Race: Reflections and Observations
Note: this was initially written shortly after the death of George Floyd in May; it has been updated and tailored to race in other contexts.
“F***ing Indian c**t.”
The comment slaps me across the face as I run forward and take the tackle. The sting from my opponent’s jibe starts to kindle a flame within me. I eyeball my opponent as he jogs back to the defensive line, placing a proverbial target on his back. Every tackle from now on is going to have a little extra bite that he won’t expect. The gloves are coming off.
The fact only a single minor racial incident remains indelible in my brain is as much a testament to my good fortune as it is to the accepting nature of Australian society. Yet, I acknowledge that my experience may not be representative of the broader minority experience.
I reflect on this from time to time, and have done more often in recent times given the current climate. Even 20, 25 years ago, my one-off experience in a school football game was commonplace, if not almost expected. I’m reminded of a blog post I read a few years ago by Australian cricketer Usman Khawaja (linked at the bottom), who notes the racism he experienced growing up as the son of Pakistani immigrants in Western Sydney during the 1990s. Certainly, concerted efforts to defeat racism have ensured these incidents are now far rarer than they once were.
On the mend
It’s worth noting that while cases of overt racism have declined significantly, some of the underlying attitudes do remain. These aren’t solely held by the majority group towards the minority group, but can certainly go the other way. Further, it’s not uncommon to see these attitudes rife between or within minority groups themselves.
Much of this is instinctual and an extension of a built-in defence mechanism – we naturally crank up the alertness whenever we come across something or someone unfamiliar.
The long and short of it is that our ability to adapt as a species has lagged and continues to lag behind the speed with which globalisation has set in. It’s unlikely that there’ll be any natural adjustment with time unless we take active steps to remodel deep-seated attitudes and beliefs.
Yet on many social issues (race issues included), we’re far beyond the point where raising awareness is going to make any meaningful difference. The public is generally aware of the consequences of overt racial discrimination – both legally and in the court of public opinion. But as noted, long-held attitudes still simmer beneath the surface in some places. What now?
‘Assimilation’ is a term that carries a lot of baggage, and rightfully so – it’s poor judgement to ask people to shed their heritage and identity in order to fit into society. What’s needed is integration – certainly, it’s hoped that by finding common ground and shared interests, we can achieve a society that’s more cohesive. Yet attempts to achieve this haven’t been quite as universal as we may have hoped.
Inherent cultural differences are perhaps the most significant barrier to achieving universal integration. Please note that my comments here are by no means intended as a slight to those on either side of the aisle; rather, I think this is a pertinent observation that can explain some of the difficulty we as a society have in engendering a culture that is universally integrated. I think we’ve actually come a long way, and for the most part we’re doing fairly well. I’m picking at fine details here.
Being from an Asian family myself, the most obvious contrast can be seen between the traditional, conservative cultures of the East and the more liberal cultures of the West. Eastern families have a very defined social and family structure, with clear expectations and rules for family life, friendships and relationships. Academic achievement is valued above all else (in some families, it runs a close second to religious devotion).
The disconnect lies in the fact that liberal Western cultures don’t always have the same order of priorities in societies that are predicated on personal liberty and responsibility. And as such, people on both sides of the aisle see the other side as a distant other; an other who doesn’t understand their way of life.
Such a binary view of the world is unhelpful. No side has it all worked out, and society would be all the richer if we were able to take the best bits from all sides.
If I had a dollar for every time someone mentioned ‘conversation’ as a solution for anything, I’d probably be writing this post from a yacht in Mallorca. Yet, while it has become cliched, there is certainly a whole lot of merit in using conversation and close interaction to promote social cohesion.
The Middle Ground series on Jubilee’s YouTube channel is one of the more intriguing conversation-based series going around, primarily because of who it brings together. Israelis and Palestinians, millionaires and minimum wage workers, rival gangs (in this day and age, it’s worth noting they’ve even had Republicans and Democrats sit down together). Some conversations are cordial, others heated; what’s most interesting is that many of these conversations do at least soften people’s hard-nosed ideologies, even if there are no major changes of heart.
Sitting down at the table
I think the effectiveness of ‘conversation’ as a vehicle for change lies in its ability to humanise individuals who appear to be part of a monolithic ‘other’ from afar. I’d expect the same effect if we were to facilitate closer interaction between majority and minority cultures.
One question that remains is: how do we get people to sit down at the proverbial conversation table and understand where each other is coming from?
The Singapore Approach
I’ve long been intrigued by Singapore’s Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) – it’s a policy that ensures public housing estates are occupied by a mix of ethnicities, in an attempt to prevent cultural/ethnic enclaves from forming. It encourage social mixing – people from different ethnicities live together, shop together, have their kids play together and attend the same schools, and so on.
Of course, this is essentially integration by force – could this be a potential solution? I think so, but I also think it would be different other countries – in Singapore, it’s said that 80% of the population lives in public housing (obviously not the case here). Hence, implementing the same system elsewhere would require accepting the government’s input into spheres like the buying and selling of private property – would people be willing to do that?
Ultimately, starting a conversation requires people with open minds – if we can foster that in any way, I think we’re on the way to a more cohesive society everywhere.