Re: Ethnocentrism and Racism

31 January 2009

In Response to a Reader’s Comment

Shadows, by lonecellotheory, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)The blogosphere is a wonderful thing – it kicks up opinions both reasoned and unreasoned, considered and trite, and balances them against each other as though their values were equal. That makes for often intriguing conversation if you spend time reading down the comment lists on popular blogs, searching for actions, reactions and overreactions. It all makes for the drama of life, the politics of knowing, knowing not, or knowing too much. So I’m very pleased that a commenter going by that name ‘yourfriend’ has take exception to my post on the limits and possibilities of multiculturalism in China. Let’s have a friendly conversation.

First, the comment:

The fact that you don’t see China, a nation containing many peoples with separate thousands-years-old cultures, as multicultural only hints at ethnocentrism and racism on your part.

So, not a terribly good start, but let’s see what we can make of it. Early in my post I ask how we can define a multiculture, meaning that we shouldn’t presume that the presence of multiple ethnic groups in a definable geo-political space is necessarily evidence of a multicultural country. Purposeful multiculturalism takes a good deal of effort, encouragement and willingness on the part of the ethnic majority, however defined, to rank itself as only one of many.

Discarded Traffic Signs, by The Joy Of The Mundane with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)I do criticise China for being ‘xenophobic’ in its dealings with non-Han people – not racist, but acutely aware of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ division within the country, especially in relation to the way in which minority ethnic groups are given ‘nationality’ status. Now that might have been unbalanced had I not turned to my own country, Australia (as a representative of “the many failures of coexistence in Western societies”, no less) and considered the pretensions to multiculturalism there as well, grouping them under the same ‘xenophobic’ rubric. This might not be an exacting test to determine whether there are ‘hints’ of ethnocentrism and racism in my writing, but it suggests for now that such a conclusion is by no means obvious.

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On Race and Rationality

21 August 2008

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.

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It’s A Numbers Game

18 July 2008

Will the Hong Kong Racial Discrimination Bill Make a Difference?

Sometimes monumental decisions slip past the public gaze, attracting comment for a while then fading into obscurity. The excuse could well be that we didn’t understand, that events blinded us to reason. But sometimes it’s just because people don’t really care. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council passed its ineptly named Racial Discrimination Bill last Thursday, yet the reaction has been muted. Anti-discrimination groups have been critical of the lacklustre attempt at abiding by global standards of decency, but they’re easily ignored. The focus has been on a simple numbers game, and minorities are always set up to lose.

Freedom from racism is a human right long ignored in Hong Kong. Almost 40 years after Britain signed the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, compelling Hong Kong to enact appropriate legislation, the postcolonial result is a mixture of whimsy and whitewash. Crucially, the government has reserved its right to be racist in anything but employment matters. Look under the lid of that particular situation and you’ll see a desire for racial discrimination in immigration policy leap out at you.

Much is said about multicultural Hong Kong, this cosmopolitan ‘World City’, but the government constantly trundles out two time-worn figures – 95% of the populace is Chinese, and only 5% is ‘foreign’, which is a word spoken with gritted teeth hereabouts. The distinction is important because non-Chinese, even long-time ‘foreign’ residents, can never become fully legal citizens.

In other words, civil rights are circumvented in the denial of a human right.

But the infatuation with numbers runs even deeper than that. Non-Chinese are always lumped together as undifferentiated minorities – occasionally under the illusion that they form a coherent “ethnic minority community” – to show that even at their mightiest they can have but little influence. The media commentary that followed the passing of the law last week didn’t focus on how racism deprives people of liberty, and it skipped over the fact that racial discrimination is just plain wrong. Instead it waffled on about a provision in the bill whereby so few non-Chinese speakers could ask for such expensive translations in their own language, in particular situations.

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All Mixed Up

29 June 2008

Further Thoughts on Racism

Change my world ... by CARF, with Creative Commons licence The best ideas are at the edge of reason, always pushing at accepted practice, redefining the unspoken hypotheses by which we live. Definitions should be of the moment, often unsettled because new ideas push out old and explain life in more precise, more realistic ways. In a recent post on racism I upheld the Wikipedia definition as the best we would get, given that it encompassed race and discrimination in a manner that reflected us, humankind, in all our bitterness and complexity. But I’ve been thinking more about this stain on our self-consciousness lately and there could well be definition still to add. Not incidentally, the many editors working on the Wikipeda article think so too, but they’ve confused detail with explanation in a retreat from the way things are.

First, let’s consider the changes made to the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia article, which is the touchstone for the ideas contained therein. The original paragraph read as follows:

Racism has many definitions, the most common being that members of one racial group consider themselves intrinsically superior to members of other racial groups. Racism inherently starts with the assumption that there are taxonomic differences between different groups of people. Without this assumption, prejudices against different peoples would be categorized as being prejudices related to national or regional origin, religion, occupation, social status or some other distinction.

As I mentioned in my initial post, this is by no means a precise definition, but it settles on racism not as a matter of fact but as a matter of opinion. In other words, racism is a contestable act of judgement.

Yet the new definition struggles to remove the inherent choice in such a position. It claims that:

Racism, by its simplest definition, is discrimination based on the racial groups people belong to. People with racist beliefs might hate certain groups of people according to their racial groups, or in the case of institutional racism, certain racial groups may be denied rights or benefits. Racism typically points out taxonomic differences between different groups of people, even though anybody can be racialised, independently of their somatic differences. According to the United Nations conventions, there is no distinction between the term racial discrimination and ethnic discrimination.

The first sentence is clearly just a clumsy re-write, seeking to add ‘discrimination’ where it really isn’t needed, which allows ‘hate’ to slip into the sentence that follows. Clearly this is a more emotional definition, and it offers examples such as institutional racism and the United Nations definition to limit the scope of what people might imagine racism could be. But most interesting is the third sentence, which has been shifted from a discussion of presumed taxonomic difference (a difference of type underlying racist beliefs) to merely ‘pointing out’ inherent somatic differences, whether or not those differences in physical appearance make any difference at all.

What difference, by moonpies for misfits, with Creative Commons licence What these changes obscure is that the new definition staggers towards indecision – what once described complexity is now ruled by equivocation. The anonymous ‘217.44.210.7 points out similar problems with the definition in the discussion page attached to the article. I’m left with the feeling that someone has wanted, but not quite managed, to write that all observation of difference between people of varying physical appearance is racist. That would be as ludicrous as claiming races are strictly definable when inter-relations between ethnic groups have been inherent in the very expansion of humanity.

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Needless to Say

12 June 2008

Eviatar Zerubavel on Silence and Denial

The Elephant in the Room, by Eviatar ZerubavelWords are powerful, words change lives. Spoken or unspoken they shape and focus perceptions, permit or deny action. Even the absence of talk isn’t devoid of words. In our least articulate moments silence speaks to us, urging thought in a specific direction, demanding that we describe life in certain ways when the conversation starts again. Eviatar Zerubavel knows this, and pries open silence to reveal the babble of repression in things best left unsaid.

Zerubavel’s Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life is a brief but utterly perceptive guide to the undiscussable. In only eighty seven pages of argument it outlines the social collusion that culminates in conspiracies of silence, tracking through examples ranging from survivor silence about the holocaust to the unwillingness of families harbouring alcoholics to speak their self-imposed sentence.

Central to Zerubavel’s thesis is the proverbial elephant in the room, that overwhelming presence of denial we confirm with an absence of speech. The point is not that no-one knows about an untoward event or a pervasive social ill. Rather, they fail to acknowledge the obvious, acting as though it doesn’t exist, and through their actions might yet not exist. By failing to speak we skirt the awkward truths grown abundantly throughout life, hoping irrationally that the family, the group or the society will benefit from our constant evasion.

Shame, by Joe Gatling, with Creative Commons licenceAnd this is not a haphazard process. Zerubavel shows that we’re “socialized to focus only on certain parts or aspects of situations while systematically ignoring others”. We don’t ignore by chance or inclination, but through social pressures that turn us one way and then another, unspoken censures that ensure achievement, satisfaction and happiness are not forthcoming for those who greet any situation with a cry of ‘this is wrong! Things must change!’

So it should be obvious that conspiracies of silence are counterproductive – they cripple lives, and through that harsh, grinding process they retard society. Look around you and ask, what is obvious but unspoken? What proverbial elephant passes by, too close for comfort but not close enough for shouts of alarm? And, more to the point, who actively denies the elephant when it’s exposed?

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Human Rights for Tomorrow

30 April 2008

The Persistence of Discrimination

March against discriminations . . . by youkeo, with Creative Commons licenceDiscrimination isn’t always obvious, and it’s often explained away as something else. Racial discrimination becomes a matter of ‘unsuitability’, social discrimination becomes a lack of proper ‘skills’, discrimination against people with disabilities becomes an attempt to redefine what’s ‘normal’. There are even situations in which the very possibility of discrimination is rejected because ‘that sort of thing doesn’t happen here’. That’s hardly a logical position, but there’s no real defence against it.

What can you say to someone whose mindset fails to accept the presence of discrimination at all? To give an example mentioned here previously, how do we react to the Hong Kong government’s refusal to even address, in law, acts of racial discrimination outside the workplace? Long-standing claims by the Chief Executive that his government’s policies are “people-based” clearly depend on what sort of person you are – your skin colour, your wealth, whether or not you’re prepared to be critical.

But Hong Kong is just a dot on the map when it comes to the many forms of discrimination, both covert and overt, that deny human rights around the globe. A world that has nourished discrimination based on race, class, sex, perceived ability and any other deviation from a shifting sense of ‘normality’ will always throw up barriers to change, to the natural right to be treated as a fellow human, without fear or favour. Still, even as the struggle for human rights continues there is one area in which discrimination could well be stamped on before it properly takes hold – genetics.

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A Time to Mourn, A Time to Reflect

22 April 2008

Sadness and Resolution in Hong Kong

The main body of this post is a modified version of an update published earlier today on A Death in Hong Kong. Anyone reading Greetings Earthlings! who would like to know more about the Discovery Bay community’s response to Vicenta Flores’ death can go there – it’s currently being updated twice a day. I’ve added further personal commentary here.

Memorial Service for Vicenta Flores

A Moment of PrayerVicenta Flores’ memorial service was held last night, 21 April, at the Discovery Bay International School on Lantau Island in Hong Kong. Led by Father Henry Cabral of the Discovery Bay Catholic church and Sister Aida of the Catholic Centre in Hong Kong’s Central district, the service reflected on Vicenta’s life and the many difficulties faced by Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong.

Vicenta’s sister Irene spoke briefly in Tagalog, offering her thanks to those in attendance. She also asked anyone with any information about her sister’s disappearance and death to come forward. Her grief was obvious, and she soon broke down crying for the first time since she arrived in Hong Kong.

Here’s a brief video clip from the beginning of the service, as people were still coming in. The crowd eventually spilled out the hall doors.

The South China Morning Post reported on the service this morning, and included Father Henry’s comments on the degrading and dehumanising way domestic helpers are often treated here in Hong Kong. He also expressed his reluctance in saying that, but the necessity that it should be said.

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