Can Race Matter?

A few months ago I wrote about my bewilderment on Brunei’s immigration asking about my race upon entering the country. That text has since become my most viewed blog posting, raising interest on the question of race, and on its relevance.

I discussed the question with an Indian friend, to whom “race” is a much clearer topic and present in her everyday life. She’s used to replying to it as she has that question posed to her in plenty of occasions. Living in Singapore however, it’s not perceived a discriminating question but a matter of fact. Same as asking for one’s gender or age.

My friend is right about Singapore attempting to positively be a mixed-race nation. All different, all equal, all mixed up. Singapore asks for the race of people moving in to the country, to ensure they have a nice balance and mixture of races within. They developed an Ethnic Integration Policy in 1989, “to promote racial integration and harmony in Housing and Development Board (HDB) estates”

Yet, there’s a clear difference between race and ethnicity. One can only have one race, and is born to it. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is associated with culture and one can have multiple ethnic identities.

Singapore has achieved a population where people identify themselves as ethnic Singaporeans, with multiple races such as Malays, Indians and Chinese. At its best the achievement is appreciation and conservation of different cultural heritages, while being open and accepting of others.

Although asking for one’s race can be meant for good purposes, I’m still torn with it’s negative connotations. In an ideal world everyone would be color-blind what comes to races but the reality is that race just isn’t a neutral topic. When race matters, racism will arise.

I’m supportive of any attempts to preserve cultures and respect and appreciate different ethnic backgrounds for their historical, cultural and identity values. But I can not support categorizing people, and especially not where there might be the slightest connotation for different values for different people. We were not born equal in terms of opportunities and capacities, but all human beings were born with equal value as a human being. No matter their race, ethnicity, gender etc.

I dream of a world where race doesn’t matter. If again asked of mine, I’ll thankfully borrow one from the commentator newmanTheHuman, and write down “Human”.



What’s My Race?

imageIt was a tough question, in all it’s apparent simplicity. “Race”. That’s what the Brunei immigration authorities wanted to know, in the arrival card.

We were 3 women, with Finnish, Australian and English passports. All of us were first rolling our eyes on this question, then laughing it off, before moving on to philosophizing on the need of the immigration in Brunei to know our race. One of my friends wrote down “white?”. Another wanted to write “I’m not competitive” and hope the joke gets understood. Me, I was just confused and anxious.

Honestly I’m not even sure what my race is. More importantly, why should I know what race I’m of and why should I care? Nationality makes practical sense but race? In an arrival card, even if it’s only for statistical purposes, shouldn’t the nationality suffice? The more I think of this the more questions come up in my head.

I can’t think of one good reason for that question and I’m juggling between being anxious, mad and sad. Classifying people with such definitions means dividing us, because a word as race has automatically a negative connotation to it. It doesn’t indicate an interest to understand one’s background or heritage, but a category one should “belong to”. But people can’t be categorized by qualities which we have no control over. Neither is there any point in dividing people into some invisible boxes and expecting them to fit in.

No one needs to know what race I’m of. Not even me. And I’m not going to ask you for yours because I don’t care. There are many things I’m interested in learning about other people, and there are many things I’m happy to share about me. Race, that’s not one of them.