On Race and Rationality

A New Take on Race from Hong Kong

Look past the bias of the times, the certainties of this epoch or that, and race becomes a messy, various concept. At any given moment – and quite aside from the scientific definition of a single human race – it can define people of different types in any number of categories, depending on perspective. There was for many years, and perhaps still is, the perception of a British race, born of the concept that empire and a core of supra-national boundaries in the so-called British Isles could fuse biology and location to produce an identifiable people with certain physical and psychological characteristics. More often today, British people are subsumed under the generic appellation of Caucasian, and at a stretch – most often in the United States – as White. Regardless of how ludicrously broad these categories might or might not seem from your perspective, they are constructed according to a reason. Each has a nub of logic at its centre, from a certain point of view.

To claim that context is crucial in defining race might well seem equivocal, but it’s an observation rather than a moral judgement. It also helps to reveal the reasoning behind otherwise inexplicable definitions and their derivatives. Consider, for instance, this passage from Section 8(4) of Hong Kong’s soon to be enacted Racial Discrimination Ordinance:

The fact that a racial group comprises 2 or more distinct racial groups does not prevent it from constituting a particular racial group for the purposes of this Ordinance.

First, let’s consider what might make immediate sense here, given the context. Any legislation seeking to address racial discrimination, if not ban it outright, must first determine what ‘race’ really means before identifying how it can be used to disadvantage anyone. So the second half of this sentence, on constituting a ‘particular racial group’, is just a way of ensuring that the Ordinance does what it’s supposed to do.

But what about the seemingly nonsensical first part of the sentence? How on Earth, or even in Hong Kong, can one racial group comprise either multiple or distinct racial groups, let alone the two together? Surely that’s just gibberish. If, as the legal norm in common-law countries insists, the words of the Ordinance should be applied in their “natural and ordinary sense”, then good luck to any magistrate doomed to apply it. Right? Well, no – it just so happens that the words do make sense, in their own peculiar way.

Anyone needing to understand Section 8(4) of the Ordinance will have already read Section 8 (1a), which states:

‘Race’, in relation to a person, means the race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin of the person.

Having first established the type of race under discussion, the sentence incorporates all possible connotations of race, including race itself. Using the term ‘race’ twice isn’t pointless because it and ‘ethnic origin’ are often used interchangeably, so from a legal perspective they need to be included as like categories. But race and ethnicity are also often seen as stages in a hierarchy (any race has a number of partly distinct ethnic groups), so the definition also allows for ‘ethnic-origin’ as a marker of race.

Now that makes more sense.

The situation only becomes complex when you consider that the definition likens race to ‘national origin’. It’s important to note here that this is not a simplistic presumption that nations as we now know them are racially pure, or even considered as such by the layperson who might discriminate on that basis. We need to remember that this is not a nation discrimination ordinance, even if its effect is to curb some of the vitriol aimed at Filipinos or Indonesians, which are national designations regardless of skin colour or ethnicity. So let’s consider what the root concept of ‘nation’ could mean in relation to race in Hong Kong.

A curious hangover from times past is that English, one of Hong Kong’s two official languages, includes within its definition of race the concept that a distinct group of people constitutes a nation. Webster’s dictionary gets straight to the point, defining race, as it pertains to people rather than livestock, as “a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock”. The print edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary prevaricates for a while, but finally produces “a tribe, nation or people, regarded as of common stock.” Leaving aside whether or not it’s still reasonable to include family or tribe in these definitions, note that the two lexicographical definitions carry important riders – these peoples, these nations, must be regarded as being of the same or common stock. That’s important because both definitions date from around 1600, which implies a long history of usage that should satisfy the condition that the words of the Ordinance must fall within their “natural and ordinary sense” to constitute workable law.

Still, there’s one sticking point worth noting. In current usage, nation is conflated with ‘nation-state’, or the political apparatus that both unifies and controls a certain group of people. So, to move away from Hong Kong for a moment, to say that a Vietnamese and a Chinese belong to the same racial group if they are both part of the Australian nation by dint of citizenship, location and identity, is ridiculous. They are clearly not of the same ‘stock’, however ethnicity might be defined. Yet in the Hong Kong context the notion makes more sense, even though it might not be morally palatable.

What excludes this current distinction between race and nation from Hong Kong law is that any Ordinance passed now, regardless of whether the government is ever likely to admit it, is drafted with an eye to the future, when mainland Chinese political considerations could well be more important. After all, the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s almost-constitution, indicates that no changes will be made in the way Hong Kong is governed for only 50 years, 10 of which have already passed. And it seems reasonable to suggest that the local conflation of race and nation is a nod towards the mainland, where non-Chinese ethnic minorities like the Uighur, Tibetans and others are considered to be distinct, meaning separate though by no means equal, ‘nationalities’ within the Chinese whole.

So at the heart of the soon to be enacted legal definition of race in Hong Kong is a recognition that minority groups, even though their constituents might have been native to the region for generation after generation, must always be considered separately from the dominant Cantonese ethnic group. In veering from current perceptions of what constitutes a nation, which in any other circumstance would constitute the “natural and ordinary sense” or the word, the definition becomes necessarily political, or partisan, when it should be neutral and applicable to all in exactly the same way.

It is, I should add, not very likely that people from most ethnic minorities will be disadvantaged by the coming law. Even though ethnic Chinese alone can be Hong Kong citizens, the greatest probability is that the new Ordinance will serve to protect ethnic minorities more often than the Cantonese majority, given that those minorities suffer the most overt racism. Yet it’s worth noting that the definition of race included in the Ordinance was a product not purely of local pressure, but mainly of Hong Kong’s responsibility under its UN obligations and thus international law. In other words, the definition is a local reaction to international pressure.

To the extent that the law reflects the needs, desires and aspirations of a society, the legal definition of racism in Hong Kong will soon be an accurate guide to local concerns. It’s not difficult to argue that those concerns aren’t troublesome in themselves. Section 10(7) of the Ordinance offers a hint of prevailing social attitudes in allowing racial discrimination in the selection (but not day to day employment) of domestic helpers, based on the reasoning that people should be free to choose the type of people who live with them. But at issue here is whether the definition is logical in its own terms. And it is.

What this argument leads to is whether race – so variously defined, with the Hong Kong effort but one example – is a useful or even fair way of categorising people. I’ll need to leave that for a separate post or posts, because it covers much contested ground in biology, ethnography, ethics and the bare-knuckle arenas of political and social discourse. For now it’s just worth asking a simple question. What does race mean to you? The answer might be surprising.


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