at this point it's interesting that a lot of younger people have this notion of transculturalism, which is different from when I was young and trying to promote this notion of multiculturalism. Transculturalism, being of multiple identities, hybrid indentities, being able to acknowledge that you're from the various influences that have gone into making you who you are."
When I was a kid it never dawned on me that someone had to be "from" somewhere. I figured we just were. It's a very existential way of looking at things. Kwame Anthony Appiah, the author and Professor of Philosophy and Law and NYU coins it in her paper The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity as, "existence precedes essence; we are before we are anything in particular." And truth be told, that's how kids think. I know I did. I was like everyone else before I thought of myself as "anything in particular."
We know that kids meeting other kids for the first time only see each other as another little person with whom they can play. I know that is what it has been like for my son. He's excited to just see other children with whom he can run around in the playground or with whom he has a shared love for Lightning McQueen (from Cars) or Paw Patrol. He doesn't see colour and the other kids don't see colour in him. Nelson Mandela once said that, "No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart that its opposite." And this love is most purely seen in and through children. So when are we conditioned to look at someone and define them, judge them, or even ourselves, through our race? Please don't mistake this question or this statement, or even this entire blog as a means for one to not be proud of who they are. All I am wondering is why after so much time, so many generations, are we still believing that someone is either less than or more than because of something they have no control over?
When I interviewed the author Salman Rushdie in India in 2013 he told me, "unfortunately, we live in an age of identity politics. People have been encouraged to define themselves on what makes them angry. I would say that the more healthy definition of the self is to define it in terms of things that you value and care about and love. But now we seem to be, well many of us, seem to be defining ourselves by what we hate. And that rage becomes a badge of identity, becomes a kind of selfhood." And that rage has seen itself manifested in terror attacks on all continents. Even places of worship aren't safe havens, with attacks on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012, churches in South Carolina and Texas in 2015 and 2017, a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, and the most recent attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. For some, it is an anger at what has been done to them, or what they perceive has been done to them. For others it is the fear of losing their perceived place in a self-constructed social hierarchy that their ancestors had once decided was the rule of law.
In 2018, the ADL Centre on Extremism, a civil rights group tracking terror-related incidents in the U.S., released a report which found that "white supremacist and other right-wing violence are currently the deadliest active domestic extremist movements in America, accounting for 71% of domestic extremist-related killings in the U.S., while Islamic extremism was at 26%. And staying in the United States, we still see some things African Americans, or other communities can't do--like walk down a street without being harassed, have their car pulled over without fear of being arrested, beaten up, jailed, or even killed. Last year a report Mapping Police Violence was released and it revealed, "Most unarmed people killed by police were people of colour." It would go on to say, "black people were more likely to be killed by police, more likely to be unarmed and less likely to be threatening someone when killed." A sad statement to the fact that barely anything had changed with time. The Smithsonian Magazine wrote that, "In 1929, the Illinois Association for Criminal Justice published the Illinois Crime Survey. Conducted between 1927 and 1928, the survey...provided data on police activity—although African-Americans made up just five percent of the area's population, they constituted 30% of the victims of police killings..." As the Pulitzer Prize winning rapper Kendrick Lamar said in Vanity Fair, "When I look at how society has shaped our communities, it's been generations passed down of putting people in cages to battle each other." He would go on to add, "Let me put it to you in its simplest form. I've been on this earth for 30 years, and there's been so many things a Caucasian person said I couldn't do. Get good credit. Buy a house in an urban city. So many things--'you can't do that'--whether it's from afar or close up."
Here in Britain, BREXIT has brought to the mainstream what had always been under the surface in the UK and in some cases, highlighted what was already out in the open, that intolerance and fear were what people felt when they saw immigrants whether they were from Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, or the Middle East. The Independent quoted the UN special rapporteur on racism who said there was a "notable shift" in attitudes since the referendum in 2016. E Tendayi Achiume said, “A Brexit-related trend that threatens racial equality in the UK has been the growth in the acceptability of explicit racial, ethnic and religious intolerance...The discourses on racial equality before, during and after the referendum, as well as the policies and practices upon which the Brexit debate has conferred legitimacy, raise serious issue,” She warned of a “growth in volume and acceptability of xenophobic discourses on migration, and on foreign nationals including refugees in social and print media."
Matthew Goodwin, Professor of Politics at the University of Kent writes in The New Statesman about the rise of national populism which we are seeing across Europe. He says, "national populists oppose or reject liberal globalisation, mass immigration and the consensus politics of recent times. They promise instead to give voice to those who feel that they have been neglected, if not held in contempt, by increasingly distant elites..." But on the flip side those who vote on a national populist agenda aren't who you think, and therefore provide evidence that what might be seen as racist is actually something more. Goodwin goes one to write, "The charge of racism also sits uneasily with how national populist electorates are changing. Revealingly, we now have the first evidence that some of these voters are at ease with life in modern liberal societies. They may accept LGBT rights but also feel anxious about the role of Islam in the West, including the extent to which it can accommodate with Western ways of life. Trump won over significant numbers of Hispanic men and a majority of white women; Brexit was endorsed by one in three black and minority ethnic voters and had no significant gender gap; most of those who support national populists in countries like Austria and Hungary are under 40 years old; and Marine Le Pen won just as much support from young women as young men. All of this points towards a possible future coalition for national populism and one that looks fundamentally different from many of the stereotypes about angry, old, white men." It's immigrant against immigrant.
Growing up, the concept that the colour of my skin and my cultural heritage were things that could be used against me in any way was just so alien to me that it never occurred to me that others judged me because of my race. In the beginning of my adult life as I entered the professional world I didn't see any barriers. Perhaps I benefited from a time when representation in local television in Canada was crucial. The same cannot be said for my parents who were subjected to harsh racism when they moved to Hong Kong in the 1960s. My parents endured the insults in the hopes that things would change for my brother and I. Martin Luther King said, I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character." That was 55 years ago. What will the world be like for my little boy when he is old enough to understand something I still struggle to comprehend?