Saturday, September 13, 2008

Let the human in us not be coloured

Wednesday September 10, 2008

Let the human in us not be coloured


When we talk about race, we talk about groups of people, but on a day-to-day basis, it is not race that matters but the human being that we are dealing with.

WHEN I was a student in the UK, one of the most hated politicians then was Enoch Powell who was constantly railing against immigration in Britain, claiming that it would alter the British “character”.

Powell was so strident with his views – expressing them in his now infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech – that his own Conservative Party, despite years of service that had enabled the party to win elections, eventually sacked him.

This was in a country that values freedom of speech. Yet the party felt that someone as extreme as Powell could not be a member any more, not if it wanted to move forward in an inevitably changing nation. He could say what he wanted, but outside the party.

We, too, have been known to sack people whose views did not comply with what the heads of the party regarded as theirs. This is not the same as censoring them, only that they had to do it outside. Thus the dignity of the party remains intact, not tainted by what they regarded as aberrations.

No doubt, sometimes regarding people as aberrations may be unjust because in fact they represent views that simply differ from the norm.

But dealing with such issues clearly gives everyone else an idea of what the norms and aberration are. Not dealing with it creates confusion and raises the possibility that maybe the aberration is not one at all, but in fact just the public expression of the norm.

We fought so long not to stereotype our people according to race by increasing educational and economic opportunities. Yet we still see it happening.

In local schools, children are pushed into certain sports not by ability but purely by race. Thus, Punjabis must play hockey and not chess, Malays must play football and not tennis, while Chinese must only play badminton.

Is it any wonder that they don’t excel in any sport? You have to wonder where the powers-that-be in that school got their ideas from, Mein Kampf?

When we talk about race, we make the mistake of lumping together a whole bunch of human beings, with all their individual quirks, whims and fancies, into what we think is a cohesive body. But it is not. If anything, sometimes race is the most tenuous thing that holds us together.

I may have told this story before. A long time ago, as I rushed through a crowded London Underground, an old Jewish man stopped me. Taking his handkerchief out, he insisted that there was something on my jacket.

It took me a while to understand that the man had seen someone spit on me and was now offering his handkerchief to clean the spittle off.

It was then that I became aware of the awful silent insidiousness of racism, that someone could have displayed such hatred on a total stranger, based entirely on colour of skin. In a way, I should be thankful it was only spit and not something worse.

On the other hand, the same incident made me realise that while there is evil, there can also be much good. I was also a stranger to the old man but he saw me as a human being entitled to respect and dignity.

Thus he empathised with the injustice that was done to me and sought to restore my dignity by offering his handkerchief for me to clean up.

He asked for nothing in return and indeed disappeared into the crowds soon after with not a word more.

When we talk about race, we talk about groups of people, a homogenous faceless group defined by general characteristics that we think of as applicable to all of them. But on a day-to-day basis, it is not the race that matters but the human being that we are dealing with.

I had one of those telemarketing calls offering free medical check-ups the other day. Disturbed by it, I started to question the caller for details.

The woman was undoubtedly of the same race as me. But the sheer rudeness and unprofessionalism of her responses showed that she had no respect whatsoever, neither for the person she was calling nor for her own company or job.

Did it matter what race she was? No, what mattered was that she was unable to make a connection with another human being, even when she claimed to be offering something ostensibly good for me.

Given a choice between these two people, I would sooner take the old man to tea than this woman. He and I have a common respect for human beings that she did not, despite our common ethnicity. Was he the aberration or she?

Since I believe that it is human to be kind, I prefer to believe she is.

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