When did talking about race become taboo?

"Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution"

Whenever I’m back home in Malaysia, I’m frequently faced with the annoying question of what race I am. It’s annoying because it jumps right at me from nowhere, from people I hardly know, from strangers. Yes, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that some Malaysians are just rude but one thing is for sure, talking about one’s racial/ethnic background is actually no big matter, I’m just annoyed at having to explain why I look different all the time. Sometimes racial background is something to be proud of, something to remind oneself that our identities go far beyond “I”. But a strange thing happens when we talk about race in abstract terms, perhaps about other people – race, as a subject, suddenly becomes taboo.

A few weeks ago Channel 4 ran a series of documentaries under the title Race: Science’s Last Taboo. For starters, there is no substantial scientific basis for determining race – there is very little genetic variance between people of different colour. Socio-politically, the defining line of race becomes wobbly when mixed parentage individuals are involved. But we cannot dispose of the term race so easily as what we have at stake is the collective oppression of people who are not White.

In the film Race and Intelligence, journalist Rageh Omar picks apart the history of the “science” of race, and the racist assumptions that have been left unchallenged about Black people and low IQ. Words like “shocking”, “controversial”, “politically incorrect”, and last but not least “taboo” are built around the programme to sensationalise the fact that a few seemingly intelligent people in the scientific world were/are racists. The world was aghast when molecular biologist and discoverer of the structure of DNA James Watson made claims that Black people are less clever than other people, simply because he is a world famous scientist, and scientists who have made monumental discoveries are expected to be morally accountable for their pronouncements. Or are they really?

Long before Watson’s faux pas, scientists have been known to have an uneasy relationship with race. The repugnant history of the abuse of scientific authority led to colonial domination, slavery, human zoos, and the Jewish holocaust. Beginning with the development of social/cultural evolution as a scientific theory for human diversity in the 19th century, scientists and anthropologists clamoured for recognition by building upon a discourse that placed people on a kind of evolutionary ladder – Whites at the top, Blacks at the bottom. A hundred years later, eugenics became a valid science that pursued the ethnic “purity” of White people. In the United States where eugenics was rigorously studied, scientists operated largely from the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory in New York – of which interestingly, James D. Watson was director and president for 35 years. The world of scientistic racism is small indeed.

And so apparently, race became taboo in the scientific community after the Third Reich collapsed in 1945, I’m not sure says who but it’s been mentioned a few times throughout the series. By extension, the subject of race is also taboo outside scientific discussion. Before we go on discussing further, a definition of taboo:

A social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.

For White people, talking about race is indeed very difficult. The social custom of silence around race stems from the fear of sounding racist and reluctance to accuse others of racism, while at the same affirms a delusion that racism is not a big problem anymore. It’s disheartening to watch White people become defensive when they are asked about racism, especially when they perceive it as a test to see how racist they are.

The blogosphere is abuzz with people talking about race from many angles, some are people of colour, some White. Perhaps hidden behind names and avatars, the fear of sounding racist is mitigated, and perhaps those of us with access to the wealth of the internet are more attuned to the diversity of opinions on race (when we look for it). On the street or at a fancy dinner party where ‘polite’ conversation is expected, is race an appropriate subject? When we step away from the computer, are people out there going to respond favourably to a chit chat on race? As a person of colour, I am torn by how an integral component of my identity has become an issue on which people consciously tread carefully or avoid talking about altogether or dismissed as something not worthy of discussion in this so-called post-racial world. How can honesty, engagement, and resistance come from taboo?

Feminisme: Antara mitos dan fakta

Ramai yang berpendapat bahawa golongan wanita dan lelaki feminis yang berpegang kepada prinsip “kesamaan” begitu khusyuk dengan isu-isu hak asasi manusia dan anasir-anasir berwajah kebaratan yang lain, seperti sekularisme dan liberalisme. Tidak kurang juga para bijak-pandai yang mendakwa gerakan feminisme sebagai satu-satunya punca keruntuhan akhlak dan rumahtangga. Ada pula yang khuatir feminisme menggalakkan persaingan antara wanita dan lelaki, di mana wanita sebenarnya mahu menguasi lelaki. Dari manakah dakwaan ini timbul? Apakah dakwaan ini bertunjang bukti yang kukuh, ataupun rekaan liar semata-mata?

Ya dan tidak jawabnya. Gerakan feminisme yang dikenali ramai muncul secara besar-besaran pada awal abad ke-20 di United Kingdom dan Amerika Syarikat – di sinilah titik permulaan stereotip atau mitos golongan feminis. Wanita yang menggelar diri feminis (atau suffragette pada waktu itu) tergolong dari kelompok atasan – “elit” – berkulit putih, berpendidikan tinggi, dan tidak berminat pula dalam hal-hal diskriminasi dan prejudis yang dialami oleh wanita lain – yang miskin, tidak berpendidikan tinggi, dan tidak berkulit putih. Beberapa “gelombang” perlu naik dan susut supaya suara wanita yang sudah lama terpinggir (yang miskin, tidak berpelajaran tinggi, dan tidak berkulit putih) didengar dan diambil serius. Tanpa wujudnya kesedaran akan perkauman dan perbezaan latar belakang sosio-ekonomi, gerakan feminisme bagaikan kereta lembu berroda satu (contoh eco-friendly): terbatas gerakan dan serba kekurangan.

Di akar umbi gerakan ini adalah kepercayaan bahawa wanita dan lelaki dicipta dengan kebolehan akal yang sama, dan tubuh badan dan warna kulit bukan penentu hidup – kepercayaan inilah yang menjadi bahan tentangan hebat ramai. Mana tidaknya? Para feminis banyak mempersoalkan budaya yang bersifat patriarki/kiriarki yang wujud hasil daripada corak kuasa dalam politik dan ekonomi, sebuah budaya yang mengagungkan kedudukan sekumpulan kecil yang berpengaruh dalam sesebuah masyarakat. Di Malaysia, kumpulan kecil ini terdiri daripada ahli politik lelaki, golongan lelaki yang kaya raya dan sesetengah para ulama. Warga tua, golongan kurang upaya, orang Asli, golongan Mak Nyah, dan saudara kita yang bukan beragama Islam secara lazimnya di kelaskan dalam kelompok “yang teraniaya” dan “dipinggir”. Pernahkah para bijak-pandai yang mengutuk gerakan feminisme bertanya sama ada sistem perkelasan ini adil?

Ingin dibangkitkan di sini bukannya untuk mempromosikan feminisme semata-mata. Ruang yang dibenarkan untuk mereka yang berlainan pendapat semakin sempit di kampung Malaysia. Tidak kiralah dia seorang feminis Islam ataupun seorang mufti, pendapat mereka yang memperjuangkan keadilan atas nama bagaimanapun tetap digugat. Bagi mereka yang rasa dirinya sahaja yang berhak bersuara mengenai keadilan, mereka harus bertanya kepada diri: apakah penganiayaan itu perhah dirasa dengan tubuh badan sendiri dan dilihat dengan mata kepala sendiri, dan apakah keadilan itu boleh dirasai oleh semua?

Looking at religion through white-tinted glasses

Source: Wikipedia

Looking back, I knew that I never wanted to be a student in religious studies, but oddly enough, here I am digging into it and taking apart the psyche of believers (and non-). If the case is still true in today’s terms, being a scholar in religious matters in Malaysia would really mean studying Islam, wearing the pre-requisite tudung labuh, and doomed with career prospects as expansive as the opinions of the cow-head protesters on non-Muslim places of worship. Because as a woman, that would invariably mean teaching pendidikan Islam (Islamic education) at primary and secondary school level, and not at the helm of any of the many Islamic learning and research institutions around the country.

But mind you, it’s not the theological aspect of religious studies that appeals to me, but rather the strictly secular and emotionally uninvolved analysis of world religions; its historical, sociological, psychological, and philosophical dimensions of faith, from a so-called “objective” point of view, and most importantly how religious teachings have impinged on gender relations in the postcolonial context (and just as importantly, outside of that context). Being at the School of Oriental and African Studies in theory should be a good place to study religions given its wary stance towards Eurocentric academic culture and well, hippie outlook to the cultures of Africa and Asia.

But imagine my groans of disappointment when I realised that I had to immerse neck deep into the world of 20th century French intellectualism personified by Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, to understand the mystical and practical mechanisms of religion. My disappointment can be summed up in, ironically, Foucauldian terms, in which the study of religions as a discourse (specific to SOAS) is governed by principles, statements, and analytic approaches dominated almost entirely by the theses of dead White European male philosophers (with Claude Levi-Strauss who’s just joined in). And as a result of these governing structures, how we produce academic analyses or “truths” about world religions are done pretty much by the guiding hands of these men. And according to Foucault, how these structures arise are determined by who wins the competition of discourses. Emerging victor in the power struggle of discourses are the notoriously difficult post-existentialist French thinkers. Hurray!

It would be fair to assume that the most useful analytic tools are also the latest ones, those that have yet to be proven obsolete and irrelevant. The same way scientific analysis today relies on the latest research and the latest lab techniques and equipment. But is this really true for the study of religion? The search for the origins of spiritual worship became the main agenda of anthropologists in the 19th century, dominating the discourse on religion at the time. Emerging from the discourse were terms like “primitive cultures” and “totemism”. And yes, this led many anthropologists to “backward” communities in Africa and Latin America that were thought to be at the bottom rung of the evolutionary ladder. The anthropology of religion later took a different course when more and more researchers found that there was no basis in their racist assumptions, and developed other critical outlooks. Then feminist approaches to religion arrived, which I will talk about soon.

So, what can we say about the implications of Western thinking on the study of world religions? If put in other words, what can institutions in economically-developing nations learn from this discourse which obtains its authority from mainly White male academics? Anything useful, or nothing at all? How useful are the thoughts of philosophers, hailed as experts at explaining the mysteries of faith, particularly when some are not afraid to be personally (rather than empirically) biased against one religion from another? I’m talking about Levi-Strauss here, and his ill-informed Orientalist comments about Islam which he had conveniently constructed as Buddhism’s opposite:

Symbolic of Moslem culture … [is the accumulation of] the most subtle refinements – palaces made of precious stones, fountains of rose-water, dishes of food coated with gold leaf and tobacco mixed with pounded pearls – and uses them as a veneer to conceal rustic customs and the bigotry permeating Islamic moral and religious thought… This great religion [Islam] is based not so much on revealed truth as on an inability to establish links with the outside world…Moslem intolerance takes an unconscious form among those who are guilty of it; although they do not always seek to make others share their truth by brutal coercion, they are nevertheless (and this is more serious) incapable of tolerating the existence of others as others (Levi-Strauss, 1992).

Returning to the structure of the study of religion in Malaysia, where the primacy of Islam permeates all levels of public education, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, can a secular study of faith be possible and not maligned as something with an evil agenda? Like inter-faith dialogue, all religions in question are viewed as equals as are the participants in the dialogue. For the case of the study of religions as an academic discourse, this means an open arena for teachers, students, and teaching material, regardless of the participant’s religious backgrounds. Those involved in the study of religions can develop an appreciation of other cultures and systems of worship, and from a structuralist’s point of view, discover deeply connected links and similarities that we all in this global village share. Perhaps these are just some things many Muslims in Malaysia can learn to appreciate.

From the crypt: A most "nebulous" concept that national unity

This was my very blog post, written on The Star Online’s citizen’s blog nearly three years ago.  It’s a response to Johor’s Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) Abdul Ghani Othman’s comments on the “abuse” of the term ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ and pointing out how UMNO politicians continue to reproduce colonial strategies to maintain racialised power. NB: The post you are about to read is (embarrassingly) polemical and has been edited to death by The Star editorial team.

Johor MB Abdul Ghani Othman tested the waters of public tolerance by announcing the evils of unifying the nation under the umbrella policy “Bangsa Malaysia” (Malaysian Race). The Johor Umno chief scoffed at the concept:

“After 49 years of independence, we should be more mature and not try to produce nebulous concepts whose origins are not clear … The concept,  if subjected to abuse, can threaten national stability.”

After nearly 50 years racial bigotry still occupies the country’s seats of power.

We have adopted our former colonists’ legacy of “Divide and Conquer” and further perpetuate a separatist culture that benefits one of group of people over others by reinforcing the social constructs “Malay” and “The Others”. For 49 years these social constructs iterated in the Constitution maintained the power dynamics that favoured the Malay race.  Amending the Constitution would invite “disorder”, stated the Deputy Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak.

Hishamuddin Rais, a keen and articulate observer of Malaysian politics, illustrates beautifully Umno’s obsession with the preservation of racial divides in his blog, Dari Jelebu.

Lest we forget, a unifying social construct made up of all existing ethinicities once freed Malaysian from colonisation.  So the Malays’ suspicions of  “The Others” is not unfounded – unified social constructs within “The Others” have the potential to replay history.

Historically, as pointed out by Hishamuddin Rais, the creation of such social constructs by the British were deeply rooted in economic greed. Today the Malay agenda is largely about figuring out ways to gain a larger share of the nation’s wealth beneath the surface of Malay pride.

It’s anyone’s guess that such a concept will threaten the Malays’ position as “The Princes of the Soil”. By implementing Bangsa Malaysia, all ethnicities will share the right to equal opportunities and create a national identity which sees that everyone stands equal before the Constitution. The Bangsa Malaysia concept is “unfair” because it will out the Malays as the economically and educationally disadvantaged race.

In fact, it is Umno’s greatest fear that Malaysia will evolve into becoming Singapore where the Malays are pushed into the margins of society.  In essence Malaysia is the Malays’ final refuge and by protecting this refuge the identity of the Malays as the pivotal race is crucial.

The empowerment of this identity is evident in the superior position given to the Malay language and Islam.  Take away all the symbols of Malay supremacy and they are left with nothing.

While abroad, I am ambivalent about professing myself as Malay. More often I am indeed proud of my culture and language but at the same time I find it hard to relate to other Malays who share my pride.

I hate to make distinctions based on race, and I hope that Malaysians will eventually mature and adopt a race-less outlook as well.

It is disheartening that those at the pinnacles of power are the ones fighting over the redefinitions of race while people like myself would rather see Malaysians as Malaysians.