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.

Will We Ever Learn

Over lunch with my Chilean-German and Cambodian colleagues, we started discussing world politics, racism, refugee history and humanism. Not a light lunch. We are all equally shocked, devastated and often at loss with words in talking about the state of the world.

I well remember my first trip to Cambodia, my visit to the dreadful Killing fields and the encounters with the survivors. Being of such recent history, the country’s survival skills have astonished me, the friendliness of the people humbled me. You don’t need to seek out survivors – everyone alive is one. Those many years ago, focusing on the stories of those who didn’t survive, I remember wondering why other countries didn’t interfere, why such disaster was allowed.

In Germany too, the past is still present. It’s present in the silence. Germany has moved on, become unified and a respected European leader. The past is observed with a humble silence, being something too embarrassing to talk about. Quite rightly, people of today want to rub off the weight of their ancestor’s actions and not be associated with something they had no part in.

Chile I’ve only visited once, but the country left a lasting mark. I met nothing but friendly people (one guy came to warn me once that I had been followed so should take caution – I did and never met the person who apparently had an interest in my back bag) despite the massive language barrier (I even struggled finding a loo. I should learn Spanish). Pinochet must have destroyed many families, hearts and hopes, yet a regular traveler encounters nothing but optimism and friendliness.

We didn’t discuss any of the above over the lunch. The past of these countries, and of many others, is so painfully obvious and well-known to us. What’s rather more interesting to discuss, is the fact that we have learned nothing. We as the human kind. We, because we the people of the world are all on the same boat. Which is leaking. And whereas we should all be working together to fix it, we’re rather spending our time on trying to find reasons to not like the person sitting next to us on the bench.

It’s shocking that despite the many genocides, world wars, tyrannies etc that the world has gone through, we keep turning inwards and distancing ourselves from those in need of help. The current refugee wave hitting Europe, is splitting the people into two frontiers. Trump is achieving that in the US on his own. There are those who want to help, and those who spit on the helpers and worst, hit on those needing help.

When I visit a place where nightmares were a reality once, and meet people who survived times which I suffer even reading and hearing about, my first thought is, never again. I don’t understand why such massacres had to happen but I do understand that it can’t be allowed to happen again. Until it does. Time after time I turn my desperate gaze to people and plead them to be shocked and devastated, need them to want to make the madness stop. But more often than not, the response is the opposite. A cold shoulder at best, a direct attack and refusal to help at worst. I’m desperate when I read about attacks against the refugees, be it by individuals or the governing bodies. I’m shocked beyond imagination of the level of social media discussions where “normal people” are mocking and insulting those in need of urgent help. Even children.

Who are we? What kind of people are we if we can’t care for others? What kind of a person would literally kick a desperate person already lying on the ground? I don’t blame anyone for not taking direct action to help, but to actually attack those who already are under an attack? What’s left of humanity if people make entertainment out of people’s despair?

Do educated people in developed countries really require a code of conduct, telling them specifically that when you see someone being bullied, help the victim, don’t join the bullies? If you see someone stumbling and falling, give a hand, and don’t push him further. When someone is starving, give them food and don’t sit down with your pop-corns and amuse yourself watching them die. When a person escapes a war-zone, having experienced torture and fear for the life of the loved ones, open your arms and don’t go burn the shelter they’ve been given. Seriously?

Stop being a bully. Start being a good person. You don’t need to try and save the world, but don’t add to the misery either. We were all born equal, we were all born humans. By spreading love, not hate, the world could still have hope. Humans could win back humanity.



Black and White

I’m white. I’m a caucasian women with very fair skin (which just refuses to tan, no matter what and how hard I try) and blonde hair. Not completely naturally but that’s not the point in here. I know I’m in a privileged position by birth in many ways.

I have friends from all over the world, representing many cultures and religions. Muslims, catholics, atheists, not-sures-as-religion-is-not-important-s, Christians, hindis, Buddhists. Whites and blacks, and all the shades of colors in between. Those who want to be whiter and those who admire the tan.

The color of one’s skin matters. The religious views, cultural background and family relations matter. But one is not better or worse than the other. These things matter and should matter as a part of the person’s identity and heritage. They tell part of our story, give it a frame. They don’t need to define us though. They might be part of the story of where we come from, but not where we are going to.

That’s why the Thailand-based campaign for skin whitening products, suggesting that white wins, was absolutely outrageous. Unfortunately it’s true in Thailand. The fairer one’s skin, the higher the respect and career and mating chances. The campaign used a picture of a white and a black women but equally this discrimination is felt by many Thais who face criticism and open mockery for not being pale enough.

Sadly the claim of the campaign has some truth in it. Too often it’s true that white wins. But the solution is not skin-whitening. The solution is making the claim ridiculous. I don’t want to be privileged based on my skin color. I want to live in a world where every person is deemed and recognized as equal by birth. Where the beauty of different looks is admired. Where white is one equal part of the color palette. I want a world where whitening lotions and tanning products are irrelevant. I want to live in a color blind world where the skin color isn’t used to define a person.