Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Colourblind"

Lately I've become more uncomfortable with this term.

The way I've always used it is how I imagine many of my Malaysian peers do - a person's skin colour (and attendent racial and cultural baggage) doesn't have an impact on their productivity, potential and personhood.

Part of this is that we can't get away with trying to hide our race - it's on our birth certificates, on our identity cards, our job applications, surveys, and lots of other things. It's something that's there. It doesn't stop us from bonding over similar things, and it doesn't stop us from going over to each other's open houses on cultural holidays. If we're racist, it's just 'cos we're just that genuinely hateful.

So I thought, anyway.

Lately, I've been hearing the idea that these racial / cultural differences are just another schism that keep us apart and we should do away with race altogether.

At first I thought this was a pretty good idea. Give us a few centuries, inter-breed, and we'd have a more homogenous race, right? Race and skin colour wouldn't be an issue then.

So I sat on that for a while and gradually, despite Russell Peter's predictions that someday "everyone's going to be some hybrid of Indian and Chinese" I began to wonder if we ever really could do away with the concept of race, and if so, is that a good thing?

Which is a weird question for me to ask since I've never really identified as Chinese, and left Malaysia because I felt I couldn't fit in there, either.

But even here, among this sea of white people, we still ask, "what's in you?" and most everyone's happy to discuss it - grandfather from Germany, grandmother from Italy, some ancestor from Croatia, great-grandfather from Poland, bla bla bla. (In comparison, I'm a bit boring: Hainanese on my dad's side, and I'm still not sure about the mum's side, but both are Chinese!)

For the longest while, I just thought that that was a fun question to ask, because it's really quite the icebreaker conversation sometimes! A lot of people love to talk about heritage. It's fascinating. It's great to know your roots like that.

And in another way, it's quite a thought to imagine all these people from different geographical, cultural origins somehow making this one individual. It's a bit like that calculator thing where you keep hitting "multiply by two" just to see how many people it took to make you, one individual.

The attendent racial/cultural baggage is important, for some, because it helps us get some context on where we come from, how it's affected us today. For others, it may not be of such great interest because we don't feel it affects us, but because other people feel it does.

Part of the danger of being colourblind is this erasure of our histories, our cultures, which may or may not have had any impact on our identities. And even if I as a Chinese don't feel any impact of being Chinese upon my personhood, there may be someone else who does. Going colourblind is not going to help either of us any, because firstly, it wouldn't make a difference for me, and secondly, it might hurt the other person to deny them a part of their identity, and thirdly, any action which ends up hurting others is... probably not a good idea. (Kinda like the death penalty. I like the idea, but it's been pointed out to me time and again that it's not perfect.)

It would definitely be an excellent world in which we none of us were discriminated against because of skin colour, race, culture, ethnicity. But the more and more I listen, the more I think that erasing the concepts entirely isn't a good idea.

3 comments:

  1. Usually, I'm opposed to the term 'colourblind' as this so-called noble outlook of enlightened individuals, and as this quick fix to the racist world that we live in. It's not so easy for EVERYBODY to be colourblind overnight, as it is not easy for the world to be become suddenly post-racial when Obama was elected president of the United States.

    Like you said, a colourblind world or person, may completely ignore the centuries-old history of racism and imperial conquest that has put so many people in the global south where they are today. If racism and white privilege are acknowldeged and the racial-economic disparity is bridged, then we may be on the right track towards colourblindisim.

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  2. Hi there,

    I have a question for you.

    1) What do you think defines a chinese or any other race? If one was American-Chinese but disconnected from Chinese culture, does that make the person more chinese, less chinese or not chinese at all? How does such a person identify himself?

    Therein lies the crux of the problem. Labeling, stereotyping and then racism.

    We need to start appreciating the differences at the individual level not by accepting human constructs of what is "chinese".

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  3. Hi Keisha,

    You ask a very difficult question: if you read the rest of my blog, as well as other sites which wrestle with identity, you would find that no one has the right or wrong answer. I have found Chinese-Americans who feel disconnected from the Chinese culture, and yet still identify strongly as Chinese. Just as I know others who simply do not identify as anything other than American.

    If you wish to do away with racial labelling, then you must do the same with the idea of nationhood. You try doing that and see where that gets you - whether or not we like it, identity, being able to name ourselves, is very important. It is like abstractly annexing lands, erasing people's experiences, telling them that they cannot choose to name what or who they are.

    But just because something is a construct, it does not make it less real for others, nor does it invalidate the idea of identity. I firmly believe that labeling, the act of naming ourselves and exploring those names - that is not the problem. The issues of stereotypes and racism have to do with the existing value we place on power (I suggest reading blog posts with the tag "power" to understand this).

    This isn't about labelling others - where the trouble starts where we believe we have the right to label others. This is how we see ourselves and how we present our identities to the world.

    Being an individual is all very fine and dandy, but individuals are inherently alone. We take on these labels not so we can separate ourselves from each other, but so we can find others to be with so we are less alone.

    The belief that no labels = no racism is valid on many levels, but I have found that to be too simplistic an attitude after reading more on identity politics and issues.

    Identity is a BIG thing. Individuals are whole encylcopedias (to borrow Tiara Shafiq's favourite word) and our racial identities are a part of these books.

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